In Antarctica, pilots and scientists on research missions risk death if something goes wrong with their planes. Crashes in the globe's frozen reaches are “often beyond rescue capabilities,” said Elizabeth Weatherhead, an environmental scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
But now drone aircraft are taking some of the danger out of polar exploration.
“A multinational, robotic air corps” is quietly invading the polar regions,” Scientific American noted. “Some catapult from ships; some launch from running pickup trucks; and some take off the old-fashioned way, from icy airstrips. The aircraft range from remote-controlled propeller planes — of the type found at Toys “R” Us — to sophisticated high-altitude jets. All are specially outfitted, not with weapons but with scientific instruments.”
The polar drones are part of a growing wave of unmanned aircraft for non-military duties. Advocates say pilotless planes are good for a wide range of jobs, from monitoring forest fires, hurricanes and oil spills to patrolling borders and assessing earthquake damage.
Yet in the United States, skies already are crowded with conventional aircraft, and the Federal Aviation Administration is moving cautiously on allowing drones to share that space.
“There is a tremendous pressure and need to fly unmanned aircraft in [civilian] airspace,” Henry Krakowski, who heads the nation's air traffic control system, recently told European aviation officials. “We are having constant conversations and discussions, particularly with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, to figure out how we can do this safely with all these different sizes of vehicles.”
Krakowski acknowledged that some want the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to proceed quickly with the approval process. “I think industry and some of the operators are frustrated that we're not moving fast enough,” he said in a media interview, “but safety is first. This isn't Afghanistan. This isn't Iraq. This is a part of the world that has a lot of light airplanes flying around, a lot of business jets.”
The FAA reportedly is evaluating more than 150 requests from groups seeking to fly unmanned planes, and in June the agency said it was working with Insitu, a Boeing Co. subsidiary that manufactures drones, on a two-year study of the issue. However, pilotless cargo and passenger flights are not the study's aims, it said.
Routine access to the national airspace system by unmanned craft “poses technological, regulatory, workload and coordination challenges,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated. “No technology has been identified as a suitable substitute for a person on board the aircraft in seeing and avoiding other aircraft.”
The GAO also noted that communication and control links to unmanned craft “are vulnerable to unintentional or intentional radio interference that can lead to loss of control of an aircraft and an accident.”
In 2007 the National Transportation Safety Board cited operator error and poor oversight by Customs and Border Protection officials in a Predator-B crash near Nogales, Ariz.
Then-President George W. Bush, right, and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, left, inspect an unmanned drone used to monitor illegal immigration along the Arizona-Mexico border. (AFP/Getty Images/Jim Watson)
Still, demand for more drone flights over U.S. territory is growing, especially along U.S. borders. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), part of the Department of Homeland Security, flies three Predator-B aircraft on patrol missions along the Southwest border from Arizona to eastern Texas and two on the U.S.-Canada border. A Predator patrol of the Texas border from El Paso to Brownsville is also scheduled to begin.
In addition, the CBP has a maritime “Guardian” version of the plane, equipped with special sea-search radar, which flies from Florida and is used for drug interdiction and search missions, among other things. It also has helped monitor the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a spokesman said. Another Guardian is scheduled for delivery before the end of this year, and funding for a third is included in the fiscal 2011 budget request, an agency official told a House panel in July.
Together, he said, CBP planes have enabled the agency “to support the response to large-scale natural events such as hurricanes, floods and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico,” plus positioned it “to confront ever-changing threats to the homeland in the future.”
Some fret that as drones shrink in size and grow in sophistication, Americans' privacy could be in jeopardy.
“The U.S. government has a history of commandeering military technology for use against Americans,” wrote John W. Whitehead, a constitutional lawyer and founder of the Rutherford Institute, a conservative civil-liberties organization. “We saw this happen with tear gas, tasers and sound cannons…. Now the drones … are coming home to roost.”
Whitehead pointed to a North Carolina county that reportedly has used a drone to monitor gatherings of motorcycle riders, testing of a drone for police work in Los Angeles, “insect-like drones … seen hovering over political rallies in New York and Washington” and creation by University of Maryland engineering students of “the world's smallest controllable surveillance drones, capable of hovering to record conversations or movements of citizens.”
(The university said the “monocopter” device, inspired by the spiraling flight of maple tree seeds, can carry out surveillance maneuvers for defense, fire monitoring and search and rescue. )
“Unfortunately, to a drone, everyone is a suspect because drone technology makes no distinction between the law-abiding individual and the suspect,” Whitehead argued. The “crucial question,” he concluded, “is whether Americans will be able to limit the government's use of such surveillance tools or whether we will be caught in an electronic nightmare from which there is no escape.”
Others aren't worried about the possibility of government drones encroaching on privacy.
“I'm no more concerned about that than the government being intrusive of my phone calls or coming into my home with some kind of surveillance,” says retired Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, director and senior adviser to the aerospace and defense industry for Deloitte Services and former deputy commander of the U.S. European Command. “I think our government's responsible.”
— Thomas J. Billitteri