The bumper stickers available at the door read, "My other vehicle is unmanned."
More and more, that's becoming true for a variety of government agencies—and not just the defense department—as was evident at the UAV Technology Fair held yesterday at the Rayburn House office building in Washington, D.C. There were models of UAVs and plenty of vivid video graphics designed to show policy makers how far remotely piloted aircraft have come. The third Congressional UAV Caucus event for 2010, the fair was organized by Congressmen Howard "Buck" McKeon of California and Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.
Clustered in the north foyer on the second floor of the building, with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked across Independence Avenue at the Capitol dome, officials from the military, industry, law enforcement, and NASA watched high-definition videos taken from UAVs that far surpassed the typical scenes we're accustomed to seeing on the evening news. Visitors, including the general public, were invited to touch models of the vehicles and ask questions.
There were plenty of odd shapes and sizes, such as the Aurora Flight Sciences backpackable UAV called the Skate, after the flat marine animal of the same name. Several UAVs claim to be backpackable, but, says Aurora's Patti Woodside, "When a soldier is already carrying 12o pounds of gear, he's not going to add another 15 pounds." Aurora's answer: a tactical field UAV still in the prototype phase, only 2.5 pounds with a 2.5-mile flying radius, and a battery the size of a cell phone that keeps the UAV in the air for an hour. The whole thing folds up to the size of a laptop computer, with two props the size of a human hand that are held onto the vehicle by magnets. It takes off vertically, then travels forward at 55 miles an hour. Coolest of all: It was developed by four Aurora employees in their 20s who begged for $3,000 in seed money from the boss. "It started as a nights and weekends thing," says program manager George Kiwada, "and went from a platform for testing control to what we always wanted to build: a UAV."
The National Institute of Justice was there demonstrating a rotary UAV that is helping law enforcement personnel in Texas with their narcotics missions, search and rescue, forensics, and surveillance. Another rotary UAV, from Weber State University, had four props, two of which turn in one direction and two in the other, for stability. Persistent observation is the whole point. "It's not important for this model to be a greyhound," says Brad Stringer, Executive Director of the Utah Center for Aeronautical Innovation & Design, while holding the three-pound UAV with one hand.
Lording over the room were scaled-down models of the ever popular Global Hawk, which has revolutionized aerial warfare and surveillance. NASA is even using one to do hurricane studies. And they don't need to keep it in Florida. They fly it leisurely from the Dryden Flight Research Center in California, all the way across the country and out into the Atlantic for hours on end, then all the way back to California. A 24-hour shift still requires three pilot-shifts on the ground at the joy stick.
An overriding question: Why the need for a UAV caucus on Capitol Hill? Isn't there enough demand for them without worrying about lobbying? "Great question," answered Andy Graham, legislative fellow to McKeon, by email. "There are still a lot of misconceptions about unmanned systems. The common perception of the UAV is the Predator B Reaper drone firing missiles at terrorists.
While the Reaper does perform this valuable mission, it represents only a very small fraction of the sizes, types, and missions that unmanned systems perform. As the technology and the demand for it evolve, existing airspace regulations become obsolete. One of the missions of the Caucus is to advocate for the military, industry, NASA, the Department of Homeland Security, the FAA, and other stakeholders to seek fair and equitable solutions to challenges created by UAV operations in the national air space. The Caucus brings together U.S. Representatives from both political parties who believe in the utility and longevity of unmanned aerial vehicles, and want to see their use expanded."