What the industry really needs is a system that integrates smoothly with bigger airspace changes already happening under NextGen, the FAA’s overhaul of the nation’s air traffic control system. By shifting tracking from radar and ground controllers to GPS signals and electronics aboard the aircraft, NextGen will allow more flexible and accurate flight plans. Civilian drones rely heavily on GPS for navigation, so it seems as if the two systems should work seamlessly. But drone experts would still like to develop independent systems—giving them the redundancy that UAVs lack because they don’t have a thinking, reacting pilot on board. Researchers in one European study and at the University of Pennsylvania, among others, are working on methods to guide small unpiloted aircraft (or more likely, a swarm of them) that have no dependable access to GPS signals and instead have to rely on a mix of “signals of opportunity”: camera-based navigation, landmarks, and whatever radio signals are available. The problem of a GPS-denied environment is a hot topic among military thinkers and disaster planners, and was brought up many times at the AUVSI conference. It’s already relevant for anyone, or anything, having to navigate a GPS-blocking maze of tunnels, urban canyons, or the hallways inside steel buildings.
Some university researchers are pushing for sensors and onboard computers powerful enough to convert video into three-dimensional maps in real time, allowing the vehicle to take over some piloting duties when conventional means of navigation and control break down. The GRASP lab at the University of Pennsylvania teamed with Tohoku University in Japan to map an earthquake-damaged building in Sendai, using the Japanese team’s ground robot, Quince, and the GRASP lab’s quadcopter, a highly computerized research model from Ascending Technologies. Quince carried the quadcopter into the damaged building and up the stairs. On command, the robot’s securing arms swung away and the quadcopter lifted off its tiny helipad. Its job was to extend the reach of Quince by flying up and down the damaged corridors, mapping as it went with the help of a laser rangefinder, and avoiding obstructions like dangling wires. When the job was completed—the vehicle worked well enough to map three floors—it found its way back to Quince and landed.
For now, some of the limits on drone use will stay in place, such as flying no higher than 400 feet above ground, flying during daylight using visual flight rules, and staying within the pilot’s line of sight. Even under these rules, the public-agency experience should help pave the way for routine use by commercial drone operators: adding rich photographic detail to existing maps; inspecting roofs, towers, and bridges for needed repairs; gathering news; or serving as temporary relays. South American energy companies already use drones to inspect hard-to-reach equipment such as flare booms on offshore oil rigs.
The power industry hopes that drones can speed up preparations for transmission-line repair after big storms, explains Drew McGuire, an engineer in Southern Company’s research arm. “Repair work depends on accurate assessment,” he says, “and poor assessment means wasted money and longer outages.” The industry wants a camera-wielding aircraft that can arrive on the scene faster than helicopters (which might be grounded by storms), inspect more power-line miles per dollar, and get imagery back faster. Lightweight drones—relatively inexpensive to risk in poor weather—might meet such needs.
Though there is enormous potential for drone use in emergency situations, infrastructure inspection, and ecological monitoring, many buyers still aren’t sure exactly what they need. “The industry is pretty immature,” says Embry-Riddle’s Currier of the current offerings at AUVSI. He compares it to the early years of auto manufacturing, when motorists had hundreds of brands, and no company dominated. “It’s hard to tell which is a production-ready aircraft by just looking at it,” says Roy Minson, a vice president at AeroVironment Inc., a leading producer of unmanned aircraft, including the Raven and another fixed-wing, the Puma AE, both of which are popular with the military. But the company is spending millions to refine a multi-rotor it calls the Qube, aimed at civilian firefighters and officers who need an easy way to get a camera overhead and transmitting video within minutes.
“There’s an enormous need for fast response, to get aerial imagery in minutes,” says John Appleby of the Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency. But a drone is no bargain for those who bought the wrong kind, or who can’t find enough uses for it (just ask the Honolulu port authority). In 2010, officials in Polk County, Florida, decided after a year of drone trials that the cost of meeting FAA regulations—in particular, the cost of pilot training—was too high, and halted use of its fixed-wing model. First-time drone buyers don’t always consider the limitations they’ll be under, not just the FAA oversight but also weather, battery life, image quality, piloting skills, and the public’s privacy concerns. Still, a temptation to run out and buy what Ben Miller calls the latest “shiny black thing” could grow as public agencies face less federal paperwork on the way to drone deployment. “Our advice to public safety agencies is to figure out your environment, know what data you need to collect, and then sit down and do the shopping,” says Doug Davis, who once directed the FAA’s work on unmanned aircraft and now directs the Global UAS Strategic Initiative at New Mexico State University.
When the buyers are ready, there will be plenty to choose from. The drone-making industry is furiously at work trying to make sure the vehicles will be useful once in the skies. Sensor quality is the fastest developing front in unmanned aircraft, according to Currier. Tests over the last two years by the Los Angeles County Fire Department suggest that when it comes to spotting lost hikers (simulated by actors) in rough country, machines that can deliver steadier, higher-resolution video are needed. The Department of Homeland Security began trials this fall at Fort Sill in Oklahoma to study how drones might be used to scan for hazardous chemicals and radioactive materials.
With nobody on UAVs to complain about a bumpy ride, and many niches for the vehicles to occupy, inventors are eager to develop capabilities and solve problems, like the short duration of multi-copter flights. One solution could come from LaserMotive, which recharged a quadcopter by aiming a high-powered laser at the aircraft’s photovoltaic panels. “If it’s powered from the ground, it never takes its eyes off the target,” explains Tom Nugent at the LaserMotive booth. Some new drone ideas feature flapping or rotating wings—or a single rotating wing. Lockheed’s Samurai prototype is an oversized, motorized maple seed. Sitting on the ground, this foot-long, lopsided gizmo might look like something that broke off a conventional drone, but in flight it’s a marvel. Out-simplifying even the multi-copters, it flies with just two moving parts: an electric motor and a single aileron for its wing.
While engineers fix the practical problems, drones still face one more major issue. “We understand as an industry that we’ve got a public relations problem,” says Paul McDuffee, vice president of government relations and strategy at Insitu and an AUVSI board member. He is referring to the worry that routine use of drones for surveillance in our own skies will conflict with citizens’ expectations of privacy. Some anti-drone activists want bureaucrats to throw up obstacles like “no-drone” zones and bans on purchases. The American Civil Liberties Union issued a report last year with recommendations on privacy protections, such as image retention restrictions and publicly available usage procedures, none of which were included in the bill passed by Congress. Still, many Americans accept drones’ use in law enforcement. A survey conducted in August by the Associated Press and the National Constitution Center found that 44 percent of respondents supported the idea of law enforcement using drones to assist in police work; 36 percent were opposed.
In June, AUVSI released a voluntary code of conduct for drone operators that McDuffee hopes will allay these concerns, particularly because even if privacy advocates don’t like it, drone use will expand—though, he hopes, to the public’s benefit. Responding to an anti-drone column in the Washington Post, AUVSI president Michael Toscano wrote: “With growing international demand for this technology in countries such as Japan, Australia, and Chile, where it is used in everything from agricultural to anti-poaching efforts, there is incredible job-creation potential.” Put enough bureaucracy in the way, he added, and the United States will lose out to other countries.