Drones are Ready for Takeoff

Will unmanned aerial vehicles—drones—soon take civilian passengers on pilotless flights?

Engineer Tad McGeer, at his company's headquarters near Bingen, Washington, played a key role in getting the civilian drone industry off the ground. (Robbie McClaran)
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During a test flight last year off the Pacific coast of Latin America, an aerial drone launched from the USS McInerney relayed back to the ship video of an open skiff speeding across the water. The frigate’s crew had long experience chasing drug smugglers, so they knew what they were seeing. The skiff was 20 miles ahead of the frigate and moving away as the sun went down. In the flight control room, operators instructed the drone to take up the chase.

Over the next three hours, the skiff stopped twice and shut down its engine—standard practice among smugglers listening for law enforcement aircraft. The drone, a 23-foot-long helicopter trailing a mile or two behind, was quiet enough to evade detection. It also had the range to keep up the pursuit when a manned helicopter, roughly twice its size, would have had to turn back and refuel. By the time the skiff made its rendezvous with a fishing boat under cover of darkness, the McInerney was on its tail. A flare went up as a boarding party moved in. The startled suspects began dumping contraband, but 132 pounds of cocaine was recovered when the smugglers were arrested.

Until now, drone aircraft have been confined largely to war zones—most recently in Libya—and they have become controversial for killing civilians along with insurgents. But critics and boosters alike say unmanned aircraft will increasingly be used for peacetime work. They disagree about the likely scale of the industry, but the Federal Aviation Administration is already considering new rules and training staffers to adjust to unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” says Peter Singer, an analyst with the Brookings Institution. “Is it going to be 2012 or 2014? The point is, it’s going to happen.”

In fact, it’s happening now. Unarmed versions of the military Predator drone already patrol thinly populated stretches of the nation’s borders. Predators have also been flown over cities to assess damage after hurricanes, floods and earthquakes.When smoke grounded other aircraft during a 2009 forest fire in Circle, Alaska, a drone provided infrared imagery that allowed officials to determine that no evacuation was necessary. And during the accident this spring at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the world’s largest drone analyzed the emergency from high altitude, while a backpack-size drone inspected the crippled reactors at close quarters.

Drones will probably move first into jobs deemed “too dull, dirty or dangerous” for humans, says MIT automation expert Mary “Missy” Cummings. To monitor marine mammal populations off Alaska, for instance, oil companies have employed small manned aircraft flying at 300 feet, 200 miles offshore, in icy conditions. But a drone operated by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks recently did the job quietly enough not to scare off the animals. Police agencies are also lobbying for permission to use drones for building searches in hostage situations and for traffic management. With no need to carry people, drones designed for such work come in all sizes and shapes. Some look like a flying engine cowling (minus the rest of the plane) or a laptop with tail fins. Some are as big as a 737; others have the heft, and flapping wings, of a sparrow.

Some drones also look like conventional aircraft, and Cummings believes unmanned systems will ultimately replace even commercial pilots. She first saw the possibilities in the 1990s as a Navy pilot landing a highly automated F-18. “On carrier landings, it always did better than humans,” she says. At some airports today, Cummings notes, Boeing and Airbus jets take off, land and brake to a stop without human hands on the controls. She predicts that within ten years cargo planes will fly without human pilots and that passenger jets will ultimately follow.

First, though, somebody will need to work out some glitches: a few months after that drug bust at sea, Navy operators in Maryland experienced a “lost link”—like losing your wireless connection—with the same model drone, a Northrop Grumman Fire Scout, as it was traveling at 70 miles an hour straight toward Washington, D.C. The drone briefly entered restricted air space (within 40 miles of the capital). Military officers contemplated shooting down the 3,000-pound robotic helicopter over a heavily populated metropolis. But before anyone could scramble the F-16 fighter jets, technicians on the ground regained control and turned the drone back to base.

A good place to watch the developing drone revolution, with all its technological, commercial and ethical complications, is an hour east of Portland, Oregon, in the heart of the Columbia River Gorge, an area otherwise known for windsurfing, craft beer and political progressivism. Go almost anywhere on either side of the river—to an old school building in Bingen, Washington, say, or a former Chevy dealership in Hood River, Oregon—and you will find somebody working on drones.

The aeronautical engineer who got the industry started here is a boyish, reclusive character in his mid-50s with the perfect garage-inventor name, Tad McGeer. He runs the Aerovel Corporation, a start-up with nine employees, tucked behind a dense wall of pine trees in the rugged hills above Bingen. The entrance is a narrow gravel driveway with a broken-down gate. A wrecked Cessna sits in a derelict barn, and cars cluster around a big, blocky house at the end of a hayfield.

Inside, a staffer fabricates plane parts in what was once a child’s bedroom, where the electronic controls for a coffin-like industrial oven now sit on a dresser decorated with beetles and snails. Aerovel’s mechanical engineering laboratory occupies another bedroom, with horses and hearts painted on the walls. Test engines roar in the garages at either end of the house, and if it all looks a little makeshift, that suits McGeer just fine.

About Richard Conniff
Richard Conniff

Richard Conniff, a Smithsonian contributor since 1982, is the author of seven books about human and animal behavior.

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