Information gathering is one of the most robust capabilities of unmanned aircraft systems. Are fears about drones invading people’s privacy unwarranted?
Such fears are about as warranted as being concerned about vans in your neighborhood. Specially equipped vans are used by law enforcement for covert surveillance. But they’re used for a lot of other things, too. So we’re not going to tell people in wheelchairs who use vans for transportation that we’re taking their vans away. We’ve used drones in flood assessment. We’ve used them to collect data to improve the model for predicting hurricanes. The unmanned aircraft I’ve worked with saved 10,000 homes from wildfires. Yes, we should be concerned about privacy. But don’t put this tool in a hanger when it could be used to save lives and property.
Very few people — probably none — can build, arm and launch a Tomahawk missile. But many people can cheaply build a computer by buying components at the store. Will drones be as easy to build as a laptop?
People have been building unmanned aircraft for years at the hobby level. People also make home-built aircraft that they fly in. You could theoretically put a command and control radio link and a navigation system in one of these home-built planes and fly it without a pilot on board.
How can we enforce laws regarding a technology that is inexpensive and, relatively speaking, low-tech?
That’s up to the FAA. But it may turn out to be similar to owning and operating a car. A drone may have to show airworthiness, for example. And the FAA may require proof of training to issue an operator’s license and vehicle registration.
You have piloted highly sophisticated unmanned aircraft systems in efforts to suppress forest fires. Why are drones so useful in fighting fires?
For years, the U.S. Forest Service has flown manned airplanes with infrared sensors to detect fires. But they could only fly for a couple of hours, and they didn’t have the ability to transmit data directly to the firefighters from the air. They first had to land somewhere. By the time the information got to the firefighters, it was six to eight hours later. Well, you know the dynamics of how fires spread. If the information is two hours old, it’s too old. Drones have the ability to transmit data in near-real time. In 2007, NASA flew experimental missions over wildfires in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. We were able to transmit data to the forest service within 10 minutes. The forest service used the information for evacuations and to fight the fires. Ten thousand homes were saved. And we saved firefighters who were moved because of information that the ridge they were on was about to be overrun by fire.
What would you say is the most significant misconception that people have about unmanned aircraft systems?
There is a misconception that these things fly on their own. Some have autopilots and can follow programmed navigation routes, but, like manned aircraft, drones have pilots. They’re just on the ground. I don’t like the term drones. I don’t like the term unmanned aircraft systems. I like the term remotely piloted aircraft. It captures what they are. It’s an aircraft, it’s piloted, and it’s piloted remotely. That’s the Air Force definition.
Why is the design of the instrument panel particularly important?
As drones become more complex, it becomes more crucial that they be user friendly. When NASA acquired one of the drones that I pilot remotely, I realized that a lot of the engineers who helped design the thing were not aviators. For example, you have to heat the fuel to keep it from freezing at high altitude. If fuel freezes, it could starve the engine. You could end up with a controlled landing or a crash. On the instrument panel, the label on the fuel heater switch said Fuel Heat Inhibit. The switch actions I could choose were: Enable or Disable. It is ambiguous and not intuitive to Disable the Inhibit. With those choices, you might choose the wrong option. It took months to get the display changed. It now says Fuel Heat — ON or OFF.
Would the FAA’s proposed rules for drones limit commercial and public service applications?
For smaller drones, without the capability to carry the traffic-avoidance equipment found in larger aircraft, the FAA is talking about limits to a flying range that you can see with your eye. That would severely limit the applications. The FAA is saying you still have to be able to avoid other airplanes, and how can you do that if you don’t have sight of your vehicles?
Which sectors of the economy are using drones now?
The FAA has granted almost 500 authorizations to fly drones for commercial purposes. This began in the fall of 2014 when the FAA granted the first 6 authorizations to the movie industry for aerial filming. Drones were also approved for real estate photography, oil refinery stack inspections, roof inspections, bridge inspections and agriculture. The potential is much greater. They could be used for wildlife census and power and pipeline inspections. Japan has done crop dusting. Drones are for the dull, dirty and dangerous missions — for combat, search and rescue, or flying through a hurricane to collect data.
What sector represents the greatest area for potential growth?
I hear from so many people that growth in the drone industry itself will just be explosive. That could benefit California. From the beginning of aviation, California has always been a center of aerospace development and manufacturing. The producers of the largest drones are already in California because of the military. You could envision that the drone manufacturing business will expand in Los Angeles and the rest of the state because of the base that’s already here. Because these aircraft require high-end equipment for navigation and computing power, Silicon Valley could provide the sub-components. And the industry predicted to benefit the most from using drones is agriculture — also a major part of California’s economy. The use of drones for large-scale crop health monitoring, soil moisture measurements, seeding and dusting, and other uses will reap huge savings, efficiency and safety over the use of manned aircraft.
New technologies often render existing technologies obsolete. What will drones displace?
That’s a difficult one. People talk about a lot of jobs that have been lost to automation. There used to be elevator operators. And now you’ve got driverless monorails at airports rather than manned shuttle busses. But how many jobs are created to maintain the monorails? I look at it as a case of augmenting old occupations and creating new ones, ranging from parts manufacturing to building and maintaining communication infrastructure.
In 50 years, will the sky be filled with drones like kites at the park on a windy day?
There may be a lot of drones in the sky, but there will be an order to them, not the random assembly you see at a kite park. The pizza delivery drone, the UPS delivery drone and the Amazon drone would have to be well separated, as all aircraft are, through equipment and/or procedures. The fundamental objective will be to seamlessly integrate these into the national airspace system. They’ll be controlled. It won’t be chaotic.
Doug McInnis covers science and business and has written for The New York Times, Popular Science and other publications. His profile of Dorota Shortell ’98, president of Simplexity, which appeared in the winter 2014 issue of LMU Magazine is here. His “Read Between the Lines” appeared in the fall 2013 issue of LMU Magazine. This interview is an extended version of an interview that appeared in summer 2015 print issue of LMU Magazine.