Robots in the Skies

The Global Hawk drone

William Rieken came to the Paris Air Show thinking about earthquakes—specifically, the Kobe earthquake, which killed more than 6,000 people in 1995, including students at the Japanese university where he is a researcher. If Kobe had been full of small, all-seeing unmanned aircrafts that could transmit images to rescue workers, lives could have been saved.

Ten years later, as a researcher at the Nara Institute of Science and Technology, he’s got a prototype, a slew of corporate and academic sponsors, and a company in California licensed to make his Elliptical Circular Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. It’s bright red in the slides he displays and looks roughly like a doughnut with a missile in the middle. It can be stored for long periods, without much maintenance, in spaces of less than 3 square meters—the maximum available on most rooftops in Japan. It can take off in less than two minutes with no runway, and it can see 360 degrees around.

The Paris Air Show is where members of the global aerospace industry go every other year to make deals, party, and show off inventions ranging from jumbo jets to microprocessors. Equipped with monster-sized budgets, aerospace just might do more than any other industry to transform science and imagination into practical use. That means it’s also a good place to try to catch a glimpse of the future, which is what I’ll be doing for the next several days.

The ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle

My first stop was the UAV Awareness Forum in the well-soundproofed cellar where the press conferences are held. I became aware, first of all, that while drones are a kind of unmanned aerial vehicle, an unmanned aerial vehicle is not necessarily a drone. Drones are “brainless,” explained Trevor Rogers, president of New Zealand’s TGR Helicopters, meaning they don’t take in data to adjust their own behavior. They also use some sort of launching system, he said, such as a truck or a tow from an airplane. UAV denotes a broader category and seems to be the industry term of choice. That’s unfortunate, because “drone” is a much catchier word. I could imagine someone writing a “drone army” into their next sci-fi script, but “UAV” just doesn’t have the same ring. (Which is perhaps the point. UAV-makers don’t want to make the public jumpy.) The term “unmanned vehicle system,” or UVS, which can refer to land, air, or sea vehicles, denotes an even broader range.

Peter van Blyenburgh is the president of UVS International, a nonprofit industry group that he founded 10 years ago. He may have a broader view of the industry than anyone, and he is a UAV evangelist. “I was like Don Quixote in the beginning,” he said. “Regulatory authorities couldn’t even spell UAV.” Now, he said, 223 companies in at least 43 countries are developing UAVs, and 552 UAV systems—unique inventions, basically—exist. A U.S. project called Access 5, spearheaded by NASA and a group of manufacturers, is preparing to advise the Federal Aviation Administration on UAVs. (Or, if you can bear the alphabet soup for one more moment, what Access 5 refers to as HALE ROAs: high-altitude long-endurance remotely operated aircraft.)

UAVs are already hanging around overhead in a variety of uses, such as:

  • Hovering around church steeples and bridges. France has many old sandstone steeples, van Blyenburgh said, and they eventually start to crumble. It used to be that you had to send a guy in a harness up to see if worshippers were in imminent danger. Now UAVs are used to do the inspection. Same goes for bridges.
  • The Belgian air force used a UAV to spot an oil slick on the sea, follow it to the excreting ship, and take a picture of it. The owner was fined.
  • The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has used the Hermes 450 and other UAVs to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border.
  • Japan already has 2,000 UAVs in regular use spraying insecticide. It has 4,500 licensed UAV operators, many of whom have formed small companies that lease the machines to farmers.
  • Aerosonde of North America fielded a UAV that inspected the arctic ice cap in a project that investigated whether global warming was causing it to melt.

And here are a few areas in which UAVs are not used yet but may be soon:

  • Forest-fire prevention. Equipped with an infrared device to detect the heat source, a UAV could detect an incipient forest fire with much greater speed than humans in an airplane.
  • Finding fish. California tuna fishermen now sail thousands of miles to their fishing grounds and then pay helicopter pilots to fly in a grid looking for fish. It’s both boring and hazardous work—often the helicopters crash-land onto the boats, according to van Blyenburgh. A UAV could do it more cheaply, safely, and efficiently.
  • Pirates. This is another interest of William Rieken, the researcher who has developed the rescue-response UAV. Piracy is a major problem in Asian seas. He envisions hanging UAVs over shipping lanes for as long as one or two years to help identify and catch marauders.

Finally, here’s a thought you might want to start getting used to: pilotless passenger jets. “It will happen in our lifetime,” said Rogers of TGR Helicopters, whose company makes an unmanned military helicopter. “It will be possible,” he said, noting that already, commercial jets are always landed using automatic systems throughout Europe. “You just have to convince the passenger.”