Drones are Ready for Takeoff
by Richard Conniff
Synopsis and resource annotations by Max Grinnell
Drone aircraft have been used in war zones for a number of years, and
experimentation with other uses is becoming much more common. Could drones
patrol our nation's borders in the future? Well, they already do in certain
circumstances, and this piece by Richard Conniff from the
looks into new developments in this field.
The piece begins by describing some of the settings in which unmanned drones
have been deployed, including monitoring marine mammal populations off the
coast of Alaska and looking at the nuclear emergency this past spring at
Japan's Fukushima Daiichi power plant. These drones come in all shapes and
sizes; some are as big as a passenger jet while others are as small as a
The article continues with an examination of the proverbial ground zero for
these drone experiments, which is centered around the Columbia River Gorge
east of Portland, Oregon. A key figure here is Tad McGeer, who runs the
Aerovel Corporation out of rather modest surroundings. McGeer and his partner
Andy von Flotow both earned doctorates in aeronautical engineering from
Stanford University, and they started working on drones twenty years ago. Then
they had the idea that their early civilian drone (named the Perseus) would be
able to take sophisticated measurements of atmospheric chemistry to track the
hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctica. By the late 1990s, McGeer was
working on flying a drone across the Atlantic, and in 1998 he was successful
when one of his drones reached South Uist Island in Scotland. Soon the
Pentagon came calling, but McGeer and his colleagues were more interested in
focusing on civilian projects. McGeer and von Flotow's next project was for
representatives of the tuna industry, whose fish-spotting helicopters had
suffered a series of deadly crashes. For this endeavor, they developed the
SeaScan, a drone with a camera turret and a user-friendly takeoff and landing
from the deck of a ship. After developing the SeaScan, the US military adapted
this technology to create the ScanEagle. The ScanEagle was a 40-pound
surveillance device used during the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, and its
primary objective was to spot would-be assailants and send real-time video to
troops on the ground. The ScanEagle is also relatively cost-effective, with a
price tag of around $100,000. Today, the question remains as to how quickly
this type of unmanned technology can find a place in the civilian market.
The big issue currently is that these drones face major regulatory issues.
Questions about privacy and civil liberties need to be addressed regarding the
use of these drones to monitor civilians. Accordingly, the nonmilitary portion
of the drone market is only estimated to grow to $500 million a year by 2020.
However, the military market will remain quite robust, as it is already stands
at $5 billion a year.
Currently, the FAA is considering rules that would allow unmanned drones that
weigh less than 50 pounds to fly below 500 feet with less regulation. The hope
is that this will create a boom in innovative practices with these devices,
and that thousands of new applications will be found for these drones. There
is also concern about the cost of operation, as unmanned aircraft still
require at least two people for their operation. It remains to be seen what
will come of these innovations, but it will be worth keeping tabs on the work
of Ted McGeer, Andy von Flotow, and the others who will surely follow.
Found below is a list of useful resources that will illuminate and enhance
understanding of the topics found within this article.
The first link
leads to an excellent set of lectures from MIT that address the fundamental
concepts behind aerospace engineering, astronautics and design. Also, there
are fine materials for educators here, including interactive exercises and
The second link
to a primer from NASA that covers basic aeronautic terms, including drag,
lift, and thrust.
The third link
whisk users away to a set of tutorials and fact sheets from the Aircraft
Owners and Pilots Association that deal with aviation principles, safety, and
Moving on, the fourth
leads to the National Center for Atmospheric Research's page on
real-time weather data and satellite movements, which may be one of the most
significant areas for civilian drone use.
The fifth link
take interested parties to a great site from Professor Daniel J. Jacob of
Harvard University which provides pedagogical tools for those teaching
atmospheric chemistry, including Power Point presentations and slides.
The final link
to the NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center, which contains information
about the world of space weather and topics like the ionosphere and radio wave