Can Drones Be Known for More Than Causing Death?

Search, rescue, and recovery operations — and pizza delivery — make some of the remotely piloted aircraft in D.C. this week more angel than demon.

** ADVANCE FOR SATURDAY, APRIL 25, AND THEREAFTER ** In this Oct. 24, 2007, photo released by NASA, NASA's Ikhana unmanned aircraft heads out on a wildfire imaging mission as smoke from the Lake Arrowhead, Calif., area fires streams in the background. Leaps in unmanned aircraft technology have military authorities clamoring to use drones for everything from coastal patrols and border surveillance to tracking natural disasters, but fears of midair collisions are slowing any broad expansion of their domestic use.
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Ben Terris
Aug. 14, 2013, 10:02 a.m.

“Whatever you write, please don’t call it a drone,” Steen Mo­gensen says, gently touch­ing the tail of a 19-foot or­ange-and-white heli­copter. Mo­gensen, the CEO of Scion UAS, didn’t mean to say that this vehicle can’t fly without a pi­lot — of course it can. This is the un­manned-vehicles con­ven­tion in Wash­ing­ton. It’s the ter­min­o­logy he takes is­sue with.

“It just strikes fear in­to a lot of people,” says Mo­gensen, who with his soft Dan­ish ac­cent and slight pot­belly is him­self de­cidedly not scary. Even when talk­ing about the more con­tro­ver­sial as­pects of un­manned air­craft, he man­ages to take the edge off with a touch of folksi­ness: “If you fear they will fly over­head and take a pic­ture of your wife in a swim­ming pool, just re­mem­ber that your neigh­bor can put his iPhone on a stick and do the same thing.” (Of course, an iPhone can’t hov­er hun­dreds of feet in the air for hours on end and be con­trolled from a re­mote loc­a­tion.)

Oth­er than the fact that this craft — nick­named “The Jack­al” — can be op­er­ated from the ground, it has very little in com­mon with the Pred­at­or drones de­liv­er­ing the Hell­fire mis­siles made fam­ous by the even­ing news and Home­land. Amer­ic­ans are well fa­mil­i­ar with the fact that weapon­ized drones have been used to kill Qaida op­er­at­ives (and ci­vil­ians as well) throughout Pakistan and oth­er areas, and that the gov­ern­ment has the abil­ity to tar­get an in­sur­gent’s cell phone. But, with a seat in the cock­pit and the abil­ity to carry more than 200 pounds, The Jack­al is de­signed more to save lives than it is to take them.

“The per­fect ex­ample would be the Ari­zona fire that killed 19 fire­fight­ers,” he said. “If it were al­lowed, it could have po­ten­tially been used to fly in and pick up people one at a time, without risk­ing the life of a heli­copter pi­lot. Un­for­tu­nately, the FAA doesn’t al­low it. It would have been crim­in­al just to try.”

The Wash­ing­ton Con­ven­tion Cen­ter this week is filled with hun­dreds of com­pan­ies some­how in­volved with un­manned vehicles. They have in­tim­id­at­ing names such as Fal­con UAV, Battle­space Flight Ser­vices, Ro­bo­tex, and “¦ North Dakota. Their booths are ad­orned with war­time im­ages and videos of black-and-white sur­veil­lance foot­age. It’s big busi­ness for the mil­it­ary. But for it to be big busi­ness in the private sec­tor, there’s go­ing to need to be a softer sell.

These days, the pub­lic opin­ion of drones is so bad among some people that a small town in Col­or­ado may soon al­low them to be hunted down. This month, Deer Trail, a town of about 500 people, will be vot­ing on a pro­posed or­din­ance to sell drone-hunt­ing li­censes. For $25, cit­izens will be able to shoot down un­manned vehicles that re­semble a fed­er­al drone. Suc­cess will yield them not only a dead drone to mount but also a $100 prize, and the chance to pos­sibly be pro­sec­uted by the feds.

Chris Miser of Fal­con UAV took one of his small un­manned vehicles to Deer Trail earli­er this month to demon­strate that they aren’t all bad.

“Part of it was just to show them they can’t stop me,” he said. “But part of it was to show them how be­ne­fi­cial un­manned air­craft can be for them.” Sure, drones can be used for spy­ing, but they can also be used for cattle counts or ac­cur­ately map­ping acre­age lost to a storm so farm­ers can get paid their in­sur­ance, he said.

In this sense, hat­ing on drones is kind of silly: Do Amer­ic­ans have the same dis­gust for air­planes just be­cause a few of them are used for drop­ping bombs? Do they hate com­puters just be­cause some of them are used for con­duct­ing cy­ber­war­fare?

In real­ity, Amer­ic­ans seem to be pretty OK with drones. A poll con­duc­ted by Pew in March found that 65 per­cent of the coun­try sup­por­ted drone strikes of non-U.S. cit­izens sus­pec­ted of ter­ror­ism. That num­ber cer­tainly skyrock­ets when the drones are used in search-and-res­cue mis­sions, to check out the dam­age of nat­ur­al dis­asters, or to, say, de­liv­er piz­zas.

Wil­li­am Har­vey, CEO of the vaguely named Brandebury Tool Co., says he has been work­ing on drones for 30 years and is used to deal­ing with mis­con­cep­tions.

“The world is not based on fact; it’s based on be­lief,” he says, stand­ing in front of one of his mod­els, a wooden craft with the words “Ti­ger Shark” painted on it that looks al­most ex­actly like a soap­box-derby entry. His be­lief: Un­manned air­craft is the har­binger of great changes in the near fu­ture.

“The reas­on we aren’t zip­ping around in fly­ing sau­cers like the Jet­sons is be­cause no one knows how to op­er­ate a fly­ing ma­chine,” he said. “That will change. Give it five to 10 years.”

And yet, it’s hard for these drones not to just seem kind of ne­far­i­ous. Loc­ated near the cen­ter of the con­ven­tion hall, not far from a net­ted off area re­plete with a fly­ing drone obstacle course, is the Dream­ham­mer booth. With its chic white walls and tall beau­ti­ful wo­men dressed in black, it has the look of an evil Apple store.

Nel­son Paez, the CEO of the com­pany, fits the dress code per­fectly. He towers over every­one else, his hair gelled, his goat­ee groomed, and his black pants tight. His com­pany makes op­er­at­ing soft­ware for drones, and his main cli­ent is the gov­ern­ment. I ask if he ever loses sleep at night when he hears of drone strikes.

“We’re just the op­er­at­ing sys­tem, we have no con­trol of that,” he said. “Think about it like Win­dows. You can use that to look at a porn site or a na­tion­al se­cur­ity site. It’s not up to Win­dows how it’s used.”


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