July 1, 2012

Drones move from the war zone to the heartland

— The drones are coming.

— The drones are coming.

In fact, Kansas State University sees something of a drone nation beyond the horizon.

Which is why, a few years ago, the college launched a bachelor’s degree program in operating airborne robots. Some call them UAS, or unmanned aircraft systems. Others prefer the term UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles.

To you, they’re drones — just not the ones that launch weapons.

Large swaths of the civilian world, from first responders to ranchers, real estate agents, park rangers and even some golf-course superintendents, are pining for the remote cameras and potential cost-savings of a well-guided drone compared to manned flight.

The most famous of the military drones, the Predator, has proved in Pakistan and Afghanistan its skills at gathering intelligence and firing missiles at suspected terrorists — at no risk to the pilot looking at a video screen on the ground.

Here at home, less-muscled drones are now regularly deployed by dozens of public agencies to scan crime scenes, search for people lost in the woods and snoop on drug deals.

Drones inspect crop damage. Chart drought patterns. Monitor hurricanes. Catch illegal immigrants crossing the border.

At K-State’s UAS lab in Salina, a 25-pound, battery-powered helicopter resting on a countertop recently was sent aloft by researchers on a mission to track the migration of prairie chickens.

Commercial interests have lobbied Congress hard to receive Federal Aviation Administration certification to fly their own drones in U.S. airspace. Some real estate outfits have already hired operators to guide camera-carrying drones over luxury properties, creating high-definition, bird’s-eye video that can wow potential buyers.

Earlier this year, police warned the real estate community in Los Angeles that home-droning for moneymaking purposes was against federal law.

But that may not be true by the fall of 2015, when the FAA faces a deadline set by lawmakers to safely integrate high-flying drones, including the commercial type, with manned aircraft.

So drone fever is spreading, and quickly — too quickly for privacy advocates. They worry that the rush to put more cameras in the sky will encourage eavesdropping on law-abiding Americans.

Drone degree

K-State was just the second university in the nation to offer a bachelor of technical science degree with an emphasis in unmanned aircraft systems.

Only seven students signed up to pursue the degree in 2010. Last year, 21 signed up.

Extra chairs, tables and a sofa were required in the drone classroom to accommodate the demand. The teaching will move to larger quarters in the fall, when as many as three dozen degree-chasers will take courses that transition them from learning in conventional cockpits to flying unmanned craft using a laptop or iPhone.

In May, Zach Powell, 25, became the first K-Stater to receive the degree. He expects to head to Afghanistan later this summer to work drone jobs for a defense contractor.

“You’re seeing student interest double or triple each year, and I think it’ll just continue to do so,” Powell said, “especially as the word gets out.”

The word? K-State instructors say some defense contractors will pay fresh graduates $150,000 a year to program, fly and maintain drones overseas.

Powell said his long-term aim is to return home and pilot non-military drone missions — maybe search and rescue efforts, which K-State courses explore. He voices no interest in spying; his senior paper examined privacy issues in the field of unmanned flight.

Whatever a drone might see in your back yard, the enthusiasts point out, a pilot in the air can see with the proper equipment.

Google Earth, for that matter, might catch you sunbathing in the nude behind a privacy fence or growing pot in a greenhouse.

Still, Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted that unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming more sophisticated each year, and they’re shrinking in size and price.

A hobbyist can construct a dinky drone mounted with a camera for as little as $300, tapping parts available online or in electronics stores.

The primitive models aren’t likely to stay airborne more than 10 minutes. But if the gadget flies lower than 400 feet and the operator never loses sight of it from the ground, it’s presently legal to buzz it around the neighborhood.

“You can easily steer some drones through an open window,” Jeschke said. “It wouldn’t take much for a rogue student to misuse these devices.”

But because drones are less expensive than manned aircraft — and because many potential benefits of drone technology are undeniable — more robots are bound for the skies, Jeschke said: “Let’s make sure the technology does all the cool things without compromising our privacy.”

Her group foresees as many as 30,000 drones whirring above Americans within a decade. If a drone tsunami is approaching, industry watchers caution that experienced professionals — not just anyone with a joystick or laptop — should work the controls.

Drone operators guiding gadgets at altitudes above 400 feet or beyond their line of sight “should know everything a pilot has to know,” said Chris Stephenson, terminal technology coordinator for the Air Traffic Controllers Association.

That includes holding an instrument-rated license to fly, enabling pilots to steer through thick cloud cover.

“It is a concern of ours,” he said. “As cheap as some of these vehicles are priced, you don’t want just anyone to go out, buy one and fly them around willy-nilly.”

It’ll be the FAA’s job to study and sort through the safety concerns in the coming months.

The agency is close to selecting six sites around the country that would test the movement of drones sharing airspace with various manned craft.

Currently, U.S. drones can only fly in restricted airspace or through certificates of authorization issued to public agencies. But by the middle of next year, the FAA is expected to issue new rules to allow small drones weighing up to 55 pounds to operate in the national airspace system.

A whole new world

The fleet inside the K-State drone lab reflects the wide variety of unmanned aircraft being built and flown.

An inexpensive model with a styrofoam frame, mounted camera and autopilot functions can be launched by hand.

Parked nearby, the quarter-million-dollar Aerosonde Mark 4.7 boasts a 12-foot wingspan and $5,000 infrared lens, which can detect bodies at night.

Some of the drones are launched off catapults 14 feet long. One fuel-powered model can take off from a cradle in the back of a moving pickup, circle for 20 hours and be programmed to land on its own — all on a 1 1/2-gallon tank of gas.

“We tend not to use the word ‘drone’ in class,” said lead professor Eric Shappee. “They’re ‘remotely piloted aircraft.’

”To me, anything called a drone gives out the feeling that it’s expendable. These vehicles are not expendable.“

Said Josh Brungardt, who directs the university’s UAS programs: ”You can see this whole new world of aviation developing …

“We get calls almost every day from other universities wanting to come and see what we have. We’ve got industry partners who are hiring even before our students graduate.”

Related content



Editor's Choice Videos