Remotely piloted aircraft could serve as a new
tool to support polar research, observe marine mammal populations, patrol borders and monitor wildfires, as well as take on risky assignments like flying into the eye of a hurricane to assess its destructive power.
But tasking robot planes to routinely carry out
non-military duties also means safely sharing the skies with passenger-carrying aircraft within the U.S.
system. Moreover, budgetary and political support to move the idea forward is needed.
scientists, government officials and industry specialists met here Oct.
1-3 to begin a dialogue on civilian applications for remotely controlled aircraft
goal is to chart out an integrated vision for
unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)
in the United States.
“Civilian Applications of Unmanned Aircraft Systems” was billed as the first U.S. conference exclusively focused on expanding research applications of remotely piloted aircraft. The event was hosted by the University of Colorado at
Boulder, and supported by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences – a joint institute of NOAA and the University of Colorado at Boulder – and
Northrop Grumman Corp.
role for research purposes has been bolstered by military operations involving such systems
have shown an agility and robustness to perform assorted types of missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Scientists envision using UAVs
when the research is grubby, dull or perilous, said
Elizabeth Weatherhead, a research associate at the University of Colorado
and a coordinator of the meeting.
Examples highlighted at the conference include
air temperature, humidity and wind speeds over remote stretches of Arctic Ocean
. By flying at low altitudes and beneath cloud cover, UAVs
can snag data sets at very fine spatial scales that rival
or even outmatch
“What we’ve seen is an emerging new technology – unmanned aircraft – that has proven hugely successful in the war theater … but which we think has great civilian application,” said Alexander “Sandy” MacDonald,
director of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder. “You have to show the public and political systems that it’s worth spending taxpayer money … so we’re here talking about mission,” he told Space News.
could be dispatched to cruise over hurricane-disrupted ocean water or remote stretches of Arctic wasteland – hazardous places where you would not want to put people
“We can see incredible uses. But we have to show those uses, and work with industry to get the right platforms,” MacDonald said
. Discussed at the meeting, he said, was the possible need for interagency coordination on UAV applications,
perhaps through a joint program office.
have the potential to offer better science at lower cost
than other systems,
said Paul Carliner of Carliner Strategies
LLC in Washington.
He cited the current use of piloted aircraft for severe weather monitoring as an example.
“It costs a lot of money to maintain a fleet of C-130s, G-5s and other government aircraft, not to mention the flight crews and the risk of sending people into the middle of hurricanes,” Carliner said. UAVs, on the other hand, can stay aloft in the middle of a hurricane far longer than a conventional aircraft, with no risk to human life, he said.
“So much money has been invested on the military side. What are the benefits that can be reaped on the civil side from that investment?”
Carliner told Space News that UAV advocates foresee a range of applications, from search and rescue, fire detection and homeland security applications to disaster preparedness and mitigation. “There’s a whole host of end-users that could potentially benefit” from unmanned aerial platforms, he said.
a realization at high levels of government that civil UAVs
could be revolutionary and
have broad application, Carliner said. He warned, however, against UAV
supporters clamoring up to Capitol Hill for earmarks
to support technology development.
“Those days are over,” Carliner said. What’s needed is an authorized program that has been vetted, reviewed and is competitive … a mission that has a purpose, not a specific technology, he emphasized.
government partnership to push forward on UAV
technology, flight protocols and certification is necessary, Carliner said.
The “big hurdle,”
he said, is getting UAVs
certified to fly in the U.S. airspace.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s current mandate is to modernize the air traffic control system, so its
hands are full, Carliner said. Besides, he added, the
role of UAVs
is not a front-burner issue for the
agency, unless such drones
as a priority with appropriate funding attached
“It’s really important for us to keep this dialogue up … and to keep asking the questions … and, in turn, accepting the answers,” said Ardyth Williams, an air traffic manager for the Federal Aviation Administration
“The U.S. has the safest, busiest and most complex airspace system in the world,” Williams noted.
Williams pointed out that the U.S. Department of Defense
has reported that UAV
accidents are far more frequent than mishaps involving piloted aircraft
There is a need for experts in software, avionics
and aerodynamics research
share data in a common place to further the UAV
agenda, Williams said. “We need the best and the brightest” to help integrate and navigate unmanned aircraft systems in both U.S. and international airspace, she
For more information on the
Civilian Applications of Unmanned Aircraft Systems conference, visit
their Web site at: http://cauas.colorado.edu.