Archive for April, 2011


flying beyond conflict

SOME WEEKS AGO The Washington Post reported that attacks in Pakistan by CIA drones killed at least 581 militants in 2010, but only two of those militants appeared on a U.S. list of most-wanted terrorists.

The CIA carried out a record 118 drone strikes last year, costing more than $1 million each. Because of the large cost and the low rate of “high-value target” hits, many in Washington are raising questions over the CIA’s drone campaign. But even as the value of these CIA fighters is argued at the highest levels of government, a fleet of different types of drones may soon begin roaming areas in New York and other states.

Come late summer, the sight of an unmanned aerial vehicle resembling a bird may be more common for campers hiking the High Peaks of New York’s Adirondack Mountains than spotting a black bear. A federal initiative to increase the number of drone training and testing sites across the country to 10, from four, is nearing approval. Local legislators are pushing for this initiative as they see the financial benefits of the program to local areas.

Most U.S. drones today are deployed by the military and the CIA, and operate in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some are also said to fly missions in Yemen, Somalia, and regions around the Horn of Africa. Because laws prohibit the military and CIA from flying drones within the United States, National Guard units and civilian contractors would fly the UAV testing missions. The drones that would fly in places like New York would not carry weapons, but be equipped with day and night cameras focusing on random vehicles and locations for training purposes.

The New York Air National Guard is expecting to launch drone surveillance flights to train drone crews from command centers at Fort Drum and the Hancock Field Air National Guard Base in Syracuse.

As technology for autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles grows, so does the number of potential applications. In our revealing cover story this month, mechanical engineering researchers from the University of California at Berkeley tell us that it is now possible to build autonomous UAVs that can fly without human guidance for less than $500, using open-source hardware and software.

Technical advances and lower cost open up opportunities for using teams of drones flying together for purposes beyond the military, such as fighting forest fires. But research challenges remain, especially in the area of human-robot interaction, which is where much of the research is now focusing.

The good news is that federal education and stimulus money is now being used to create nonmilitary drone education programs. The aviation department at the University of North Dakota, for example, and the operator of the test and training site at Grand Forks AFB, now offers the first Bachelor of Science program in unmanned aircraft systems operations.

As control systems get better, faster, cheaper, and smarter, the authors of the article say, “We may then be able to see flocks of UAVs fulfill their greatest potential as a means to extend human capability and meet human needs.”

The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

April 2011

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