Commentary: Drones Aren’t Just for Killing and Spying

Expanded societal roles for unmanned systems raise technical and cultural challenges.

Mention unmanned aerial vehicles, and most Americans think of armed Predators firing missiles at suspected terrorists in Yemen or Taliban fighters in Afghanistan or al-Shabab plotters in Somalia -- somewhere far away where people are trying to do harm. These drones keep American pilots out of harm’s way, transmitting photos or video from a terrorist camp or battlefield to a ground station in Nevada or Kuwait or somewhere in Africa.

Unmanned systems have been largely categorized for military use, including intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and attack missions, as well as for security operations. So the perception of drone use is largely shaped by conflicts overseas.

But experts in the UAV industry, practitioners in and outside government, and academics envision other uses for drones. They see these systems as a tangible means to deliver food and medical aid to people trapped in remote regions after natural disasters, like the recent earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti, or to refugees forced to flee for the lives as war rages in Mali and Niger.

Disaster relief and humanitarian assistance are just the tip of the iceberg. A recent forum hosted by the Reserve Officers Association in Washington addressed the use of drones in peace and stability operations. Attendees noted the possibility of expanded roles for these systems is growing rapidly, which also raises a number of questions: How are they going to be maintained? What happens to the data they collect? Where can they fly and under what conditions?

Lynne Schneider, an Army Reserve civil affairs officer, knows firsthand the wide range of unmanned systems. They not only “keep [nongovernment organizations] out of the way of the bad guys,” she said, but also “we did a huge food drop in Montenegro” following devastating winter storms that isolated dozens of remote mountain communities. Before the UAVs were used, she said, “we didn’t know where the people were; the State Department didn’t know,” nor did the Montenegrin government.

These kinds of efforts require the large government or military UAVs capable of carrying a ton or more of cargo ranging from sensors and cameras to food and water. But Kevin Ofchus, chief executive officer of Atlanta-based Host Nation Perspectives, is passionate about the promise of micro UAVs as well -- like the handheld Tiger Shark.  Much of his company’s work with the Ministry of Interior in Afghanistan has involved traditional security missions, such as monitoring borders. But micro UAVs also have been used -- to deliver 1,000 anti-malaria pills to a village, for example. These systems are more affordable for cash-strapped governments and NGOs, and carry smaller payloads than most military missions require.

“It’s a different model of buying that might be in the province of a mid-sized NGO,” when weighing the $250 cost of a quad-helo UAV versus the million-dollar programs at the Defense and Homeland Security departments, said Lin Wells, director of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University. The Air Force, for example, spends $24 billion a year on UAVs.

Proponents of smaller systems say they don’t need to be as sophisticated as those used for military, law enforcement and border security missions, which require high-definition, wide-area surveillance and the ability to deliver data in real time to users who can analyze it quickly.

While many UAVs can be used to find suitable places for refugee camps or deliveries of vital supplies or agricultural mapping, micro systems can serve as communication conduits in remote areas. Instead of building cell towers, drones can be used to provide WiFi hotspots in areas with no service -- an approach being tested in central California during UAV exercises involving industry and NGOs.

Critics object to “dumbing down” UAVs for nonmilitary or security use, but others say it simplifies issues like training and maintenance. Doug Brooks, former president of the International Stability Operations Association, said “building effective institutions has to be sustainable by local people with their own resources.”

Aside from the technical issues, there are also cultural challenges to deploying UAVs for humanitarian missions. Names like Predator, Reaper, Hunter and Tiger Shark raise fears about how these systems are going to be used. “People can be very suspicious especially in war zones where they only know UAVs” as targeting instruments, said Al Santoli of the Asian-American Institute.

Four times a year inventors, NGOs and others in the UAV industry gather at Camp Roberts, a National Guard post in central California, to test their products in rugged field conditions. It allows them to work “through their problems, and we talk to each other,” said Sam Bendetti, who works on unmanned aerial systems research and development at NDU. “It’s a safe place to fail,” he added, noting that those who come to the exercises understand that it’s “better to be broken there than when you’re deploying.”

These collaborative efforts along with new regulations expected from the Federal Aviation Administration could open the door to a range of nonmilitary uses -- think about fish farming or agricultural mapping -- for unmanned systems here in the United States as well as overseas.

John Grady, former director of communications for the Association of the United States Army, is now retired and writes about defense and national security.

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