One Nation Under Drones

Imagine: you’re on an uneventful final descent into your local metropolitan airport when suddenly the pilot makes a violent lurch to the left. The captain’s voice comes over the loudspeaker with an apology for the turbulence. “Sorry folks,” she says, “all OK up here, but we had to swerve to avoid an ‘agricultural drone’ that drifted off course from its assigned soy bean fields. We should be clear from here on out.”

Sound far-fetched? It’s not. On March 4, 2013, as an Alitalia pilot brought his plane into its final descent at New York’s busy John F. Kennedy Airport, a three-foot-long unmanned vehicle flew within two hundred feet of his Boeing 777. The small black drone appeared to be what the industry calls a quadcopter, a widely available remote controlled aircraft popular among hobbyists and law enforcement with the range of a conventional model aircraft on steroids and the capability to fly into a passenger jet’s flight-path. The incident ended without much fanfare, but it was a hint of some of the nightmare scenarios that led Congress in 2012 to instruct the Federal Aviation Agency devise a plan to integrate commercial and governmental drones into US civilian airspace by 2015.

For the FAA, it is a very unenviable task. Deep-pocketed lobbyists for motion pictures, energy, and industrial agriculture want commercial drones legalized for their clients. Aerospace manufacturers and giant military-industrial complex companies like Raytheon and Northrop Grumman see civilian drones as a potential moneymaker. Their desires stand in contrast to the public, which is generally ambivalent about the idea of unmanned, camera-equipped aircraft flying above them—and to legislators, who see civilian drones as a hot-button election issue.

It hasn’t been easy. It hasn’t been fast. But there is no more time to wait. The technology behind unmanned drones has migrated from foreign battle zones to the shores of the United States, and is being adapted to civilian and domestic law enforcement uses. Whether they are called drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or unmanned aerial systems (UASes), camera-equipped unmanned aircraft are here to stay.

When most of us think of drones, we imagine the discomforting idea of unmanned aircraft used for targeted killing in the Middle East and South Asia. But component miniaturization and increased battery life, as well as a rapid reduction in the price of production, mean that drones will soon be flying around your community, snapping photos, taking a video, or aiding local farmers. Log on now and see: A quadcopter with GPS and camera capabilities can be purchased at Barnes and Noble or Amazon for under $1000. The line between model aircraft, remote control aircraft, and drones has blurred. That ambiguity has spurred both anxiety and innovation: Drones might have made their names as tools of war, but now American industries want to use the same technology for peace and profit.

Nicholas Goepper of the United States is followed by a drone camera during the men’s ski slopestyle final at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park, at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia.
(AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Problem is: the skies are packed. And there is no easy path to integrating these unmanned aircraft into the American airspace. The FAA now has to figure out everything from preventing drones from crashing into each other to teaching human pilots how to share a suddenly saturated airspace. And while the agency is still testing and deliberating, businesses are already using these aircraft.

Even the most conservative estimates predict that in the next five to ten years we will see vastly more crowded skies with many small – and some not so small – flying vehicles without the pilots we normally rely on to make quick decisions to evade other craft. This means weighing the specific logistical problems of small UAVs piloted in the operator’s line-of-sight, and those very far from their operator – longer distance drones designed for, say, multiple flyovers of an oil pipeline to detect leaks. The military-industrial complex’s big shots see this as a major profit center, as do large corporations who could save huge sums of money by adopting UAVs. They are also safety hazards, and potential pitfalls for everyone else in the air.

Since Congress ordered the FAA to find a way to integrate UAVs into American airspace, the agency has been working on just that.

In a public statement issued in November of 2013, FAA administrator Michael P. Huerta said that “Since safety is our top priority, UAS integration must be accomplished without reducing existing capacity, decreasing safety, impacting current operators, or placing other airspace users or persons and property on the ground at increased risk. We have made great progress in accommodating public UAS operations, but challenges remain for the safe, long-term integration of both public and civil UAS in the NAS.”

The task for the aviation agency is gargantuan: Millions of scenarios have to be parsed, air traffic control records need to be analyzed, and the concerns of drone manufacturers, commercial uses, manned aircraft pilots, airports, and (last but not least) the general public – drones have the extra bonus of being zippy peeping toms – all have to be analyzed and weighed against each other. The end results are likely to please no one.

Who needs a drone anyway?

Consider this: One day in March 2014, Judge Patrick Geraghty, a National Transportation Safety Board administrative judge and a licensed pilot and flight instructor, heard an unusual case – an appeal from Swiss filmmaker Raphael Pirker, keen to use drones in his work. Back in 2011, the FAA fined Pirker $10,000 for flying a unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for commercial use. Pirker, part of an aerial photography collective called Team BlackSheep, used a customized UAV to shoot a publicity video for the University of Virginia Medical School. But though FAA rules issued in 2007 seemed to make Pirkner’s toy illegal, Geraghty ruled in favor of Pirkner, overturning his fine, and setting the stage, at least for the moment, for legalized commercial drone use in the United States.

Geraghty argued that Pirker’s aerial vehicle was in fact a model aircraft and not a UAV. To the lay person that might seem like semantics, but according to Geraghty’s logic, model aircraft were not included in the 2012 Congressional legislation asking the FAA to integrate UAVs into American airspace. So Pirker’s use of an unmanned vehicle to shoot a commercial—and, by extension, the use of unmanned vehicles by others for the same purpose—is legal. But there’s one factor significantly complicating things: Noone knows exactly where the line between UAVs and model aircrafts lies. With Pirker, the door to casual drone use cracked open just a little wider.

The University of Virginia shoot was the first time anyone had been fined in the United States for commercial use of a UAV. But Pirker was hardly the first filmmaker, or even nonmilitary contractor, to use a drone for film.

The motion picture industry sees camera-equipped UAVs as a safe and inexpensive replacement for cranes or helicopters for aerial shots. You’ve probably seen a film already aided by UAVs: the Washington Post‘s Brian Fung previously uncovered the use of drones for aerial footage in “Oblivion,” “Man of Steel,” “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” “The Hunger Games,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” and “Iron Man 3.”

Likewise, industrial agriculture is excited by the idea of small, long-battery life UAVs outfitted with moisture and heat sensors to track real-time productivity over wide swaths of farmland. Real estate firms and surveyors salivate over aerial surveying via UAV. Energy companies can equip UAVs with sensors for pipeline overflies to detect small leaks or blockages in real time. Environmental scientists are excited about chemical sensors for wetlands analysis that can save significant amounts of cash. Further afield, large corporations like UPS and FedEx dream of the day when cargo jets can be flown autonomously, saving massive sums of money (and causing future employment issues for commercial pilots).

All these interested parties are hobbled by one big problem: For the average American, the word ‘drones’ conjures imagines of armed Predators or Reapers. Although the FAA, aerospace enthusiasts, engineers, and scientists are more obsessed by unmanned aircraft’s commercial potential, drones are still associated with war, killing and ubiquitous surveillance.

Which leads us to the FAA’s other problem: privacy. “Privacy concerns are huge here in the United States,” Tim Ravich, a Florida aviation lawyer who maintains a popular blog on UAVs and the law told Talking Points Memo. “Lawmakers and constituents are almost panicked that drones—a word which sounds almost sinister–are in widespread use. This complicates things for the FAA, which does not have jurisdiction or institutional competency to make laws and regulations around the issue of privacy.” Legislators, the general public, and many aviators are profoundly uncomfortable with the notion of flying cameras in the sky. And, needless to say, the military-industrial complex and the American public have very different definitions and expectation of privacy.

This Feb. 17, 2014 photo shows a remote controlled model aircraft flying over the Washington Nationals spring training baseball workout in Viera, Fla.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International is a Virginia-based lobbying group that serves as a joint advocate for UAVs in the defense, civil, and commercial sectors. At a recent appearance at a New York University drone conference, AUVSI head Michael Toscano jokingly referred to what he called the “D word” while extolling the benefits of UAVs for business. Indeed the organization officially prefers the term UAS, “Unmanned Aerial Systems” to “drones” – Toscano spoke reverentially of UASs – as a peaceful innovation that could contribute as much to society as smartphones, or cars. To prove his point, Toscano highlighted the benefits of UAVs for agriculture.

“There are about seven billion people in the world today,” Toscano said. “By the year 2050 there will be nine billion. This is a net increase of 2 billion people, and there is not enough food to feed everybody. We need precision agriculture. We estimate that 70% of UAVs will eventually be used for precision agriculture, and it’s ideal from a safety standpoint. When you have hundreds of thousands of acres and not a lot of human beings, it all comes down to the fact that corn doesn’t mind a whole lot if you watch it. You don’t have the safety issue or the privacy issue—the two biggest factors right now facing UASes.”

Toscano’s argument, of course, elides the concern that UAVs badly flown or with mechanical problems can pose massive safety risks. Glossed over, as well, was the niggling issue that few people want to live in a world where a private investigator can track targets with a UAV or a paparazzi can discreetly rest a camera-equipped mini-drone on a starlet’s windowsill. If they haven’t happened already, these scenarios are likely to happen in the future.

Industry representatives like the AUVSI are engaged in a charm offensive to sell both a skeptical Capitol Hill and a public that is at best amused and at worst hostile to the virtues of omnipresent commercial drones.

AUVSI is the loudest public voice speaking up for commercial drone users on Capitol Hill and at state capitols nationwide. But it’s hardly the only one – other organizations have done quite a bit of lobbying themselves. In both 2012 and 2013 the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) lobbied the FAA to let filmmakers fly unmanned aircraft for commercial use in American airspace. MPAA wants aerial photography for Hollywood films. MPAA spokesperson Howard Gantman told the trade publication The Wrap that “What we are looking for is line-of-sight things that can be utilized in innovative ways, these could be used much more safely than going up a tree and much more cheaply than renting a helicopter.”

But Hollywood hasn’t waited for a green light. Due to the legal gray area that small UAVs are in, filmmakers have begun, occasionally and quietly, making one-time deals with local law enforcement to use them. They have also been used for aerial shots in countries with laxer commercial regulations than the United States.

In addition to the MPAA, agriculture giant Monsanto has been active in lobbying for commercial drone use on Capitol Hill. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Monsanto spent $6.9 million on lobbying in 2013; part of that money was used to petition for the legal use of drones for precision agriculture. Agricultural industry trade publications are full of articles praising the virtue of commercial UAVs for purposes such as surveying crop damage, identifying infestations from the air, and detecting oil damage using sophisticated sensors. While these uses are all technically legal since the March NTSB ruling, very few farmers have deployed them yet due to both the (currently) high cost and unsure legal repercussions if the FAA changes course.

“We estimate that 70% of UAVs will eventually be used for precision agriculture, and it’s ideal from a safety standpoint.”

Monsanto has a direct commercial stake in the legalization of UAVs for commercial use; in 2008, the company purchased EarthMap Solutions, a Colorado-based company which built aerial detection tools for agricultural use as part of a larger foray into data science that also included the purchase of weather prediction outfit Climate Corporation and GPS-centric agriculture firm Precision Planting.

“The FAA needs to regulate rule making for small unmanned aircraft, otherwise the industry will form rules itself,” says AUVSI general counsel Ben Gielow. “People will fly either unknowingly or willingly breaking rules, and we’re concerned that if more people do this it creates an unsafe airspace that without any perimeters or guidelines, will be a wild west.”

As lobbyists continue to argue that drone use – present and anticipated – should be seen as nothing other than a halcyonic future filled with benefit, the FAA scrambles to retrain air traffic controllers, write new protocol for air traffic control, plan for different types of UAVs (should a low-cost, short-battery life quadcopter be treated differently from a small unmanned airplane, for instance?), determine whether UAV pilots need to be licensed, establishing technological benchmarks for UAVs, and establish protocols for picking up UAVs once they land. Add to that list the disconcerting fact that there is currently no license or training required to use a UAV – anyone can go online and buy an unmanned flying machine that can rise to 500 feet in the air. Unsurprisingly, those buyers scare the hell out of the agency.


One of the biggest challenges the FAA faces is developing what’s called a sense-and-avoid protocol that will work for the wide variety of unmanned aircraft already in American airspace. At the very least, this means each aircraft will automatically sense the trajectory of others in the nearby sky, keep track of each UAV’s physical location, and teach devices to change speed or velocity in order to avoid collisions. These tasks are complicated by the fact that changes in weather or quirks of local air traffic control could very well disrupt the algorithms a UAV uses. Military UAV giant General Atomics claims to have successfully tested sense-and-avoid systems comprised of an integrated radar, transponder and traffic alert system; most experts believe any protocol adopted by the FAA will be along similar lines.

But right now there are no rules in place for spacing drones apart in the air: If, say, a filmmaker wants to use multiple UAVs over a half-mile radius for shooting an action scene, there is no federally mandated plan for them to follow. The FAA is further concerned that lack of regulation for UAV manufacturers can lead to systems with poor flight-worthiness or control systems being put into the air: No one wants to see a 25mph UAV with fast-moving rotors tearing into a crowd of bystanders thanks to a remote control system that was poorly designed or manufactured.

Further: UAVs currently available for purchase in the United States have no benchmarks or common safety standards for what sort of GPS integration is built-in; the primary motivating factor, it seems, is the UAV manufacturer’s wish to maintain a good brand reputation, avoid litigation, and avoid harm arising from their vehicles. While most drones used in the United States have GPS capabilities, they range from simple beacons which let UAVs auto-return to their launch site to complicated autopilot systems that let pilot’s program itineraries and detailed instructions into a UAV. Part of the FAA’s role is determining what the bare minimum should be for GPS capabilities in unmanned vehicles and then figuring out and mitigating all of the many safety problems that could come from UAVs flying along pre-programmed flight paths.

When puzzling over the requirements for GPS and sense-and-avoid, the FAA has to also consider thousands of scenarios: Monitoring wheat crops in the open plains of North Dakota is far different from Hollywood aerial photography at a location near LAX flightpaths, which differs markedly from law enforcement flying UAVs over small midwestern cities looking for telltale heat signatures from indoor marijuana growth.

So-called “Sense and avoid” technology is at the center of the FAA’s planning. But the vast majority of unmanned aircraft in the skies today, whether armed military drones or recreational quadracopters, simply don’t have the technological capability to automatically detect nearby aircraft and change course to avoid collision. Because many of the UAVs expected to operate in American airspace will fly out of the operator’s line of site, this creates acute safety challenges for the FAA to evaluate. So far that’s mostly a theoretical challenge: as of 2013, there are approximately .5 midair collisions for every 1 million flight hours. But there have been several worrying near-misses by UAVs with other aircraft. FAA administrators are working with researchers to figure out whether cameras, radar, or some as-yet-unidentified solution are the best to integrate into the future drones of American airspace.

“The FAA needs to regulate rule making for small unmanned aircraft, otherwise the industry will form rules itself.”

In order to figure out the best auto-avoid technology for UAVs, the FAA is placing unmanned aircraft in a matrix that separates them by weight, with 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds) being the dividing line. The agency and their researchers then further separate the UAVs into two different groups, depending on whether they operate in the pilot’s line of sight or not. These are then studied intensively, using huge data sets, to see which of several evasion technologies are the most applicable.

The chief problem for the FAA in figuring out the best way to create drone avoidance systems is that they’re sorting through a massive amount of data.

In one case study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers generated an astounding 2.5 terabytes of air-to-air and ground-to-air imagery from a Pennsylvania regional airport. A team led by robotics scientists Sanjiv Singh and Debadeepta Dey manually verified approximately 2 terabytes of data from that set, which repeatedly flew a Piper Archer II on autopilot in passes over the airport while the plane was tracked from the ground. Information from the plane was then cross-compared with GPS records and a variety of other data points; after the exhaustive analysis, Singh’s team obtained a detection rate for the UAV of 99.7% up to 3.5 miles and 96.1% up to 4.5 miles.

It’s an exhaustive process where mistakes can not only cost the aviation industry huge sums of money, but also cost innocent lives. Many other countries are dealing with the same worries surrounding commercial UAVs; the European Union, for instance, instead decided in 2006 to incrementally integrate UAVs into their airspace.

An unmanned aircraft system police drone from the Berlin Police during a press demonstration in Berlin, Germany, 19 May 2014.
(AP Images/Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture-alliance/dpa)

“We’re looking, specifically, at what happens when the manned pilot is separate from the airplane and is located on the ground,” explains aerospace industry engineering veteran Jim Blanchard. Blanchard is a volunteer expert helping the FAA figure out ways to safely merge UAVs into American airspace. He runs the UAS Academy, which offers courses and workshops designed for cross-fertilization between UAV commercial interests and interested amateurs. “I have a feeling that what we’ll see in detect-and-avoid for UAVs is required technology if you’re in airspace that has other aircraft—and I don’t expect to see rules and framework for that until mid- to late 2015.”


The path to safer, UAV filled skies has not run smooth. The FAA has offered the occasional public hearing, but the bulk of debate has taken place behind closed doors. As is, the “roadmap,” as it is, unironically, called, is being written behind schedule; the congressionally mandated September 2015 deadline for developing a UAV protocol is, as of this writing, an ambitious at best. In the meantime, the FAA has given permits to 80 law enforcement agencies and several hundred educational institutions and hobbyist groups to test out UAVs. Several UAV manufacturers, such as Aeryon, are already actively marketing to law enforcement, hoping to cash in on these early experimentation windows.

Likewise, at several sites around the country, local politicians and bureaucrats are determined to make sure their communities dominate the commercial UAV game. The money making potential is big, to be sure, but without safety measures in place, the gamble is even bigger.

The first phase of the UAV commercial game is quietly being plotted out at six, geographically disparate, university-based field-labs, where the FAA plots out the thorniest logistics of UAV use.

The University of Alaska, at Fairbanks, is a school with an extensive science background that’s also located in a sparsely populated area – a perfect set up for trying out a potentially dangerous air toy. The school is one of the FAA’s first national test sites for UAVs in civilian airspace. Alaska joins Nevada, New York, Texas, North Dakota, and Virginia, each of which will conduct a range of drone experiments, imagining the use of UAV by American consumers and government agencies alike.

The Alaska Center for Unmanned Systems Integration facility is working on a number of unique pilot projects that span the potential for drone use – including search and rescue missions, monitoring of wildfires, tracking wild salmon, and inspection of oil pipelines. Similarly, the partners on the experiments reflect the range of parties with strong self interest: the United States Army and oil behemoth BP (See the video below).

An AUVSI study estimated the economic benefits to Alaska from the UAV test site will bring in $19 million to the state between 2015 to 2017.

On April 21, commercial drone testing began for the first time at a North Dakota State University site (NDSU) in Carrington, ND. The FAA gave a team at NDSU legal authorization to test a Draganflyer-brand quadcopter equipped with soil monitoring and infrared camera equipment. Draganflyer quadcopters are already used for law enforcement purposes, with FAA permission, by the Grand Forks’ Sheriffs Department in North Dakota.

Testing in New York is taking place at Griffiss International Airport, located in the struggling upstate city of Rome. The FAA says that the Griffiss team will focus primarily on developing test and evaluation protocols for unmanned aircraft, as well as figuring out ways for UAVs to operate in the crowded airspace of the Northeast corridor. At the other end of that corridor, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has been tasked with UAV failure mode testing and emergency technology development at test sites in both Virginia and New Jersey.

The rest of the UAV testing facilities are working on projects as diverse as air traffic control protocols, if and how to license drone operators, and safety requirements. According to the agency, the sites were chosen to achieve “cross-country geographic and climatic diversity.”


Small, unmanned aircraft stand on the verge of a commercial revolution. The low price of camera-equipped unmanned vehicles means massive shifts in the economics of any industry or business that requires aerial photography or monitoring—everything from motion pictures to land surveying to agriculture to logging and even energy. It also introduces, in an important way, equally massive new revenue streams for the military-industrial complex. Since the turn of the millennium, large government contractors such as General Atomics, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman have taken the lead in developing unmanned aerial technology. Although there are many small recreational UAV manufacturers, in the drone sphere, they’re simply dwarfed in sheer cash and resources by military contractors.

Money is obvious. Safety is less so. And the FAA is rightly, though sluggishly, concerned by how to protect the already crowded skies from an influx of unmanned vehicular traffic.

The market for small consumer UAVs is expected to reach $582.2 million by 2019.

We are in the last window to make drones compatible with our crowded skies: Commercial operators of UAVs at the moment are largely limited to farmers looking to experiment with new methods, filmmakers, photographers, and hobbyists from a wide variety of industries. Despite the vigorous lobbying of AUVSI, the MPAA, Monsanto, and all the other organizations who have petitioned Congress and the FAA, there’s one hold up to sending up more drones: The technology for omnipresent commercial drones just aren’t here yet.

Cheap, commercially available UAVs are at the stages of the Apple II and Commodore 64: Ready obtainable, but hard to use in the workplace and mainly adopted by hobbyists. The efforts of lobbyists are focused on five years from now and ten years from now. But that time will pass quickly. In the wings await all those who stand to benefit, monetarily, or otherwise, from unmanned aircraft collecting information. As they send more and more ‘toy’ planes into the air, those jets that are manned will be increasingly at risk. In the meantime, cross your fingers and hope there’s some way to get these “sense of avoid” systems to work.