The term “drone” conjures the image of some dystopian future, where hovering machines track citizens’ every move.
Drones—or unmanned aerial vehicles—aren’t science fiction, though. UAV are used by the federal government already, and they may become a lot more ubiquitous.
Congress has mandated UAV be incorporated into national air space fully by Sept. 30, 2015, and some estimates have as many as 30,000 drones airborne in the next decade. The Federal Aviation Administration may begin testing UAV in New Jersey as early as this summer. State assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Hamilton) has even introduced a bill to prepare for UAV’s arrival, setting guidelines for governmental use of drones in New Jersey.
UAV—any aircraft without an on-board pilot—are controlled either autonomously by on-board computers or via remote control by a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle. When broken down into their most basic form, UAV merely are platforms with a sensor on it, said Adam Greco, a senior adjunct professor who teaches a course on UAV at Atlantic Cape Community College. It’s the uses for these platforms that has government agencies high on their potential, and has some citizens concerned about the possible privacy issues this potential creates.
Drones can be equipped with infrared or radar systems, biosensors that can detect the presence of microorganisms in the air and systems that allow units to fly through hurricanes and gather data. The military has used drones to find and track terrorists, and federal agencies have UAVs for everything from fighting forest fires to monitoring U.S. borders.
The same system that could be used to spy on terrorists—or citizens—could also help search-and-rescue teams find victims during a natural disaster. While questions have been raised about the technology, whether UAV will be used more in the near future isn’t one of them.
“It’s happening,” Greco said. “The applications are honest. They will be profitable.”
Aerospace and defense analyst Teal Group predicts the market for UAV will more than double during the next decade, earning $89 billion in the next 10 years. It’s a broad category—within the UAV classification could be anything from a 4-pound, hand-launched unit called SkySeer to the more-familiar Predator, a 10,000-pound drone that needs a runway. SkySeer can fly for 50 minutes at a time, and has a maximum speed of roughly 27 mph. Predator—which has been used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan—can stay in the air for 30 hours, at a top speed of more than 250 mph.
In late December 2013, the FAA helped the UAV market take a step forward, naming six “test site operators” across the country that will help the FAA integrate UAV safely into American airspace. One of the operators, Virginia Tech, has stated its intention to do some of its research in New Jersey.
Commercial applications—think Amazon deliveries—won’t be widespread for at least a few more years, once UAV are fully integrated into national air space and have shed other operational issues. UAV lack the ability to sense and avoid other objects in its path, and have been known to crash. There are other questions the FAA needs to answer before use becomes widespread, such as, “What if the UAV loses the remote link to its on-the-ground pilot?”
Yet, the federal government has been using drones for several years now. In a May 2008 report, the Government Accountability Office said federal agencies had used UAV for missions ranging from forest fire monitoring to border security, and hoped to expand their use of the technology. In the Air Force, there are more remote pilots being trained than fighter and bomber pilots, Greco said.
State and local governments also had expressed interest in using UAV for law enforcement and firefighting, according to the GAO report. The report said state and local agencies would use small UAV models, such as a hand-deployed drone that could assist at crime or wildfire scenes.
And local agencies have found reasons to borrow the technology more and more. Between 2010 and 2012, U.S. Customs and Border Protection loaned Predator drones to other agencies 700 times, according to documents obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and released last month. This number included 49 separate uses by unnamed local and county law enforcement agencies; their names had been redacted and their locations withheld.
Statistics like those worried Benson enough to co-sponsor a bill in the Assembly. The bill passed near unanimously in the Assembly and Senate during the legislative period that ended Jan. 13. It died on Gov. Chris Christie’s desk—the governor never acted on the measure—and will have to be voted on again. Benson reintroduced the bill in mid-January, when the Assembly’s new session began.
The bill would prohibit law enforcement in New Jersey from utilizing a drone unless an agency’s chief law enforcement officer has reason to believe the information that could be obtained by a drone would be relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation. Any information collected by UAV that is unrelated to an investigation would have be to destroyed within 14 days. It would allow agencies to use UAV for search-and-rescue missions, and for surveying or monitoring forest or other types of fires. It outlaws using a drone for crowd control or equipping one with anything that could be used as a weapon.
Benson wasn’t aware of any agency using UAV in New Jersey currently, but said he introduced the bill to ready the state for what’s coming.
“This is going to happen in the near future,” Benson said. “There’s definitely an interest. We want to make sure there are proper safeguards in place.”
Who those safeguards will guide remains to be seen. Officials from Ewing, Hamilton and Robbinsville declined or did not respond to requests for comment. The Mercer County Sheriff’s Office released a statement saying it has no plans even to consider the use of drones.
“The idea of utilizing a drone for county law enforcement is not fathomable in our long-range operational plans,” the statement said. “However, we applaud Assemblyman Dan Benson for his foresight to balance law enforcement investigation needs and the necessity to protect public privacy.”
While law enforcement agencies in places like Florida have used handheld UAV before, the New Jersey State Police also have not used UAV yet. The agency has looked at the technology, spokesman Lt. Stephen Jones said, but wants more clarity from the Attorney General’s guidelines before exploring how it would use drones.
“There’s no need at this point,” Jones said. “We don’t want to put the cart before the horse. It wouldn’t make sense to look at potential uses until the guidelines are clearer.”
Benson guessed law enforcement would initially use UAV as a traffic monitoring tool. A Monmouth University poll conducted in June 2012 found 67 percent of Americans opposed the idea of using drones to issue speeding tickets. The same respondents, however, supported the use of UAV in search-and-rescue missions (80 percent), finding runaway criminals (67 percent) and controlling illegal immigration (64 percent).
The poll also found that nearly 2-in-3 Americans had at least some concerns that drones would violate their privacy. Greco said it is fair for people to worry.
“I don’t think it’s unfounded,” he said. “I’m not an ACLU kind of guy, but I do see legitimate concerns about obtaining people’s information. Recent events with the NSA and Edward Snowden show it’s not theoretical at all. There are definitely 4th Amendment concerns.”
But for every potential abuse is a potential benefit. UAV could also be used to establish and maintain communications during a disaster or other times when the infrastructure doesn’t work. The May 2008 GAO report cited the hours following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as an example of a time when UAV could have helped rescue efforts.
Bordentown Township emergency management coordinator Andrew Law said since UAV can fly in poor conditions for a sustained period of time and cover large areas, they would allow first responders to determine quickly the extent and cost of damage during a natural disaster.
“I wonder what would be if we had drones with Hurricane Katrina,” Law said. “When they’re equipped with an infrared system, you can identify victims who need help.”
The technology would have been beneficial in New Jersey during hurricanes Irene and Sandy, Law said, especially in the first 24 hours when crews are trying to locate people. Drones would be used mostly when there is a lack of mobility or you need real-time information about hazardous materials or conditions, he said.
Law said any type of UAV program would have to be run by the state police or National Guard; it would make more sense for municipalities to borrow an UAV during an emergency than to purchase one for infrequent use. There are enough first responders and communication systems in Central New Jersey to handle most situations without UAV, he said.
But that doesn’t mean he’s against the technology.
“Any tool the Office of Emergency Management, state police and county can have available to them to make real time decisions, it would be beneficial,” Law said. “If it’s another tool, why not use it?”
In the end, the success of UAV may depend on how quickly citizens warm to the technology. Commercial airlines could have the capability to pilot their flights remotely one day, Greco said. Whether they adopt the method depends on customers’ comfort with the prospect of it.
That’s a long way off, but UAV technology isn’t. People and agencies across the country are bracing for its mainstream arrival.
“It opens up a lot of possibilities,” Greco said. “It’s robotics; it’s technology. It all comes down to how people deal with cultural shock.”