WASHINGTON -- A future in which unmanned drones are as common in U.S. skies as helicopters and airliners has moved a step closer to reality with a government request for proposals to create six drone test sites around the country.
The Federal Aviation Administration made the request Thursday, kicking off what is anticipated to be an intense competition between states hoping to win one of the sites.
Privacy advocates worry that a proliferation of drones will lead to a "surveillance society" in which the movements of Americans are routinely monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities.
The military has come to rely heavily on drones overseas. Now there is tremendous demand to use drones in the U.S. for all kinds of tasks that are too dirty, dull or dangerous for manned aircraft. Drones, which range from the size of a hummingbird to the high-flying Global Hawks that weigh about 15,000 pounds without fuel, also are often cheaper than manned aircraft. The biggest market is expected to be state and local police departments.
Industry experts predict the takeoff of a multibillion-dollar market for civilian drones as soon as the FAA completes regulations to make sure they don't pose a safety hazard to other aircraft.
Potential civilian users are as varied as the drones themselves. Power companies want them to monitor transmission lines. Farmers want to fly them over fields to detect which crops need water. Ranchers want them to count cows. Film companies want to use drones to help make movies. Journalists are exploring drones' newsgathering potential.
The FAA plans to begin integrating drones starting with small aircraft weighing less than about 55 pounds. The agency forecasts an estimated 10,000 civilian drones will be in use in the U.S. within five years.
The FAA is required by a law enacted a year ago to develop sites where civilian and military drones can be tested in preparation for integration into U.S. airspace that's currently limited to manned aircraft.
The law also requires that the FAA allow drones wide access to U.S. airspace by 2015, but the agency is behind schedule on that.
The test sites are planned to evaluate what requirements are needed to ensure the drones don't collide with planes or endanger people or property on the ground. Remotely controlled drones don't have a pilot who can see other aircraft the way an onboard plane or helicopter pilot can.
There's also concern that links between drones and their on-the-ground operators can be broken or hacked, causing the operator to lose control of the aircraft.
"This research will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation's skies," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.
The test sites are also expected to boost the local economy of the communities where they are located.
Customs and Border Patrol uses drones along the U.S.-Mexico border. And the FAA has granted several hundred permits to universities, police departments and other government agencies to use small, low-flying drones. For example, the sheriff's department in Montgomery County, Texas, has a 50-pound ShadowHawk helicopter drone intended to supplement its SWAT team.
The sheriff's department hasn't armed its drone, although the ShadowHawk can be equipped with a 40 mm grenade launcher and a 12-guage shotgun. The prospect of armed drones patrolling U.S. skies has alarmed some lawmakers and their constituents. More than a dozen bills have been introduced in Congress and state legislatures to curb drone use and protect privacy.
President Barack Obama was asked Thursday about concerns that the administration believes it's legal to strike American citizens abroad with drones and whether that's allowed against citizens in the U.S.
"There's never been a drone used on an American citizen on American soil," the president said, speaking during an online chat sponsored by Google in which he was promoting his policy initiatives.
"We respect and have a whole bunch of safeguards in terms of how we conduct counterterrorism operations outside of the United States. The rules outside of the United States are going to be different than the rules inside the United States, in part because our capacity, for example, to capture terrorists in the United States are very different than in the foothills or mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan."
He said he would work with Congress to make sure the American public understands "what the constraints are, what the legal parameters are, and that's something that I take very seriously."
Earlier this week, an FAA official told a meeting of potential test site bidders that aviation regulations prohibit dropping anything from an aircraft, which could be interpreted to bar arming civilian drones, according to an industry official present at the meeting who requested anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.
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Boeing Phantom Ray
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: Boeing's stealth Phantom Ray took to the skies for the <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2011/05/bds_phantom_ray_first_flight_05_04_11.html" target="_hplink">first time in April 2011</a>. According to Boeing, the <a href="http://www.boeing.com/advertising/bma/unmanned/unmanned_05.html" target="_hplink">Phantom Ray can perform missions</a> such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; suppression of enemy air defenses; and electronic attack. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Unknown. This is a "demonstrator" so there will likely be a future variation of the Ray.
General Atomics Predator Avenger
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems <a href="http://www.ga-asi.com/products/aircraft/predator_c.php" target="_hplink">Predator Avenger C</a> is a beast. According to the two-page brochure, the PAC is a "Next-Generation Multi-mission ISR and Strike Aircraft" and successor for the Predator B that can be stacked with a multitude of weaponry. <strong>Deployment</strong>: There is one <a href="http://www.aviationweek.com/aw/generic/story.jsp?topicName=unmanned&id=news/awst/2011/12/19/AW_12_19_2011_p25-406500.xml&headline=USAF Plans Larger, More Capable Predator&channel=&from=topicalreports" target="_hplink">demonstration craft currently in Afghanistan</a>.
SOCOM Mini Drone Of Doom
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S.) <strong>Description</strong>: Yo dawg, I heard you like drones so I <a href="http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/10/socom-warhead-drones/" target="_hplink">put a drone in your drone</a>. One small deadly warhead-equipped mini-drone stuffed into another, to be launched from the main drone and remotely aimed at a target. <strong> Potential Deployment</strong>: This <a href="http://defensenewsstand.com/NewsStand-General/The-INSIDER-Free-Article/socom-could-have-warhead-equipped-micro-uav-by-spring-2012/menu-id-720.html" target="_hplink">warhead-equiped micro-UAV</a> could be flown by SOCOM in the skies by spring 2012.
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (USA) <strong>Description</strong>: <a href="http://www.avinc.com/uas/adc/switchblade/" target="_hplink">AeroVironment's Switchblade</a> is meant to be a portable, rapid deployment, beyond line-of-sight, "loitering munition" that is a "magic bullet." A bit of advice, AeroVironment: Don't describe a remote-controlled bomb as a "loitering munition" that you call "Switchblade," as it conjures up images of 1950's-style greasers loitering on street corners, flipping open switchblades idly as they wait for their favorite gals. Luckily, greasers won't be in charge of flying Switchblades. They're to be controlled by infantry and <a href="http://www.defensenews.com/story.php?i=7982421&&s=TOP" target="_hplink">according to the AeroVironment</a>, "Flying quietly at high speed the Switchblade delivers its onboard explosive payload with precision while minimizing collateral damage." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Undisclosed.
<strong>Type</strong>: Surveillance (USA, DARPA Funded) <strong>Description</strong>: AeroVironment is at it again. In partnership with DARPA, they've actually managed to build a human mechanically engineered version of one of nature's most amazing flying machines: the hummingbird. The <a href="http://www.avinc.com/media_gallery/" target="_hplink">Nano Hummingbird</a> is a perfect bid for James Bond-esque style spy shenanigans. Once these hit the field, we'll never look at hummingbirds the same way. "Stop looking at me! That bird is following me!" <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Within five years.
Army A160 Hummingbird Drone
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Army) <strong>Description</strong>: Though the military's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/30/us-army-hummingbird-a160-helicopter-drone_n_1176763.html?ref=technology" target="_hplink">A160 Hummingbird drone</a> doesn't resemble an actual hummingbird so much as AeroVironment's take, it is <a href="http://www.salon.com/2011/12/06/nprs_domestic_drone_commercial/" target="_hplink">raising just as many alarms</a> because of its potential to be deployed on the U.S. home front. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: May or June 2012, Afghanistan
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Navy) <strong>Description</strong>: Northrop Grumman <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/mq8bfirescout_navy/index.html" target="_hplink">describes the Firescout</a> as a "Transformational Fire Scout Vertical Takeoff and Landing Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle system provides unprecedented situation awareness and precision targeting support for U.S. Armed Forces of the future. The MQ-8B Fire Scout has the ability to autonomously take off and land on any aviation-capable warship and at prepared and unprepared landing zones in proximity to the soldier in contact." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: <a href="http://www.irconnect.com/noc/press/pages/news_releases.html?d=237497" target="_hplink">March 2013</a>
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (German Ministry of Defense, purchased from Northrop Grumman) <strong>Description</strong>: NG touts its <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/euro_hawk/index.html" target="_hplink">Euro Hawk</a>, built for German Ministry of Defense, as having a "wingspan larger than a commercial airliner, endurance of more than 30 hours and a maximum altitude of more than 60,000 feet, EURO HAWK is an interoperable, modular and cost-effective replacement to the aging fleet of manned Breguet Atlantic aircraft, which have been in service since 1972 and will be retired in 2010." <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: 2015, 2016 (<a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/euro_hawk/assets/SIGINT_NewsRelease_101211.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>)
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (U.S. Navy) <strong>Description</strong>: A carrier-based combat drone, <a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/nucasx47b/index.html" target="_hplink">Northrop Grumman's futuristic X-47B</a> flew in its cruise configuration <a href="http://www.irconnect.com/noc/press/pages/news_releases.html?d=239278" target="_hplink">for the first time</a> on November 22, 2011. It can land with precision on the deck of a moving aircraft carrier, and features twin weapons payload bays that hold up to 4,500 lbs. (<a href="http://www.as.northropgrumman.com/products/nucasx47b/assets/X-47B_Navy_UCAS_FactSheet.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>). <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: <a href="http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/11/navy-killer-drone-refuel/" target="_hplink">2018</a>
<strong>Type</strong>: Military (British) <strong>Description</strong>: BAE System's Taranis (<a href="http://www.baesystems.com/BAEProd/groups/public/documents/bae_publication/bae_pdf_taranis_fact_sheet.pdf" target="_hplink">PDF</a>) is aiming to "Push the boundaries by providing advancements in low observability capability and autonomous mission systems operations demonstrating the feasibility and utility of UAVs." Such a statement starts to push the idea of fully autonomous flight from science fiction into science fact, though we're still a long way off from having an actual real debate on fully autonomous drones fighting our battles and flying our skies. Potential Deployment: TBD, test flights have been delayed to 2012.
Boeing Phantom Eye
<strong>Type</strong>: Communications <strong>Description</strong>: Boeing's hydrogen-powered <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2010/07/bds_feat_phantom_eye_07_12_10.html" target="_hplink">Phantom Eye</a> is a High Altitude Long Duration Craft designed to fly at <a href="http://www.boeing.com/Features/2011/11/bds_phantom_eye_11_16_11.html" target="_hplink">65,000 feet for up to four days</a>. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Unknown
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AVIATR: Drone To Fly Saturn's Moon
<strong>Type</strong>: Government Funded Space Exploration <strong>Description</strong>: While the proposal probably won't go through for this mission, this is an aerial drone we can really get behind. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/04/aviatr-probe-proposed-mission-titan_n_1184028.html" target="_hplink">AVIATR</a> would be a long distance drone that would fly the skies of Saturn's moon Titan. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Beyond 2020
Japan Defense Ministry Ball Drone
<strong>Type</strong>: Surveillance (Japan) <strong>Description</strong>: Techcrunch <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2011/10/25/video-japans-defense-ministry-develops-awesome-ball-shaped-drone/" target="_hplink">tells us</a> that the drone can "stand still in mid-air, fly vertically and horizontally through narrow spaces at up to 60km/h, and (which is very cool) keep on moving when it hits the ground or a wall. Thanks to three gyro sensors in its body, the machine can keep also flying even if it's hit by an obstacle." And all for only $1,400. <strong>Potential Deployment</strong>: Undisclosed