Drones Away

The peril and promise of unmanned aerial vehicles, at home and abroad

Most drones don’t kill. Instead, they like to watch. We usually think of the small, unmanned aerial vehicles in terms of grainy overhead shots of desert explosions, but less than 5 percent of the U.S. overseas drone arsenal consists of those lethal Predators and Reapers. The remainder are mostly Peeping Toms engaged in overhead reconnaissance and surveillance.

Drones particularly like to shoot video. Thousands upon thousands of hours of it, most of which will never be viewed by human eyes. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which analyzes much of the military’s drone footage, has more than 416,000 hours’ worth of it in digital storage, with more added all the time.

The military is planning for a future that relies more on drones than it does on manned planes. The next generation of jet fighters may be the last one with human beings in the cockpit. The next model of surveillance aircraft is already being designed as “pilot optional.”

But the military’s insatiable appetite for robot planes is no match for the market in domestic drones that’s poised for takeoff. A drone revolution is coming, and in only a few short years you’ll be able to look up and see it with your own eyes. In fact, you won’t be able to miss it. And it won’t be able to miss you.

Drones will take flight in a host of commercial industries, from agriculture to logistics. They’ll be deployed by SWAT teams, border patrol agents, and traffic cops. If you can imagine a task being performed right now with a set of human eyes, there’s probably a drone sitting on the runway waiting to do the job. Drones work without pay, don’t eat or sleep, and in the not-too-distant future they may be able to use solar power to stay aloft for hours. And they’ll do most of this work—taking off, gathering intelligence, transmitting signals, landing—entirely on their own.

This technological progress will come at a price. If you thought the debate over drones in combat was intense, wait until their flying eyes are on you around the clock. Profound moral dilemmas about privacy, profit, and autonomous machines await us. You won’t be able to escape the drones’ gaze. But maybe you won’t want to.

Domestic Drone Boom

There are about 6,700 unmanned aerial vehicles in the entire military fleet. If you take out the small hand-held Raven drones flown by the Army for surveillance and reconnaissance on the battlefield, that leaves about 1,300 robot planes. Only a fraction are armed for combat; most take pictures and a few haul gear.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimates that 20 years from now, there will be 30,000 drones airborne over the United States. Some of them will be as big as a Predator, about the size of a single-engine Cessna. But there will also be drones the size of hummingbirds, and probably even as small as moths.

If all goes according to current plan, the drone revolution will go fully airborne on September 30, 2015. By that day, the FAA is required by law to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles into national airspace. Until then, flying drones domestically for commercial reasons is totally off-limits.

The first for-profit applications will be in agriculture. Drones will take over crop dusting. (In Japan they already have.) With long-range cameras and precision sensors, including night vision and thermal imaging, they’ll monitor fields for waste-product runoff into waterways and track air pollution from industrial facilities. They’ll herd livestock, like aerial sheepdogs. Big agribusinesses will use drones to detect whether farmers are using their seeds without permission.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the de facto drone trade group, estimates that “precision agriculture and public safety” will account for about 90 percent of the new domestic drone market in its first few years of airspace. The public safety category includes federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, currently the main drone customers. To date, their flights have been beset by controversy, and there is a movement building to ground domestic police drones.

The private market hasn’t provoked such controversy, but that picture may look very different in 2020. Starting then, analysts predict, transportation companies will be using drones to deliver cargo—think UPS and FedEx planes without pilots. Traffic helicopters will be replaced by swarms of small hover-drones, probably weighing just a few pounds, that may be powered by solar energy to stay aloft for hours. Media organizations will use drones to cover breaking news. (Get ready for lots and lots of footage of high-speed chases.) These early adopters will be joined by the novel, mom-and-pop drones that have attracted much of the media attention to date, such as the famed prototypes for a TacoCopter and a Burrito Bomber.

Eventually, commercial aviation will consider going pilotless. If drones are good enough for UPS, why not U.S. Airways? Passenger trepidation may hold the airlines back, but the technology won’t. Many of the commercial planes you fly aboard today can already take off and land themselves. And of course they’re all equipped with an autopilot. Turning passenger jets into drones is no great feat of engineering, and it would save a fortune in pilot and air crew salaries.

The drone association estimates that the first three years of integration into national airspace will have an economic impact of more than $13.6 billion, made up of sales, good-paying manufacturing jobs, and a network of suppliers that will spring up to keep the aircraft fitted with ever-more sophisticated avionics, sensors, and assorted technical wonders. More than 70,000 jobs will be created over that time, the trade group predicts, increasing to 104,000 by 2025.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Chance the Droner: I like to watch.

  • Nazdrakke||

    I wonder, as they extol the economic boom of drone making, if anyone has attempted to study how much wealth will be destroyed when the whole country is under constant surveillance?

  • Jake W||

    The whole country? Constant surveillance?

    You mean like right now?

  • JWW||

    Good piece. Kind of unnerving that about 2/3 of the way through the piece the theme from Terminator popped into my head....

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