Alejandro Freixes
Apr 10, 2012

FAA legalizing UAVs in civilian airspace: Flying robocop drones patrolling the neighborhood?

A simulation screenshot of a bumblebee-sized micro air vehicle proposed by the US Air Force in 2008Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technologies have advanced tremendously thanks to their successful development and use in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These machines, which are often piloted remotely, reduce the risk that a pilot might otherwise face in conducting reconnaissance or combat missions -- they also offer a more stealthy means of conducting military operations. Due to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, UAVs have been highly limited when it comes to their use in civilian airspace. However, the FAA is now seeking public input concerning a law that was discretely signed into the FAA's 2012 funding bill on February 14; the law could see UAVs being used by law enforcement and emergency responders as soon as May of this year. The FAA expects to finalize the rules for licensing commercial and civilian UAVs into national airspace by September of 2015. 

A micro air vehicle (MAV) flies over a simulated combat area during an operational test flightWhile it's highly unlikely that we would see the famed and deadly predator drones soaring above freeway traffic or circling skyscrapers, the implications for such technology being legalized offer much food for thought. Critics may lament their potential use as government surveillance devices and the potential intrusions on our privacy, especially considering how small the UAVs can be designed -- like micro air vehicles (MAVs) -- but the benefits to law enforcement and emergency services far outweigh these concerns. Given that the FAA recently began seeking public input on potential test sites for this tech and is today hosting a Webinar concerning, "FAA Modernization & Reform Act of 2012 and the Request for Comment," their transparent dialogue bodes well for even the most paranoid privacy advocate. 

As far as artificial intelligence sophistication, the UAVs that could potentially patrol civilian skies will likely still be heavily controlled by humans -- so don't expect to see swarms of self-piloted drones executing their own decisions anytime soon. However, police and medical choppers may see integration akin to the Apache's ability to wield pilot-controlled drones. Or, imagine the sort of modern advances in firefighting robotics created by Naval Research Laboratory being integrated into drones that are launched from helicopters to put out forest fires and enter structurally unstable buildings too dangerous for human operators. Even police units can make more informed decisions in hostage crises or when approaching potentially armed suspects by first obtaining video and sound data that could save lives. Bomb squads and biohazard units can rapidly obtain crucial information before taking action that would otherwise jeopardize human life. Also, apparently pirates are already being hunted down by Navy robocopters!

A drone equipped with cameras and sensors flies over a simulation of a contaminated area during a training exercise simulating a nuclear accident following an earthquake in the region of the nuclear site of CadaracheConsidering how some UAVs are being outfitted by Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) with user interface controls akin to mobile apps, there just may be a future recreational use for UAVs and MAVs. Fetching newspapers, chasing away bothersome neighborhood dogs, fixing the satellite on the roof or having aerial robo battles with friends in the park may not be too much of a stretch. Given the 'Hunger Games' styled arena testings conducted as part of the Naval Research Laboratory's new Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR) facility, a high-tech sport may be born that could one day draw geeks worldwide to compete in robotic gladiator combat. It won't be long before a collaboration similar to Microsoft and West Coast Customs dreams up a wild integration of UAVs into automobiles or flying cars like the Terrafugia Transition -- hit a button and have some nanobots pop out of a compartment to wash your car or scout ahead for traffic shortcuts.

While it is entertaining to speculate on Hollywood movie situations where unmanned aerial vehicles and robots take over mankind, or where government forces subjugate the masses with technology, such speculation is counterproductive to say the least. Advances in UAVs will not grind to a halt and their increased use in civilian airspace is inevitable, so while the FAA is offering opportunities for the public to get plugged in and involved, we should begin consuming as much information as possible. After all, when that drone is buzzing about your neighborhood in the coming years, wouldn't you like to have offered some input on the protocols its human controllers must follow? After all, a man in North Dakota was arrested a few months ago using evidence from a predator drone and vows to fight the SWAT team's use of drone evidence when he is scheduled to appear in court April 30.