Unmanned aircraft morphing way beyond military role

Automated unmanned helicopters and other flying aircraft, whose current roles are mostly in the military, will be used to track everything from traffic congestion to forest fires. 

South Dakota recently used small  automated helicopters to scan the safety of dirt roads in rural areas. South Dakota State University ran the test that flew the copter low over three short sections of road known to have loose gravel, washboarding and potholes.  

The University team was able to show that even using low-resolution video images, a computer can be "trained" to recognize damaged roads. That proof of concept frees up a grant from the federal Department of Transportation for a further two-year study.The early test is promising, though many technical hurdles remain, said Chunsun Zhang, a remote sensing scientist at South Dakota State University told the Argusleader.com. The group plans to buy a higher-resolution camera and global positioning system to refine their image analysis. If the system proves feasible and affordable, UAVs might become a standard way to patrol for damaged or unsafe roads, he said.

Indeed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as they are known are becoming smaller and less expensive. That notion has sparked myriad research into how they can best be used. Some of these aircraft are small enough to be launched from a pickup truck but still large enough to be equipped with cameras and sensors that can provide low-cost aerial information. 

For example, The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), is looking at a UAV for data collection and aerial surveillance in difficult geographic locations as well as part of its avalanche control program and search and rescue operations. The University of Florida has been toying with a traffic surveillance system using unmanned aircraft as well.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department thinks UAV’s will be useful for traffic watching but also as a crime fighter.  The sheriff’s department has been experimenting with a number of helicopters for just that application. And according to a recent Wired article, police in Gaston County, North Carolina, said they would use a drone to find drug fields and keep large community events peaceful. Sheriff's officials in Charles County, Maryland, tested an unmanned plane while monitoring a gathering of bikers.

However, the growing use of UAVs is causing a number of concerns, according to an article in The Economist today. The first is safety. Last month America's National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) completed its first-ever investigation into an unmanned-aircraft accident. Pilot error was blamed for the crash in Arizona in April 2006 of a 10,000lb Predator B, the type of UAV used by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was being operated by Customs and Border Protection when its engine was accidentally turned off by the team piloting it from a control room at an army base. No one was hurt, but the NTSB issued 22 recommendations to address what Mark Rosenker, its chairman, described as “a wide range of safety issues involving the civilian use of unmanned aircraft.” 

The second concern is privacy. UAVs can peek much more easily and cheaply than satellites and fixed cameras can. It can get closer to its target, move to new locations faster and hover almost silently above a property or outside a window. And the tiny ones that are coming will be able to fly inside buildings. Before long paparazzi will put cameras in them to snatch pictures of celebrities, the Economist article stated.  

To date most of the UAV effort has been focused on the military.  In fact just this week the US Air Force said its satellite-controlled unmanned Reaper aircraft has made its first precision bomb strike in Afghanistan.  The strike was launched Nov. 7 from the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The remote pilot released two 500-pound laser-guided bombs, destroying the target and eliminating the enemy fighters, the Air Force said.   

Other craft such as the RoboSwift are being explored for use in intelligence gathering.  The RoboSwift can sweep its wings back and forth, changing the shape and the wing's surface area. The idea is to make the aircraft fly more efficiently than fixed-wing aircraft. DARPA has a program that also promotes the development of these Micro Aerial Vehicles.

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