The good and the bad of unmanned aerial vehicles


Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, have been a hot topic in the news lately. People have become wary of military UAVs being used overseas. But there are some possible scientific uses for them as well. Arizona economic development leaders note the role this state is playing in the fledgling commercial UAV industry.

Military UAVs have been used to kill “enemy combatants” in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. Targeted UAV strikes have also taken place in Pakistan. These attacks have caused some animosity against the U.S. and our European allies. Human Rights Watch reports that the strikes are killing innocent citizens along with the targeted bad guys.

The U.S. has enlarged or opened new UAV bases overseas. Many Americans are concerned about the secrecy surrounding the use of UAVs in combat. Congress and the White House are attempting to bring new legal clarity to the topic. President Obama seems committed to putting more limits on UAV use.

UAVs have changed the way wars will be conducted in the future. It’s certain that U.S. foes are researching and developing their own UAVs, too. These may well be designed to target the U.S. This has caused more in the U.S. public to see UAVs in a negative light.

UAVs have some domestic uses. The immigration reform bill in Congress depends upon assurances that there will be a halt to illegal border crossers into the U.S.. This will require 24/7 surveillance. Non-lethal drones may be a help in this stringent oversight.

News reports indicate that 10 drones are already flying along both the northern and southern U.S. borders.

Drones are expensive to operate. A flight can cost $3,234 per hour. For the desired border security capability, the Department of Homeland Security has estimated that costs would be $62 million if Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restrictions are lifted.

Would this use be cost effective? The four drones flying from Fort Huachuca along the southwest border have flown nearly 12,000 hours and helped seize 82,000 pounds of marijuana. That compares to 13 million pounds impounded by the Border Patrol from 2008 to 2013.

UAVs can provide surveillance in remote areas that are difficult for the Border Patrol to access. However, if an illegal act is detected, it is often nearly impossible for the Border Patrol to readily apprehend the culprits.

Southern Arizonans are concerned about their personal privacy with the UAVs flying overhead. People want to know what data is collected and question how it is stored and used.

Nonetheless, drones will be a part of border security “for ground control stations, repairs, satellite communication, and engineering support at a cost of several hundred million dollars.”

But UAVs can offer a “silver lining.” Earlier this year Time magazine highlighted some constructive uses: The state of Washington would like to employ UAVs for snow avalanche control, the U.S. Department of Energy plans to utilize a helicopter UAV to take air samples, the U.S. Forest Service wants to access UAVs for fighting fires, law enforcement can use them for crime scene aerial photography, and UAVs are beneficial in helping find lost hikers.

After the FAA establishes commercial standards for UAVs, they’ll likely be used for filming tornados and surveying agricultural fields, power lines, coalfields, construction sites, gas spills, and archaeological digs. Hobbyists are interested in building their own UAVs to fly.

Unmanned aircraft systems and related industries are becoming well-established in Arizona. In 2010, 42,000 people were employed in these endeavors, mostly in the defense industries.

Some believe that 70,000 new jobs would be created when the commercial side of the business takes off and a large number of these positions will be located in Arizona. Tucson-based Sensintel Inc. is already producing UAVs for geoscience and atmospheric research applications and for use by public institutions. Colleges are adding courses in design and marketing of UAVs.

The state legislature seems to realize the positive effects of drones and their importance to Arizona’s economy. State Rep. Tom Forese, R-Gilbert, has said, “any law needs balance and commonsense to protect private citizens, while encouraging a fledgling drone industry that could add thousands of jobs” to Arizona.