Beyond military drones – the future of unmanned flight

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It may be that the Top Gun of the 21st century is an artificial intelligence.

It may be that the Top Gun of the 21st century is an artificial intelligence.

In April of this year, a BAE Systems Jetstream research aircraft flew from Preston in Lancashire, England, to Inverness, Scotland and back. This 500-mile (805 km) journey wouldn’t be worth noting if it weren’t for the small detail that its pilot was not on board, but sitting on the ground in Warton, Lancashire and that the plane did most of the flying itself. Even this alteration of a standard commercial prop plane into an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) seems a back page item until you realize that this may herald the biggest revolution in civil aviation since Wilbur Wright won the coin toss at Kitty Hawk in 1903.

The Jetstream flight was conducted as part of the Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment (ASTRAEA) program, which is a UK industry-led consortium aimed at developing unmanned aircraft that can operate routinely in civilian airspace. It’s one of hundreds of UAV projects around the world, but what’s notable about it is how the use of a passenger plane blurs the line between quadcopter-with-a-camera jobs and full-blown airliners.

For many people, UAVs came out nowhere. In the popular imagination, they started out as exotic reconnaissance aircraft in the early days of the Afghanistan War that have grown in numbers and sophistication until they’ve turned into experimental combat aircraft taking off from aircraft carriers. In fact, UAVs have come from a number of areas aside from the military. Hobbyists have made their contributions, scientists as well, and, of course, aircraft engineers.

In many ways, UAVs are a bit like computers. First they were rare and then they were everywhere. Whether they’re tiny quadcopters that fly within a few hundred feet of their operator or huge winged affairs piloted via satellite thousands of miles from the joystick, UAVs are taking to the skies in ever-increasing numbers for a a variety of applications.

One obvious area for UAVs to move into is police work. Take away the missiles and hunting for bad guys on a civilian street is very similar to hunting them on the battlefield. The challenges are virtually the same and transferring the technology from one sphere to the other is relatively straightforward. An eye in the sky could be used for general law enforcement, border control, sea lane monitoring, traffic control, crime scene photography, searching for missing persons, and combating drug trafficking.

The FBI has admitted in recent congressional testimony to using UAVs in the US on a number of occasions and some US police departments have been granted permission by the FAA to operate them. In Canada, a UAV is credited with saving a man’s life. However, other locations, such as Seattle, have abandoned plans for their own drones due to the fierce debate over the use of UAVs in law enforcement.

See Also

The question isn’t just whether drones should be used at all, but also how they should be used. Should they only be used in extraordinary circumstances, such as hostage situations? Should they be used routinely like a CCTV camera on a pole a hundred feet tall? What sort of oversight is needed? How can privacy issues be addressed? When does policing go over the line to surveillance of the public?

Read more . . .

 

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