Mar 272013



When we think of drones we think of flying killing machines in Pakistan.

But as the US tries to write rules for the technology, people are realizing that very different kinds of drones could change the way we live.

Probably the best illustration of the vivid fears and awesome powers associated with drones was delivered on the floor of the US Senate on March 13, when Senator Rand Paul held his momentous 13-hour filibuster to highlight that “no American should be killed by a drone without first being charged with a crime.”

His oratory marathon compelled US Attorney General Eric Holder to write a letter to Paul assuring him that the US president did not have the authority to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil with a weaponized drone.

Whether overblown or not, Paul’s concerns reflect the public’s perception of drones as lethal robots hovering high above remote areas in far-away lands under often dubious legal rules. While drones have regularly – and correctly – been portrayed this way in the press, their use as killing machines is only the tip of the iceberg.

In fact, the narrow focus on the military potential of drones tends to underestimate and obfuscate the much broader and much more realistic capabilities of the technology that must be addressed. And unlike Senator Paul’s question for Attorney General Holder, most of the questions raised by the rapid advances in the field of drone technology cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.

Complex technology

Drones can come in different sizes and shapes and with diverse technical features. The smallest drone is the coin-sized Dutch-built Delfly Micro, one of the largest, the Israeli Heron, the size of a Boeing 737.

“Theoretically every plane can be a drone,” explains Missy Cummings, who advises the US Navy on drones and is director of the Humans and Automation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute Technology (MIT).

While the US military’s Predator and Reaper are technologically still the most sophisticated drones, a good example of what non-lethal drones can do is a robotic helicopter called K-Max. Basically, K-Max is an air-borne work horse. Since 2011 two K-Max delivery drones in use in Afghanistan have transported more than three million pounds of cargo – all without a pilot.

And that’s just the beginning, says Cummings:

“In the research world we have had helicopter drones that have been able to pick out there own landing sites and were able to land themselves without any help on the ground.”

The technology is there, it just hasn’t been operationalized yet, adds Cummings.

Multiple uses

The most basic function a drone – or an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) as they are also called – can perform is what is known as remote sensing, that is gathering information about objects without physical contact. Unlike a piloted plane or helicopter drones can remain airborne for long hours, hovering over specified objects or tracking targets incessantly while collecting valuable data for real-time or archival use at the same time.

These essential qualities of drones – doing work that is dull, dangerous or dirty – for a fraction of a price that it would cost to hire a pilot and a plane makes UAS so attractive for governmental, commercial and scientific ventures.

Read more . . .

via Deutsche Welle

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