Scientists say: Give drones a chance

ATLANTA—As dozens of protesters waved signs proclaiming, “Stop Assassinations: Ground the Drones!” outside the Grand Hyatt on Tuesday, a room full of scientists, oblivious to their demonstrations, raptly watched a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation about “riparian vegetation,” “river morphology” and the helpful qualities of beaver dams.

The researchers who came from around the world to attend the International Conference on Unmanned Aircraft Systems (a fancy term for “drones”) in Atlanta this week say they are not interested in the remotely controlled predator drones that help the U.S. government track and kill suspected terrorists—and sometimes, by accident, civilians—without having to put a single U.S. service member at risk.

President Barack Obama defended the U.S. government’s use of the deadly, pilotless aircraft in a national security speech last week, though he suggested that drones might play less of a role in the war on terror in the years to come.

At this drone conference, however, scientists—and those who hope to profit off their research—pore over slides that show how small, light drones equipped with inexpensive cameras that can be purchased at Wal-Mart can take images clear and comprehensive enough to help farmers design irrigation systems for their crops, or create the most efficient system for fighting a wildfire, or conduct search-and-rescue missions. The camera-equipped drones are also useful for determining the health of a river’s vegetation or finding out how much of a wetlands area is destroyed after a new road is built.

“We want them to help people, not kill people,” Dr. YangQuan Chen of the University of California, Merced, one of the conference’s organizers, told the researchers at his workshop on Tuesday morning.

Many of the conference attendees are hyperaware of the perception that drones are primarily used in warfare or by local police for covert surveillance or spying. (Chen's former student lamented during his presentation that drone researcher is considered "the opposite of sexy.") This year alone, these concerns have spurred dozens of states to consider legislation limiting the use of drones. It’s a rare issue that’s attracted bipartisan support—everyone from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has raised the specter of a drone-filled America devoid of privacy.

The furor has left many of these scientists confused. They see drones as “co-scientists,” as Chen put it—friendly and reliable tools that can gather data efficiently and quickly in places scientists just can’t get to.

When Colin Brooks, a scientist at Michigan Tech Research Institute who uses drones to find potholes and other problems in the state's roads, read about his state lawmakers considering a bill to ban weaponized drones in Michigan a few months ago, he was baffled.

“When I read the state legislature bill, I was like, ‘What? I just want to look at potholes!’” he said. “They think killing people in Afghanistan or spying in grandma’s window is the only application. That’s not the story.”

Brooks’ drones can tell him exactly how many potholes are in a stretch of road and how deep each of them is. The drones do the tedious work in a matter of hours that otherwise would have to be conducted on the ground by a team of workers over days. He doesn’t understand why these less glamorous but helpful civilian uses of drones don’t get attention from politicians or the press. (Despite their concerns, at least one poll by Monmouth University suggests most Americans approve of using drones for civilian purposes such as search-and-rescue missions. Nearly two-thirds of Americans support the use of drones in killing suspected terrorists, meanwhile, as long as the killing doesn't take place on U.S. soil.)

Civilian uses of drones are sure to get a lot more attention in the next few years when the Federal Aviation Administration must lift its ban on the commercial uses of drones. Last year, Congress directed the FAA to open the airspace to drones by October 2015. The agency has allowed only very limited, noncommercial use of drones. For public use, researchers must submit stacks of paperwork to certify their drones, a bonding subject at the conference.

“Today we worry about getting arrested or put in jail, but after 2015 the national airspace must be open,” Chen joked.

The researchers hope for an era of “file and fly,” when anyone can file some paperwork and launch their own personal drone. Drones could be controlled by smartphones, and become nearly as popular, Chen thinks, saying the personalization of drones will be the next big tech breakthrough, on par with the development of the personal computer. The drone industry shares his optimism: An industry report estimates the devices will create 100,000 jobs and generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue in the first 10 years after the FAA allows their commercial use. (Much of that revenue might come from agribusiness, given the enormous cost savings that could be garnered by using a small drone instead of satellite or manned aircraft to survey crops. Some researchers were skeptical that police departments will become a big source of business, given state and local budget crunches.)

It remains to be seen whether regular people will want drones, however, or how they will develop once they are less regulated. But some people attending the conference are already hoping to break into the nascent industry. Alice Sheplar, a former chief information officer for a military hospital at Fort Stewart, Ga., is halfway through gaining her certification at the Unmanned Vehicle University, an online academy founded by a retired Air Force colonel that teaches students to create and pilot drones. As part of her courses, Sheplar must assemble her own drone from parts that are mailed to her.

Sheplar brought her daughter, Lauren Shepler, along to the conference, to try to persuade her to switch from teaching to the field. Lauren said she remained skeptical about drones' ability to replace human pilots, especially for longer flights, though she is remaining open to the idea. (Her father flew Apaches for the Army.) Alice said she wants to open her own drone business once the FAA approves commercial drone use, but that she doesn’t want to control the device. She’d rather deal with the marketing side of the business. “Maybe you could be the pilot,” she said to her daughter, who laughed.