Domestic drones: What are they good for?

It's a bird! It's a plane! No. It's the Homeland Security Department. Or maybe the U.S. Geological Survey. Or maybe the Agriculture Department.

The military pioneered pilotless aircraft for reconnaissance and attack missions. Now they're coming home, and not just for law enforcement. Departments and agencies at the federal, state and local levels are quickly adopting unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as a cost-effective and safer alternative to piloted aircraft for many civilian missions, including inspecting dams and monitoring river erosion or changes in wildlife populations.


Related coverage:

Navy UAS program still flying high despite recent crashes 

DOD aiming to lift restrictions on unmanned flights in US airspace


The challenge, say those trying to integrate drones into their agency’s data collection infrastructure, is ensuring a solid return on the investment. And to do that, they say, the right equipment needs to be matched to the right missions.

“In the budget climate that we have now we really have to take a hard look and make sure that there are going to be money savers overall,” said Robbie Hood, director of NOAA's UAS program. “You don't want to use the unmanned aircraft just for the gimmick of it."

NASA pioneered civilian apps

Not surprisingly, the first agency to deploy UAS for civilian purposes in a serious way was NASA. "NASA does a lot of the exploration in terms of what is possible," said Jeff Bauer, NASA senior UAS technical adviser. "I think you will begin to see organizations like NOAA and the Interior Department and others doing more routine operations once NASA blazes the trail. [UAS] have been very valuable to us so far."

Brenda Mulac, NASA's UAS liaison, said the agency is selectively deploying its drones to missions that are either too long or too risky for manned flights, such as monitoring hurricanes. Drones offer two major benefits, Mulac said. "One, with the smaller UAS, we are able to fly into the boundary layer within the storm itself where there are extremely high winds and heavy seas and very poor visibility. It's not an area that even hurricane hunters will fly into."

Another major benefit is that certain drones including the Global Hawk NASA uses for hurricane monitoring can stay airborne longer than most manned aircraft. "Global Hawk has long legs in terms of the amount of time you can stay in the air," Mulac said. "You can actually sit over storms for six to 12 or more hours and gather constant data. That gives us an opportunity to watch these rapid-intensification events."

In fact, said Bob Curry, chief scientist at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Global Hawks can stay in the air for as long as 31 hours, depending on conditions. "That's of particular interest to Earth sciences, such research on hurricane formation," Curry said. "A manned airplane can only be there for six to seven hours before they have to return."

In addition to two Global Hawks, NASA is using a drone that was developed in-house. The SIERRA has a 20-foot wingspan and a range of 600 miles. "It's a midsize UAS we used for arctic work," Mulac said. "It is doing some fault line surveys as well as some coral reef monitoring…in the next two years."  Mulac added that next year NASA will be deploying a Predator B the second generation of the Predator drone to measure sea ice in the marginal ice zone off the coast of Alaska.

In addition, a lot of researchers are even building their own, smaller drones.  "Agencywide, we have dozens," said NASA’s Bauer. "The research community uses them quite extensively. The numbers and varieties there are endless. They tend to use smaller size vehicles, which are rather inexpensive."

Early agency adopters

Other agencies and departments are already moving to acquire and deploy fleets of drones, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USGS, USDA and DHS.

Robbie Hood, director of NOAA's UAS program, said NOAA's testing began in 2005. "It started off as a test program to look at the different kinds of UAS, from the small hand-launched ones all the way up to the Global Hawk. We wanted to find out first if they are going to be tenable and, secondly, if they are going to be cost-effective. Now we're moving into starting to do more operational testing."

NOAA has used drones for such missions as storm monitoring and marine mammal surveys. "Being able to bring a lightweight UAS that you launch from a boat or walk down the beach and watch it collect high-resolution video and infrared imagery is very helpful," Hood said. "And it saves the person who has to do all those observations a great deal of time and distance in walking."

Hood says NOAA's highest priority for its UAS program is to provide data that can't be collected from other sources. "We are starting to develop acquisition plans, but we haven't made any major purchases," she said. Hood says the agency has just purchased two Pumas, lightweight, hand-launched drones made by AeroVironment Inc.

In addition, the agency has a couple of Mantas made by BAE Systems, and two helicopter drones. "We are still doing our strategic plan," Hood said. "we have to be prudent in making sure that anything new we bring into the agency will either provide additional benefits or it will at least replace some of our older assets.”

One agency that has clearly found drones an attractive investment is the U.S. Geological Survey. Michael Hutt, USGS UAS program manager, said the agency has 19 Raven A systems, each of which comes with three aircraft. The hand-launched Raven, made by AeroVironment Inc., weighs in at only 4.5 pounds and has a wingspan of 5 feet. In addition, the agency has 22 Honeywell T Hawk systems, each of which has two hovercraft.

Hutt said the first rule of effective drone deployment is knowing which drone to use for a particular purpose. "The advantage of the Raven is that it is electric powered and very, very quiet. The T Hawk has a gasoline motor on it and sounds like a chainsaw when it is started up. If you're looking at threatened and endangered species, mainly waterfowl, the biologists are very reluctant to put something out there that makes a lot of noise. They are very comfortable with the Raven being quiet."

That doesn't mean there aren't roles for the T Hawk. “The [Interior Department’s] Bureau of Reclamation is interested in using the UAS to help their dam safety program, so they're not as concerned about the noise level," Hutt added.  "With the T Hawk we can use the thermal camera to look for water seepage."

Agencies must coordinate

The key to developing effective fleets of drones in government, both Hood and Hutt said, is coordination of efforts, both within departments and between departments and agencies.

"We are also working with the other government agencies USGS, NASA, [the National Science Foundation]  and staying abreast of what their interests are," said NOAA’s Hood. "We are all trying to do it in the most prudent, judicious and cost-effective way.  You may see in the next five years where maybe one agency will take the lead in one particular platform. Right now NASA is definitely the leader in high-altitude, long-endurance UAS. USGS is using the smaller Ravens.”

Hood added that there are at least two different interagency UAS working groups. "All of the agencies are going through the same growth pains," she said. Besides learning from each other's experiences, there is opportunity for sharing resources, Hutt said. At the same time, there are advantages to not having a wide variety of UAS in a single agency. 

"We made a decision within the department that we really wanted to minimize the number of systems we have in our fleet to make training easier, to make enhancements easier, to make maintenance easier," Hutt said.

"I think the market didn't really anticipate how popular these things were going to become and how soon," Hutt said. "To me, it feels like when we were first introducing GPS. It seems like the same sort of concerns and issues and training requirements, and 10 years later everybody's cell phone has more GPS capabilities that all of the equipment we had access to 10 years ago."

Hutt predicts that the use of drones will continue to grow faster than most people expect. "UAS will be the system of choice within the 2020 time frame, if not sooner," he said. "I think we will be using more data being collected by UAS than we will from satellites and manned aircraft."

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above