The Navy's unmanned X-47B receives fuel from a tanker while operating in the Atlantic Test Ranges over the Chesapeake Bay. This test marked the first time an unmanned aircraft refueled in flight.
The Navy's unmanned X-47B receives fuel from a tanker while operating in the Atlantic Test Ranges over the Chesapeake Bay. This test marked the first time an unmanned aircraft refueled in flight.

Unmanned aircraft systems—drones—have been generating headlines of late (see “Briefing,” P. 10). The explosion in UAS technology, and the attendant controversies surrounding their use, has led to an ongoing national debate that recently prompted President Obama to address the issue during his May 23 policy speech at the National Defense University.

Drones have come a long way since we last reported on them less than three years ago (January 2011 issue). At the time, the main questions concerned the rapid escalation of their use by the U.S. military and CIA, and their impact on the future of traditional military aircraft and pilots. Today the debate has expanded to include concerns about drones’ domestic use and integration into America’s national airspace.

Certainly the military debate—now primarily focused on the morality and efficacy of using drones to target terrorists overseas—rages on. As the president noted: “…America’s legitimate claim to self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion. To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.” After an initial love affair with drones, the U.S. is taking a step back and asking some hard questions about the UAS campaign’s effect on perceptions of Americans abroad. As former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James E. Cartwright commented in March at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.” Underscoring that sentiment, a young Yemeni activist told a Senate subcommittee, “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: There is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.”

On the home front, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s March 6 filibuster stoked fears of domestic drones assassinating American citizens while they sat sipping coffee at Starbucks. Paul’s dystopian scenario of a future Hitler-like president with a fleet of drones to do his bidding aside, his 13-hour ramble did serve to thrust drones into the spotlight. The specter of drones being used by law enforcement agencies for surveillance is far from fantasy; it’s already becoming a reality. As Reuters reported in March, “Several dozen local police departments, federal agencies and universities have special FAA permits to fly drones in U.S. airspace.” And, “Recent applications to the FAA…indicate many police want drones for drug investigations, covert surveillance and high-risk tactical operations.” Can armed law enforcement drones be that far off?

All of this makes crafting a domestic drone policy a particularly difficult task. Congress has set a target date of September 30, 2015, for the FAA to safely integrate UAS into the national airspace. The payoff promises to be considerable. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International forecasts that during the first decade following integration, more than 100,000 new jobs will be created, and the total economic impact could reach $82 billion by 2025. Domestic uses for drones extend far beyond crime-fighting to include monitoring crops and spraying pesticides, mapping wildfires with infrared cameras, searching for missing persons, tracking traffic patterns, assessing wildlife populations, evaluating environmental conditions, aiding disaster relief efforts and more mundane but lucrative tasks such as photographing real estate. But without a coherent plan in place for commercial drone applications such as these, the association estimates that “every year that integration is delayed, the United States loses more than $10 billion in potential impact.”

Despite the many questions surrounding the use of drones—both military and civil—one thing remains certain: We’re witnessing a revolution unprecedented in aviation history.