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Drones Over Alaska: Why Good Use Is Always On Thin Ice

Ask anyone in Nome, Alaska right now how they feel about surveillance drones and you'll likely get unequivocally high praise. Had a remotely-piloted surveillance aircraft not been monitoring Bering Sea ice flows over the past week an emergency shipment...

by Brian Anderson
Jan 16 2012, 1:00pm

Ask anyone in Nome, Alaska right now how they feel about surveillance drones and you’ll likely get unequivocally high praise. Had a remotely-piloted surveillance aircraft not been monitoring Bering Sea ice flows over the past week an emergency shipment of 1.3 million gallons of oil may not have reached the iced-in, snow-drifted town as soon as it did.

Don’t get the wrong idea. The drone, which was launched from Nome’s shores by University of Alaska – Fairbanks Geophysical Institute researchers, isn’t the sort of eye-in-the-sky most often associated with the U.S.’s various hulking, 40-foot wing-spanning reconnaissance planes that are cruising over the Middle East to keep tabs on suspected terrorists. The Aeryon Scout micro unmanned aerial vehicle resembles a “smoke detector with wings and legs,” according to the Anchorage Daily News, and is part and parcel of a rapidly expanding fleet of mid- to micro-sized sky robots being flown domestically for all manner of tedious or risky intelligence gathering gigs.

Because really, how else were navigators aboard the good ship Healy, the U.S Coast Guard icebreaker that broke open a path for a Russian oil tanker that crews could begin unloading as early as today, supposed to get any sort of idea of what they were up against? Put another way – and to echo the prime rationale for all drones, whether for surveillance or combat – how else were navigators and researchers supposed to jointly chart the massive ice ridges, at spots 25-feet thick, outside of Nome’s harbor efficiently, on the relative cheap and without risk to life and limb?

At a compact three feet in diameter, the Scout can relay crisp images and video at a 1.8-mile line of sight over 25-minute flight durations with payload. The battery-operated drone can hit a maximum speed of 30mph, and with a uniquely flexible payload bay can be “hot-swapped” with various sensors. It has range capabilities of anywhere from 10 – 320 feet above the ice.

In a timely bit of R&D foresight, the UA-F GI, in conjunction with BP Alaska, flight tested the Scout last summer, calling the drone a “valuable tool” for gathering aerial imagery to expedite oil spill cleanup efforts.

To be sure, some hard-nosed Nome locals are calling the “emergency” shipment a manufactured crisis. With no Russian tanker load, though, diesel, gas, and home-heating fuel reserves were anticipated to run dry by March or April, long before a late May or June barge arrival. To call this unprecedented drone-guided drop-off urgent may be understating it.

So good on Nome’s sky robot. Good on researchers and officials for using remotely piloted aircraft for actual good.

But still, spend five minutes poking around the Internet and the drone’s non-nefarious veneer begins peeling away. Just look at Aeryon’s Scout demo reels, which outside of quaint and potentially applaudable academic research ventures suddenly take on battlefield tones of tactical, covert whoop-ass do-or-die.

This is not to single out Aeryon. Indeed, countless robotics firms are getting into the game. This explains the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s move last week to file suit against the Department of Transportation. The EFF claims the Federal Aviation Administration, an arm of the DoT, is not currently making public any information as to who has obtained FAA authorization to operate drones above 400 feet within U.S. airspace. The EFF is “demanding data” on the agency’s issuing authorizations or certifications to fly unmanned aerial vehicles.

The Scout’s been kept well below the 400-foot threshold, yes. But the worry is that it, and other similar compact drones, can always be configured and juiced to fly higher and remoter, and maybe with less principled intentions. Drones themselves aren’t the problem, at least not yet. So long as humans are at the helm, the urge to slip away from good use will always be on thin ice.

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Reach this writer at brian@motherboard.tv. @TheBAnderson

Top image via Jessica Cherry