The Keys to More Affordable UAVs

A recent ABC News story tells of how Department of Homeland Security inspector general Richard Skinner released a report to congress saying that operating a UAV amounts to "more than double the cost of manned aircraft, and that the use of UAVs has resulted in fewer seizures." In use for border patrol, 90% of sensor alerts were false alarms, and because "the spy cameras and sensors are not linked, a sensor alert does not automatically pan or tilt the camera in the direction of the triggered sensor so agents can see what is going on," said Skinner.

What is going on here? Don't we have the technology to overcome these limitations?

Indeed we do, confirms Dr. Stan Herwitz, director of the nonprofit UAV Collaborative at NASA. And it's affordable. Herwitz points to scenarios that involve small craft and crews of 2 or 3 people (as opposed to 20).

A Potential Problem
Skinner's report refers to the Office of Border Patrol's use of unmanned planes to patrol and track down immigrants crossing a portion of the Southwest border. One problem could be that old-school UAV manufacturers and suppliers are accustomed to being funded by the Department of Defense—where, seemingly, cost is of little concern. This makes their products unaffordable for practical use, and when things get competitive, these options cannot survive.

A Better Vision
But "the whole world is lying in wait" for more realistic and affordable UAVs, says Herwitz, adding, "this technology needs to be out there." He points to sensors and power supplies/power conservation schemes as being key for applications in such areas as agriculture, forestry, and emergency response, and indeed the UAV Collaborative's Web site details some interesting examples.

Herwitz says there is fear about UAVs among lay people, but that benefits far outweigh the dangers. UAVs can go places that would be dangerous for people to fly—through plumes of hazardous gases, for instance (addressing one of the limitations of helicopters)—and can be outfitted to sense and maneuver around obstacles.

But Not Drones
By the way, Herwitz points out that the mainstream media often confuses UAVs with drones—and they are decidedly not the same. Drones are what the military uses for target practice, whereas UAVs are highly capable, airborne robots.