Friday, February 19, 2010

Robot Skies

A rather remarkable thing is happening in our skies without too much fuss or notice: robotic vehicles are multiplying like rabbits.

According to Popular Science, 44 countries now fly as many as 7000 aerial robots, or UAV's (for "unmanned aerial vehicle"). New models are being developed by dozens of companies. Last year, the U.S. Air Force trained more UAV operators than it did fighter and bomber pilots.

Is this a good trend? Whether it is or not, there's probably no stopping it.

On the good side, UAV's can inexpensively accomplish many missions that would be difficult, dangerous or too costly to do with human operated aircraft. Taking out the human means UAV's can be much smaller, and can assume odd shapes that wouldn't necessarily accommodate a person.

UAV's also don't need food, sleep and bathroom breaks. Some new designs are intended to stay aloft for days, weeks, months and even years (using solar power).

While initial designs were exclusively military, many newer models have civilian uses, such as traffic monitoring, weather, assisting farmers and fighting crime.

On the down side, UAV's can be quite dangerous. Their low expense and small size makes them a significant security risk. Even a small UAV can carry a quite deadly payload. While we think it's great that Predator drones are taking out Al Queda and Taliban leadership without risking our soldiers' lives, we won't be too happy when a terrorist uses a similar tactic to fire a missile at the White House or some other target. We're sure this has given security experts many a nightmare.

Furthermore, scientists and engineers are making great strides in developing insect sized robotic flyers, which could easily avoid detection and be used for all sorts of mischief (and good, too).

Just about any weekend hobbyist could put together a decent UAV for just a few thousand dollars, and right now it's not clear how well regulated they are.

One role for UAV's, apparently, will be scanning the skies for other UAV "bad guys."

The proliferation of UAV's is an extension of another phenomenon: as a practical matter, for most flying we don't even need pilots anymore. With modern computers and electronics, a jumbo jet can virtually fly itself, often better than a human pilot can. We're not likely to board a pilotless jumbo jet anytime soon--people just aren't ready for that.

But cargo planes may be a different matter. Our guess is that we could well see UPS, Fed-ex and other carriers moving to unmanned cargo planes by the end of this decade.

Mama's, don't let your babies grow up to be pilots--the job may be becoming extinct.


Paul Garber said...

When did RC aircraft become "robots?"

X Curmudgeon said...

I suppose the photo was confusing--have replaced it with a real UAV. The distinction is becoming blurred, however--scientists have programmed more sophisticated radio controlled aircraft for scientific missions, and of course, most UAV's are, ultimately, controlled via radio.