ST. PAUL, Minn. — The unmanned aerial vehicles have become a mainstay of the U.S. military. In combat zones, the pilotless craft perform everything from surveillance to missile strikes against U.S. enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Now, just as our troops are coming home, so is their most advanced technology. And it's bringing with it a cargo of safety, privacy and civil liberty concerns.
Benjamin Wittes, a Washington, D.C., national security analyst, has been asking that what-now question and expects to pose it to Minnesota leaders at the second annual Robotics Alley conference in Edina, Thursday, Nov. 15 — a conference designed to boost a burgeoning Twin Cities robotics industry.
Wittes, a senior fellow who studies national security and terrorism at the Brookings Institution, said supporters of a Minnesota or Upper Midwest robotics industry had better come to grips with troubling questions of privacy and safety that domestic use of drones pose.
"As these craft get cheaper and more prolific, the question becomes how do we keep them safe without retarding a nascent and relatively attractive industry," he said.
The question is crucial to the region's entry into the robotics race. North Dakota is a hub for the unmanned aerial systems industry, as it prefers to be called. The military controls many of its war zone drones from thousands of miles away in North Dakota; it has a center for drone research in Grand Forks called the Unmanned Applications Institute International.
Minnesota is entering the game, too. Edina-based ReconRobotics, a maker of ground-based surveillance "throwbots" for the military and police, is developing an autonomous landing system to help drone aircraft land without human help.
The system is aimed at military and commercial use, and the domestic version could be ready by next fall, said Jean-Luc Panetta, vice president of engineering and product development for ReconRobotics.
"We think there is momentum for this," he said of commercial drone adoption.
First, domestic drone use must be legalized. Congress has directed the Federal Aviation Administration to develop safety regulations so pilotless drones can share the skies with manned aircraft by 2015.
There's a lot of work that needs to be done, but drones already are working U.S. skies in a few areas, Wittes noted.
For example, drones are being tested to survey fields for crop conditions, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection is using them to keep watch for unauthorized crossings along the nation's remote northern and southern borders.
Local law enforcement agencies, including the Seattle Police Department and Alameda County Sheriff's Department in Oakland, Calif., have ordered small drones with powerful cameras for surveillance use by their SWAT-style units.
But that's just the beak of a very large bird flying our way, to hear Wittes describe it. And it's carrying a lot of baggage.
Domestic drone work raises immediate worries about government surveillance, he said. But that might be the least of our worries.
Don't think Big Brother; think nosy neighbor.
"A lot of it will depend upon the pace of technological development," Wittes said. "If they become small, quiet and relatively inexpensive, then it will be more neighbor to neighbor (surveillance)."
Decent drone technology is already within the grasp of ordinary citizens, he said.
You can go to a Brookstone store at the mall and pay $300 for a Parrot AR.drone Quadricopter — a toy-like helicopter that looks like four hoops glued together. It flies using an iPad app, and the operator sees what it sees from its on-board camera.
"But if they remain large and relatively expensive, then it'll be the government" that poses the greatest privacy threat, Wittes said.
For example, a Predator surveillance drone, like the one that Iranian jets fired upon last week, is about the size of a Cessna light airplane and costs $20 million, according to the Air Force.
"At the end of the day, you have to worry about both," Wittes said.
The American Civil Liberties Union already is worried — about the lack of regulations on a surveillance technology that appears to be spreading.
"Imagine technology similar to the naked body scanners we are all familiar with from airports attached to a drone," ACLU legislative counsel Chris Calabrese testified last month before the House Judiciary Committee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. "Through technologies like face recognition, improved analytics and wireless Internet, it is possible to track cars for traffic enforcement."
Wittes sees both sides. While aerial robotics holds great money-making promise for industry, the fear of unwanted surveillance is its biggest roadblock, he said.
A 2011 study by the Teal Group, an aerospace consultancy, estimated that worldwide annual spending on unmanned aerial vehicles will nearly double from $6.6 billion now to $11.4 billion by 2022.
Yet more than a third of Americans worry their privacy will be invaded if police are allowed to use drones to track suspected criminals, according to a poll conducted this year by the Associated Press and the National Constitution Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group.
Wittes also worries about restrictions due to safety concerns.
While he criticized the FAA for stopping him from conducting a drone "dogfight" over a Washington, D.C., park, he acknowledged that a drone revolution could unleash a beehive of aircraft flying overhead anywhere.
What happens if our relatively empty skies become more like our crowded roads? he asked. What if drones are flown over densely populated neighborhoods or over freeways to monitor traffic? What happens if one crashes into traffic?
"I'm talking about thousands and thousands of people sending things into the sky that don't have pilot licenses," Wittes said. "That's not in (the FAA's) comfort zone. This is an agency that really, really, really doesn't like plane crashes."
Maynard Herting, an unmanned aerial vehicle expert from the University of North Dakota, is less alarmed about both issues.
Herting, executive director of the Unmanned Applications Institute International, said existing laws already address privacy questions.
"I don't want people flying over my back yard looking down on me, either," he said.
He also doubts the FAA would allow drones to be flown over densely populated areas.
Instead, he sees them used mainly to survey crops, track wildlife and livestock or survey power lines — applications that occur in remote areas.
Herting said he also believes the FAA will require drone operators to get licenses and have the crafts pass certification tests, just like regular aircraft, ensuring a level of safety.
Panetta, the engineer at ReconRobotics, said he does not believe there will be blanket regulations.
"It will be dissected by the market, and some parts will develop slower," Panetta said.
For drone makers and their potential suppliers like ReconRobotics, he said, "this is the right time to ramp up."