By 2025, enormous military-style drones – close relatives of the sort made famous by counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq – will be visible 2,000 feet above U.S. cities, streaming high-resolution video to police departments below. That is the bet that multiple defense contractors are placing, anyway, as they race to build unmanned aircraft that can pass evolving airworthiness certifications and replace police helicopters. And if that bet pays off, it will radically transform the way cities, citizens, and law enforcement interact.
There’s a reason big drones like the General Atomics Reaper aren’t already flying over the United States. The federal rules that govern aircraft in U.S. airspace are much stricter than those that cover U.S. military drones overseas. Many of the Federal Aviation Authority’s regulations were drafted for manned aircraft, long before unmanned flight across the United States was even a possibility. Now the FAA is working with the private sector to update its rules for the age of ubiquitous unmanned flight, and that will open the floodgates.
“The market won’t exist until the regulations exist,” said Matthew Scassero, director of the University of Maryland Unmanned Aircraft Systems Test Site. “The FAA was a little slow in coming around to the realization that we needed to get those in place.”
Unlike many new industries, which grow unfettered until emerging problems prompt regulation, unmanned flight needs relief from existing restrictions in order to blossom, Scassero said. Once that happens, the market for large unmanned planes could be enormous.
“Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, they all have irons in the fire. But I don’t know that any of them are pushing as hard as General Atomics, or as early on the civil commercial side,” he said.
That’s because the California-based firm believes that its future depends on building an unmanned aircraft that can fly more or less freely over civilian areas in the United States and Europe. Right now, U.S. and European militaries have special permission to fly Predator and Reaper drones beyond line of sight of the operator. The Department of Homeland Security also flies Predator drones over specific portions of the U.S. Mexico border.
“If we wanted to continue building out to the ten-, 15-year, 20-year future, the legacy flight releases would not be sufficient,” General Atomics CEO Linden Prause Blue told a handful of reporters at the company’s headquarters outside of San Diego in August.
So the company is pouring money into a new version of the Reaper, a longer-winged, farther-flying variant dubbed MQ-9B.
“It is a huge investment that the company is making. But this is what we do,” said David Alexander, who leads GA’s Aircraft Systems division.
GA officials are aiming to have the MQ-9B receive FAA certification for free flight in 2025. That hard push recently came in for a soft landing on a tarmac in Grey Butte, California…
Leaving the Nest
General Atomics can’t match big, publicly traded companies like Northrop and Lockheed Martin in terms of cash and reach. But they do have a head start in the race to FAA certification. On Aug. 19, the company staged an historic demonstration, flying an MQ-9B some 275 miles from an airfield in Yuma, Arizona, to the company’s private airstrip in Grey Butte, just north of Los Angeles. Part of the flight took place in civil airspace, and required a special FAA waiver and a piloted chase plane.
What does a drone maker need to do get the feds’ stamp of approval? The FAA guidelines for air-worthiness mandate certain physical characteristics: the plane must be able to fly in all sorts of weather and survive a direct lightning strike. That requirement isn’t one that General Atomics had to deal with when it was selling drones to the military to fly over the desert.
Unlike conventional small planes, the Predator and the Reaper are made of an extremely light fiber composite material. You can lift a 27-foot Predator drone with one hand. (The slightly larger Reaper takes two people or one Dwayne Johnson.) That light composite airframe are key to the plane’s endurance and low cost.
To meet FAA requirements, the company created a new skin with a thin mesh of copper just beneath the surface, creating a flying Faraday cage that can keep high electric charges away from sensitive electronics. To fight ice, the wings will have a unique and brand-new electro-expulsive de-icing system.
A much bigger obstacle in the FAA guidelines is the see-and-avoid clause, which mandates that a plane’s pilot must be able to see forward and take evasive action to avoid hitting another plane.
The MQ-9B, like all General Atomics aircraft, requires at least one human operator who monitors what’s going on via a 50mbps video link. But a satellite video link to a human operator on the ground doesn’t satisfy the see-and-avoid standard. The next iteration of the FAA guidelines will turn see-and-avoid to something more like sense-and-avoid. General Atomics is getting ready for that chance, testing a radar system that detects oncoming aircraft and then tells the plane to move without waiting for the human operator. Like a self-driving car, the plane is supposed to be able to avoid collisions on its own.
All General Atomics drones are remotely piloted from a desk of monitors and controls, called a ground control station, that sits inside a big trailer. General Atomics, much like the U.S. Air Force, isn’t a big fan of the term “drone,” preferring to emphasize the how human operators make not only the flying decisions but also the targeting decisions in those places where the military is using armed versions of the planes. But today’s unmanned planes need a lot less human piloting and supervision than they did just a few years ago, when every General Atomics plane required a dedicated ground crew, sensor operator, and pilot to put every drone in the air and then a separate pilot and sensor crew to take over piloting via satellite once the bird was aloft.
The newest version of the drone can autonomously take off and land. A single operator can both fly the plane and operate the “sensor ball,” a globe full of high-resolution sensors and thermal imaging sensors manufactured by defense contractor Raytheon. The newest version of the camera has 720p HD resolution, enough to show faces in a crowd from 2,000 feet up. And optics are rapidly improving.
During the MQ-9B test in Grey Butte, journalists peeked out the door of the ground-control trailer to the tiny, barely visible plane overhead. Back inside, the monitors showed that we could easily easily distinguish each another, pick out clothing patterns, discern other markings, etc. It looked like a view from 30 feet up, not 2,000.
Hunting New Prey
Why would anyone need big, $12 million drones when the skies over the United States are increasingly full of cheap consumer quadcopters? The answer is distance and endurance. Small drones, which typically run on electric batteries, can stay up only short times. Larger drones like the MQ-9B and many others in its class have endurance measured in days, and are rapidly improving. In 2009, a Reaper drone could fly for 23 hours; in 2017, it’s more than 41 hours.
That endurance allows the military — and eventually, U.S. police departments — to do a lot of things differently. For starters, it vastly improves the value of the drone. If the Reaper can fly for twice as long, you need far fewer secret drone bases in Africa to run missions. A long-endurance plane with clearance to fly in national air space (and international waters) can get on station faster and with less logistical support.
General Atomics CEO Blue: “It’s not just national space, it’s international space. You go out into the ocean farther than your [air traffic control] radars can cover, [and then] you’ve got the problem again. We’ve learned that with real users with our experience over the border protection.”
Long-endurance drones also offer new capabilities to firefighters. General Atomics has an agreement with the City of San Diego to explore how persistent surveillance can help crews follow wildfires, anticipate their next moves, and find their hottest spots — a feat currently especially difficult at night.
But the biggest domestic opportunity is as a replacement for police helicopters. Putting cops in choppers is dangerous, as evinced by the recent deaths of two Virginia State Police officers who were monitoring the civil unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia. Manned chopper flights are also limited by how long the pilot and operator can endure the mission. The ability to silently monitor multiple suspects for days and nights on end without putting a human pilot in harm’s way would represent an enormous improvement in police intelligence and surveillance.
Police Drones as Privacy Threat
It might also represent a big problem for privacy advocates. Glimmers of that future battle are today already visible. In 2009, the military planned to launch JLENS, a 242-foot aerostat over Maryland. Original documents show that the unmanned blimp was supposed to have cameras, similar to aerostats deployed to Afghanistan. Members of the Electronic Privacy Information Center sounded an alarm. “There is a lot of potential for privacy abuse if a surveillance device can identify a human at five kilometers away,” Julia Horwitz, the group’s consumer protection counsel, told The Washington Post. JLENS went up without the cameras attached. (It later broke loose, causing havoc over multiple states.)
Reaper drones can also carry highly advanced jammer and electronic warfare payloads into battle and still retain their satellite link. That means a police drone could carry a wide variety of signals intelligence collection payloads as well.
Ultimately, individual police departments and the communities that they serve, not drone makers, will decide what sort of sensors to carry aloft, and what happens to the information gathered. But the relatively low costs of long-endurance drones, coupled with the growing capability of the camera equipment attached to them, will likely hasten new debates about police use of surveillance, and, in all likelihood, a lot of new arrests.
As that happens, you might start hearing a lot more about Florida vs. Riley, the 1989 case involving a police helicopter that spotted someone growing marijuana in a greenhouse. The Supreme Court ruled that police helicopters flying over private property did not violate privacy because anything that can so observed is in the open…even the contents of a greenhouse with high shades blocking the view of the street.
The only legal restriction that really applies to police use of helicopters doesn’t apply to drones flying at 2,000 feet. The court ruled that flyovers violate the 4th Amendment against “unreasonable search and seizure” only when the helicopter is flying so low, kicking up so much wind and dust that it becomes like a home invasion. (In 2015, a New Mexico court ruled similarly.) High-flying drones effectively removes the chance of the a search being deemed illegal because it’s too disruptive.
That’s good news for General Atomics and hawkish police departments, bad news for anyone concerned about growing surveillance powers of law enforcement. Even if the eye in the sky isn’t carrying Hellfire missiles, there’s something deeply dystopian about a machine whose cousin track Al-Qaeda across Afghanistan turned to track communities of color in places like Baltimore.
“Drones make indiscriminate and persistent aerial surveillance feasible and can easily be equipped with technologies like facial recognition. Without proper restrictions, drone surveillance will become the norm of public space, undermine our constitutional rights and chill First Amendment activities,” said Jeramie D. Scott, the director of the Domestic Surveillance Project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Although many states have passed laws restricting the use of drones by law enforcement, there is no federal law providing baseline privacy protections.”
The ability to continuously survey an entire city opens a wide variety of potential uses, and misuses, that will test communities’ comfort level with far more constant police presence overhead.
For the most, this revolution will happen without much notice. You likely won’t notice the absence of the police helicopters until long after they’re gone.