Rising from humble, low-tech beginnings, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles — aka drones — have traveled far in the fields of warfare, law enforcement, science and photography. Where might they be headed next?
By SCOTT BARKER
It’s five a.m.
At Sam Barton’s farm in Avra Valley, the main house is as quiet as an orchestra waiting for the conductor’s baton to direct the first note. Tucked into his bed, covers drawn up, Sam slumbers while his cat Maizie lays curled up nearby, too drowsy to even purr.
But in the barn, 100 yards away from the home, things are stirring. Without a sound, three DJI XY500 drones have awakened in their docking station. Blue LEDs have begun blinking, and then, with a series of clicks, they unlock from the dock, fully charged and ready to complete their morning “chores.”
As they sail out through the barn door, one after another, their carbon fiber rotors whirling, they fly in formation through the golden dawn toward the fields of cotton a few hundred yards away.
They pass over the landscape in delta-wing formation, their onboard RGB and thermal cameras recording vast amounts of data about the crop: size, condition, hydration, weed infestation levels.
A few minutes later, just as the automatic coffee maker turns on at the house, the brewing aroma wafting back to where Sam’s sleep eases into the awareness of a new day, the drones have returned to their base.
Docked again, the info they’ve recorded is transmitted to Sam’s computer where his highly specialized software is interpreting it, creating maps and charts, and relaying instructions to the farmer’s team of wheeled robots, each about the size of a countertop microwave oven. Before Sam can finish his coffee and catch up on social media posts, the robots will already have been dispatched from the barn to spray herbicides where necessary.
Science fiction? Yes … but only at the moment. The technology to run “Sam’s farm” via drones and their attendant machines already exists, and it’s getting better by the day.
But if drones are at least a partial answer to labor shortages, social distancing demands, and the need to integrate multiple modern innovations to tackle ancient dilemmas, there are some who’ve raised concerns. What kind of Brave New World might we create if aerial machines are responsible for deliveries, safeguarding our community, and documenting what will become the nightly news? We interviewed several local experts — and one national one — who are using drones, aka Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in a variety of ways to find out what the technology is doing today, and what it may be capable of in the near future. We also asked if there may be some areas requiring restraint on these increasingly powerful devices.
THE BUZZ ABOUT THE BEE
Chances are, your first encounter with a drone was in the military … or at the mall. In either case, you probably didn’t realize that you were looking at a device that was hundreds of years in the making.
Though the exact history is debated, one could argue that UAV technology was pioneered all the way back in the 3rd century B.C., when Chinese inventors began using aerial lanterns for signaling purposes. Later, mere signaling gave way to using balloons to carry incendiary devices (with decidedly mixed results; a shift of the wind and you’re bombing your own troops). With the development of the airplane as a war machine during WWI, the use of very crude drones as training targets was instituted. Hop ahead a decade and a half and the British Royal Navy rolled up its engineering sleeves to craft the DH 82B Queen Bee (ergo the insect-related term drone), a pilotless aircraft that could be remotely flown and landed.
In the decades that followed, the mission of the drone continued to evolve and shift for militaries around the world. They were used as training targets, decoys for anti-aircraft batteries, reconnaissance and, eventually, as platforms from which to launch a delivery of death, courtesy of the AGM-114 Hellfire missile. If you want to see what the latter can accomplish, watch the 2015 movie Eye in the Sky, where the merits of drone use and their devastating military abilities are debated.
Spies have been drawn to drones as well, and in the 1970s the CIA spearheaded the development of the Insectothoper — a dragonfly-shaped UAV that could eavesdrop and record about a minute of audio. Unlike the real insect, the fake one had flight problems, however, and never flew a mission. These days, the prototype resides in the not-open-to-the-public CIA Museum in Langley, Virginia.
Meanwhile, in the relative safety and sanity of the shopping center, toy manufacturers were discovering how remote-controlled vehicles such as cars and helicopters were just a warm up to multi-rotored craft that could not only fly in a stable fashion, but carry a small payload … like a simple camera.
If you’re a photographer, stuck with both feet planted on the earth, and your camera use is limited to the highest distance you can climb, imagine how the world opens up if you can somehow yeet your photographic equipment 100 feet up into the air, where you can truly have a bird’s eye view of the world. Add in video capabilities, and suddenly you have the ability to replicate Stanley Kubrick’s dizzying open tracking shot from The Shining at a fraction of the cost.
However, the success of UAVs in the military and for hobbyists, is only one small part of the puzzle. What scientists are adapting them for is nothing short of breathtaking.
A NEED FOR SPEED
One of the oldest sciences — agriculture — is reaping bushels of benefit from the technology available with UAVs. “I primarily use them for crop science research. It’s been a huge success for us,” observes UArizona Assistant Plant Science Professor William Duke Pauli. “For example, I work on cotton, and in any given year I’ll evaluate about 600 different cotton lines. Traditionally, you’d have to send somebody out there to collect that data. That person has usually been some poor undergraduate who has had too much to drink the night before, and doesn’t care about your research as much as you do, so the data they generate is not always of that high of a quality,” he admits. “What drones have enabled us to do is gather high-quality data fast, which has been really powerful for us. There’s a lot of information stored in images. With a drone image we get plant height, leaf shape, flowering time, and the plant’s architecture — how it’s shaped. Not only do we get data faster, we get better data.”
Faster — that’s especially critical in Arizona, where at a farm in Yuma, for instance, air temperatures during the summer may top 110 degrees. Walking through a field and taking measurements is a task better suited to a Navy SEAL or an Army Ranger than a 20-year-old agricultural science student. “There is a safety issue,” Pauli says sympathetically. “If you can send somebody out for 30 minutes in the summer versus eight hours, that’s always beneficial. There are almost always a few cases of heat stroke if you try to do things manually. Whereas, you can start the drone flight, get back in the truck, and run the AC.”
For most scientific purposes, drones are either equipped with an RGB camera — the standard digital camera that sees in the world in combinations of reds, greens and blues that we’re all familiar with — or a thermal image camera, which uses infrared to record a measurement of the varying temperature of the photographic subject.
But science is … well, an exact science. The Nobel, as it were, is in the details.
“Science requires exactitude in terms of the data you collect and look at,” explains Kamel Didan, a biosystems engineering professor at UArizona, who among his many duties teaches a class on using UAVs. “Drones, as of now, are not really at that level of rigor compared to other sensors, like say satellites, or fixed-wing based sensors or cameras. They are somewhere in between. They give you good data, but they’re just not replicable enough to be able to use and compare how things have changed over time. As an example, if you’re looking at a natural landscape and you’re interested in assessing the growth of that scenery over time in some way to tell you how climate is affecting it, our drones are still not there in terms of data. You could have data at one point in time, and then the same drone and camera at another point in time might be completely off, so you cannot compare them to the point where you could make a good, scientific judgment.”
Though there are some limits on the types of cameras and other instruments that many drones can use, collecting data is not all that UAVs can do in the Ag world.
Pedro Andrade-Sanchez, an associate specialist in agricultural-biosystems engineering at UArizona, references how UAVs have been tested as a way to pollinate date palms. “For trees that are 30-40 feet tall, it’s difficult to get people up that far — the safety concerns and everything that goes with that. They have to collect pollen and put it artificially in the part of the tree that will create fruit. My department actually had several projects on this down in Yuma. Students had come up with this concept, and they had been developing a very successful approach. A drone can handle a small amount of pollen, take it to the tree and put it where it should be, and then move to the next tree. But it’s a material that’s very lightweight so it’s matching capacity very well.”
Unlike a military drone, which is often fixed wing and has the power to lift a heavy object, most drones in the $100-$10,000 range would be unable currently to carry anything of great size or weight, so using the more common types of UAVs as if they were a crop duster airplane isn’t an option yet.
That’s not to say that there aren’t drones available to researchers that can’t heft a small tank of chemicals. “I also manage this large research project at the Maricopa farm,” Pauli says. “Because of how it’s built, it’s really technically challenging to manage a crop. How can we spray herbicides and pesticides on a crop there, because we can’t drive a tractor through the field? Luckily for me, DJI — the main drone manufacturer — has come out with one that allows spraying capabilities. It’s a $20,000 drone, but I’m super excited about it because it has eliminated a ton of problems for me. The alternative is having someone put on a Tyvek suit and go out there with a backpack sprayer. That’s a pretty serious health concern because the suit doesn’t breathe, and you’re in 115-degree heat and spraying chemicals. I don’t want to be that guy.”
UAVS VS. THE VIRUS
The pandemic has forced people all over the world to adapt in ways they would have never imagined, and technology — even UAV use — has followed along.
“I did see footage from overseas [New Delhi, India] where they were using drones with a tank attached to spray disinfectant,” observes Dan Edmonson, founder of the company Dronegenuity. “There are a lot of interesting ways UAVs could be used.”
Indeed, in England the police have used drones to capture footage of people disobeying social distancing guidelines, and in Taizhou, China, loudspeakers attached to a drone actually have been employed to tell residents to get indoors, or put a mask on.
Obviously in these instances the drone is simply allowing the operators to get a view of what people are doing, or carry out a very simple task, such as engaging an aerosol sprayer.
They also have been studied to do things such as delivering small packages. For example, someone in a remote rural area may need medical supplies, such as a test kit or a therapeutic drug. Having an operator be able to step out of her truck and use the UAV to fly the package across rugged terrain to the house could save a lot of time, and wear and tear on a delivery van.
Don’t expect Amazon to be deploying a fleet of UAVs to get your order of imported chocolates to your house anytime soon, however. “It should come as no surprise that companies like Amazon and Google propose these ideas to kind of keep themselves as being seen on the forefront of new technology,” remarks Didan. “It’s not necessarily that they are really going to do it. I even have serious doubts about the potential of a company like Amazon being able to do this on a large scale.”
Adds Pauli, “One of the big problems for drones is sometimes they just lose the signal that’s guiding them. All of a sudden your drone starts going off toward the horizon. That happened to us last summer. For Amazon and companies like that to employ the technology, those are the kinds of problems they’ll have to solve. I’m happy to let them figure it out!”
We may be a long step away from a drone being able to make a measureable impact on the battle against the spread of COVID-19, but for the time being, they do function as one more tool for government agencies to use.
Agrees Andrade-Sanchez, “There are areas where the technology matches the needs very well. But there are many other applications where we don’t have the ability to use the UAV for an actionable task.”
As a platform for videography, UAVs are nothing short of a marvel. With a variety of camera options that allow for high-definition results, they represent a frontier for photographers that stretches to the horizon and beyond.
Edmonson, whose company has operators all over the country, including Arizona, explains what they offer. “We provide a variety of different drone services — aerial photography and video, photomosaic maps, and some thermal imaging as well. We serve a pretty wide variety of industries. I would say our two biggest are construction and commercial real estate, but we also do TV shows, and you name it.”
If you’ve ever watched the TV series BuzzFeed Unsolved: True Crime, chances are you’ve seen the work of Dronegenuity. “This is their third season, and we’ve been working with them in each of them,” Edmonson reports. “Every episode is some murder mystery. It could be in Boston, Indiana, or anywhere. They usually need shots of the courthouse, of the crime scene — clips that they mix in. They send us out on those.”
Previously, filmmakers had to rent a helicopter or a fixed wing aircraft to get an aerial shot — an expensive proposition — and they would be very limited in how close they could get to what they were filming. A drone has enormous versatility because it takes off from whatever you set it on, and returns to touch down pretty much wherever you want, so you can capture footage at many heights, and from a variety of angles.
And unlike a whirly bird, you can often take a drone inside, though there are some limitations. “We definitely can do indoor footage. It really depends on the setting,” Edmonson says. “There needs to be enough space for the drone to move around effectively. You have to worry about things such as magnetic interference that can affect the flight. We did a project inside a steel plant one time and it ended up causing some damage to the drone because the GPS didn’t really cooperate.”
Lest you think that UAVs are only used for a few insert shots, consider the fact that the 2016 crime thriller Final Minute was shot entirely with drones. The James Bond movie Skyfall used drones very effectively, as did The Expendables 3, The Wolf of Wall Street, Star Wars Episode 9, and the TV show Game of Thrones, to name just a few examples.
As the cameras get better, the drones get more powerful, and the costs come down, more and more productions of everything from commercials to music videos to feature films will lean on this growing technology to complete their projects.
It’s hard to predict what the future might bring for UAVs and photo/videography, but Edmonson observes, “There are a lot of different opportunities out there. And my thought is that someone’s going to come up with an entirely new and interesting way to use them that no one has thought of before, and it’s going to be a big deal for the industry.”
SHERIFF IN THE SKY
Remember when portable electronic calculators first took off in the 1970s, and they were the size of a brick, were just about as fashionable, and did little more than basic computations? Now consider all the complicated math functions you can do just on your cell phone. We’re definitely in a new era.
That quantum leap happened practically overnight for the law enforcement officers at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department who are dedicated to documenting the scenes of serious accidents, and those involving patrol vehicles.
Traffic Supervisor Sgt. Ed Curtin, standing in his office in the department’s Benson Highway facility, points to a photographic aerial view of an eastside Tucson intersection. All the details — the traffic and street lights, the medians, cars, etc. are clear and sharp. He indicates the areas on the photo where there are placards that were placed there by deputies for reference sake. “Those are exactly two feet by two feet,” he explains, “and each individual square — there are four — is one foot by one foot. So we are effectively putting a scale into the photo. It’s a common point that isn’t moving while we’re taking these photos. Just two years ago, all we would have had is a 2-D drawing with some lines on the paper and rectangles for cars.”
Although the photo looks like one image, in reality it’s several hundred that have been “stitched” together using computer software.
The UAV flies over the area that it’s photographing while the onboard RGB camera captures images. Reveals Curtin, “The higher the flight, the less time it takes, but because of the extra distance you’ll lose some quality. I would say an average for most of our crash scenes is six to seven minutes and upwards of 15 minutes. We don’t have to close the road down for nearly as long for that mapping part of it as we used to. Just using GPS to create the line maps, it would have taken between half an hour and 45 minutes.”
Besides speed, and clarity, there are other advantages to the drone system for documenting crash scenes. “The GPS only gets the points that you actually mark,” comments Troy Krantz, a retired Oro Valley law enforcement officer who helped to set up the Pima County Sheriff’s Department UAV program. “The nice thing about this is that later on if somebody calls and says, ‘Well, something occurred here,’ even if we didn’t know that it was important then, we still have all that data we collected.”
Though the approximately $2,500 UAV is relatively easy to operate, PCSD employees can’t just take one out of the package and run out to start using it.
“Everyone has to pass the FAA exam and get the remote pilot certificate,” says Krantz. “Once that’s done, we also then require additional training, basically a classroom portion that takes five or six hours. After that there’s a qualification program to demonstrate they know how to fly. They land the drone, take it apart, and put it together.”
Not only do the drone operators have to be trained, they have to follow the laws regarding where drones can be flown.
“The FAA has rules, regardless of where you’re flying,” elaborates Krantz. “And it’s all the more complex because we’re in controlled airspace for a good portion of our jurisdiction here, and the city of Tucson even more so. Davis-Monthan, everything within five miles; Tucson International Airport, everything within five miles; Ryan Airfield, everything within five miles is restricted.”
Adds Curtin, “We’ll notify the towers of whichever airspace we’re in and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing,’ and we haven’t been denied yet. We have been given some limitations, like, ‘Don’t go above 100 feet,’ which we rarely do anyway.”
PCSD isn’t the only local law enforcement agency to use UAVs. Sahuarita, Oro Valley and the Tucson Police Department all have drone programs. Though it’s easy to imagine a multitude of ways that these agencies could use their drones, the models that they use — such as the PCSD’s DJI Mavic II — are best suited to taking photos of crash and crimes scenes, along with some search and rescue operations. It’s not necessarily outfitted for any James Bondian duties.
“Our SWAT sergeant came to me last year and said, ‘This is great technology you have. We would like to get in on it,’” Curtin reveals. “The specific platform we have isn’t ideal for their purposes. It’s perfect for us, but not so much for them, so it didn’t quite work out. They’re doing their own investigating as far as what would work for them. But absolutely, if you have a house that you’re going to serve a search warrant on, it’s an advantage to put a drone up to see if anyone’s there. Are there any lookouts or booby traps? That sort of thing. Normally you’d have to have a person go look, and then they’re put in danger.”
DRONES BEHAVING BADLY
As soon as a new technology is created, questions about its use arrive (just ask Dr. Frankenstein about the hot reception for his research)!
UAVs have certainly not been immune, with celebrities complaining that drones have been used to photo bomb their private events; firefighters lamenting that they have to compete with amateur drone operators at the scene of wildfires; and even some criminally minded folks using them to truly nefarious ends.
If you’ve been following headlines over the last few years, you’ve probably read about how drones have been used to drop contraband into prisons, transport drugs over the Mexico-U.S. border, and even loft and fire a handgun (though as an experiment and not in an effort to hit anyone).
None of these situations are, of course, unique to UAV technology. Before there were drones taking pictures of pop stars sunbathing, there were guys with cameras hanging over a wall. “I think for the most part it’s overblown,” Edmonson says of privacy issues and drone photography. “The drone is an aircraft, and yet it takes pictures. But you can walk down the street and take pictures with your phone.”
Things can get a lot more serious, however, than simply getting shots of Kylie Jenner and her current boyfriend enjoying private time. “From a safety perspective, drones have had some close calls with airliners,” notes Pauli. “The challenge for the FAA is there’s no way to trace these drones if people don’t self-identify. Technically you’re supposed to buy a tag from the FAA that identifies that the drone belongs to a particular person. It’s kind of a license plate.
“Because some people don’t do that, in response a few months back the FAA started thinking of imposing something like a transponder you’d have to put in the drone, and it would beam your identity all the time. People don’t really like that because it adds to the cost, and they may think of it as an intrusion on their privacy.”
Pauli admits that even though he uses drones in his research, and they have been an enormous help, there are times when he doesn’t want to see them. “You go into a national park [where UAVs are banned] and someone’s flying one, and you think, ‘Really?’”
It should surprise no one that there even is an industry based around anti-drone measures. Its clientele is more likely to be government agencies than just civilians who don’t want their neighbors’ expensive toys landing in their yards. The countermeasures include things such as devices that jam the radio frequencies UAVs need to operate, and the SkyWall Patrol, a device that looks a little like a shoulderfired rocket launcher, but which uses a rotor-entangling net to take down a drone.
Both the federal government, and the state of Arizona, have laws and regulations restricting the use of drones in an effort to keep them from interfering with vital services (such as first responders), or creating a dangerous situation by flying too close to someone, or harassing facilities such as hospitals, courthouses, power plants, military installations, etc.
The drone manufacturers themselves also are doing their part to be good citizens. “DJI, for example, added some geofencing capabilities to their drones,” says Edmonson. “What that means is if you’re trying to fly in an area where you’re not legally authorized to, the drone will not take off. They did that because they don’t want any sort of trouble that can hurt their business or their industry. They don’t want people flying illegally.”
And though they may be using drones in other areas of the world to enforce social distancing and other regulations, in the U.S. we are a long way from the world of 1984 in terms of drone use and government surveillance.
“Everything we use it for is going to fall under state, federal, and local law — all of that stuff still applies to the use of a UAS,” concludes Sgt. Curtin. “We’re going to launch it only for specific purposes. So far, we’ve only used it for our crime scene mapping, and search and rescue. We’re not going to just fly it randomly like, ‘Let’s see what we can see with it.’”