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If you can play a video game, you can fly a drone

These eyes in the sky are so popular, everyone from farmers to jewellery thieves wants one.

If you happen to be at the London Olympics this summer, look up and smile. You will almost certainly be caught on camera by a Royal Air Force surveillance drone.

A near-perfect storm of GPS, sensor and weapons technology, and a desire to minimise risk to personnel has created a boom in use of unmanned aircraft among the military across the world. Now, with the enormous experience gained over the past few decades, a crossover into civilian use is under way. “The technology is ready,” says Mary Cummings, a former navy fighter pilot who researches robotics interfaces at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Congress has already ordered the US Federal Aviation Administration to work out how to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into US civilian airspace by 2015. Eurocontrol, the organisation responsible for maintaining safety in Europe’s airspace, is engaged in a similar task and is due to issue a report on the way forward in the autumn.

Though these aircraft are not cheap (a Global Hawk UAV costs roughly $210m), their ability to keep soldiers safe from harm has made them extremely popular with defence planners. So much so, that Congress set the military a goal in 2000: make one-third of the “operational deep strike force aircraft fleet” unmanned. The success of this initiative has been extraordinary. In 2005, 5 per cent of the US defence department’s aircraft were unmanned. Today it is 61 per cent. The only remaining problem is recruiting enough human beings to control them.

The US military refers to it as the “UAV pilot crunch”. Rated pilots are not keen to fly UAVs. Sitting in a booth watching a screen and pushing a joystick around is boring to anyone used to real-life flying. The solution has been to lower the bar. While the US air force still uses only experienced pilots to fly remote weapons, the US army sees the need for relatively basic training only. The reasoning is that the military gives rifles to young recruits and allows them to kill people. If those same soldiers can operate a video game as well as they can use a rifle – and that is now part of the entry test – they can fly a drone, and use that to kill people, too.

The strategy works because the control technology is becoming ever more similar to that used in modern video games. A recent recruitment ad for the British army features a soldier explaining UAV use while using an unbranded Microsoft Xbox controller to fly his drone over a troop of patrolling soldiers. Mary Cummings has used her experience as a fast jet pilot to create an iPhone-based control for a drone; last summer, researchers at Boeing’s research and development centre in Seattle used her iPhone system to fly a plane around the MIT campus 2,500 miles away. “We have shown in two different studies that, with only three minutes of training, people can fly a UAV in a surveillance task and not crash,” Cummings says.

Night vision

Despite their deliberately intimidating names – Hawk, Predator, Reaper – drones are little more than sophisticated remote-controlled aircraft. Depending on their size, they take off using a runway, a folding ramp or a paper-plane-style throw from a soldier. Once airborne, the drone uses a GPS satellite receiver to establish its location and receive navigation instructions.

The pilot gets a bird’s-eye view through a variety of on-board cameras. One is a straightforward optical feed, giving a movable view of the ground or the airspace ahead. An infrared camera provides night-vision capability.

A synthetic aperture radar also allows the remote pilot to see through cloud, haze, smoke and fog by using sophisticated electronics to convert radar signals reflected off nearby objects and turned into detailed images of the scene. In certain scenarios, a few of the cameras are swapped for laser sights and range-finders for the on-board missiles.

Military drones are highly portable and essentially disposable. A boxed Predator, for instance, can be delivered to a war zone by transport plane and then put together by a team of four soldiers in roughly eight hours. It can carry cameras and weapons, and even be used as a weapon. In one situation in Afghanistan, a Predator had used up its Hellfire missiles but an important target remained intact. “They turned the Predator into a kamikaze plane,” says Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, an expert in UAV technology and deployment.

And now the civilian use of UAV technology is taking off. “Thousands of people have built their own,” Singer says. The catalogue of applications is impressive. Japanese farmers have been using them for crop-dusting for years now. Fishermen use them to track tuna movements. A group of Taiwanese thieves used a fleet of robot helicopters to carry out a jewellery heist. Polish protesters used a mini-UAV to monitor the movements of riot police deployed to intercept them. “The technologies are here – you can fly a $300 quadcopter using an iPhone app,” Singer says.

Restrictions on the use of airspace are still a hindrance for larger craft, but the military is an important player in moving things forward. Aware of the vast numbers of drones that will soon be coming back to the west after deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military has got behind a push for UAVs to be allowed to fly in civilian airspace; it wants to keep its operators sharp. Chris Johnson, who researches safety systems at Glasgow University, is not convinced that opening up the use is a good idea as yet, however.

“There is a host of issues about the procedures and protocols to be used when operating with air-traffic controllers,” he says. “Nobody really knows how to control them when in close interaction with civil traffic. There are numerous stories of the problems that have arisen.” The FAA shares Johnson’s concerns.

It says it will change the regulations only when drones can sense and avoid other aircraft as well as manned aircraft. Until then, large UAV flights are by special permission only. The FAA has granted US Customs and Border Protection permission to fly Predator drones to survey regions where other smuggling countermeasures are ineffective.

In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has had no cause to make exceptions: very few police authorities have purchased drones, and the ones that have done seem to have little taste for them as yet.

Small wonder that the CAA says it hasn’t granted any permissions for UAV flights over London in August. “No one has applied for permission, and we’re not aware that anyone is going to,” says Jonathan Nicholson, a senior spokesman for the CAA. But he does add a qualifier suggesting that military deployment – which lies outside the CAA’s scope – is entirely possible: “From a civil perspective, there are no plans to use UAVs.”
UAVs patrolled last year’s Pan American Games in Guadalajara, and Singer thinks that deployment in London is likely. “I remember discussions about a year ago about using RAF Reapers for that role,” he says.

A movement towards using UAVs over cities is a somewhat frightening prospect, when the US army’s road map for 2010-2035 includes equipping drones with non-lethal acoustic, chemical and “directed-energy” (laser or micro­wave beam) weapons. The implication is clear: in future, drones will be used for crowd control. In London, however, they will be used for surveillance only – they’re not going to be firing Hellfire missiles at unruly sports fans. But keep an eye on the skies; they’ll be watching you.

Michael Brooks is the NS science correspondent

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. His most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare