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What you didn't know about drones

Every week we get news releases on a new drone developed by xyz inventor or company and what it can do in terms of fly time and distance, image resolution, weight and all the other specs that set their drone apart from the competition. And we’ve covered a lot of them in our product roundup stories.

But amidst all of the product news headlines, it can be easy to get lost in the mechanical details of drones and downplay their cultural and political significance.

So I found it refreshing when I was recently emailed a research paper written by Alan Peterson, a student at St. Paul-based Metropolitan State University and also the VP of finance at Connexus Credit Union. The paper, called “Drones on the rise,” provided a context for why drones have become such a hot topic in the first place and where society sees their future potential.

Peterson has done his research. He draws on reports by the Associated Press in Washington, The Guardian, PBS News hour, CNN, The Nation, and others. He tells about how the U.S. Military and CIA have been flying unmanned drones over Afghanistan since 2002, first as a form of surveillance to track down Osama Bin Laden and, later, after 9/11, as a vehicle to administer fire arms.

Peterson also shows how the recent drone incident at the White House was by no means the first unauthorized drone use, citing at least three other cases, two in New York and one in Ohio, involving arrests for endangerment.

He ends by citing cases where drones have proven to be successful tools with uses related to farming, meteorology, and damage assessment by insurance companies.

So, here’s the paper in full. It provides anyone considering buying a drone with some context on their past and future flight paths.

Drones on the Rise

By Alan Peterson, Metropolitan State University

Photo: PrecisionHawk

By definition, a drone is a remotely piloted aircraft that can be as large as a Boeing 737 or as small as a magazine and are typically equipped with cameras and/or weapons (Epatko, 2013).  Drones have several uses, but were first used by the U.S. Military and CIA.  Drones have been on the scene since 2002, as the CIA first used unmanned predator drones to seek out Osama Bin Laden. The CIA/Military have been flying unmanned drones over Afghanistan since 2002 as a form of surveillance to monitor terrorist activity. Prior to 9/11 the CIA was using drones for surveillance, whereas after 9/11 drones were equipped with fire arms and used to kill.  Drone technology continues to improve and still plays a large part in military and CIA activities (Sifton, 2012). 

Although Drones have several benefits from a military perspective, they don’t come without issues or concerns.  One of the concerns with drones for military use is the method in which they kill. Unlike a missile strike, a drone is looking for a human target, which makes it more like an assassination. Because drones are used to target individual humans and not places or military forces, they obscure the human role in carrying out the violence.  There is someone running the drone, and the psychological affect is muted because they do not see the direct results of their killing (Sifton, 2012).  Drones have made killing risk free and automated, entering a whole new territory for the military in which they can now carry out these efforts from a remote location, detached from human involvement. Because of these factors the military has greater flexibility and capacity for everyday use, resulting in more frequent violence from a safe and far away location.  Critics have expressed that technology has allowed violence to become more separated from human emotion and more of an unconscious act (Sifton, 2012).

On the other hand, there are positives that have come out of the military’s use of drones.  Drones can limit the extent of casualties due to their precision. Human rights groups have recognized that drones in comparison to less than precise weapons lessen the extent of human casualties.  Drones can also fly for long periods of time in hostile and unfriendly environments (Sifton, 2012).

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Drones can be used for far more than just military and CIA purposes. Drones can be used for weather purposes, such as flying into a hurricane to measure its force.  They can also be used to fly into disaster zones where humans cannot easily reach, such as areas stricken by earthquakes and tsunamis in order to assess damage. Drones were also used during the Japanese nuclear meltdown in order to safely assess damages. 

Congress has tasked the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) by 2015 to define how U.S. civilians can use drones beyond current airspace restrictions and licensing requirements. At this point, people can fly model airplane drones for recreational purposes without restrictions as long as they are operated under 400 feet and no closer than five miles from an airport.  So far, 81 public entities have applied for special certifications, according to the FAA, so they can go beyond these restrictions. Once certified, drones can be used in several capacities.  To name a few, the Department of Homeland security could use drones to fly back and forth at U.S. borders to monitor people passing illegally (Epatko, 2013).  NASA and Forest Services could use drones to find and map forest fires in California.  Universities could use drones to learn how to both build and maintain drones and to train on their various uses. Some police departments may use them for photographing accident sites and finding criminal suspects.  Literally, thousands of drones could be used commercially in the next few years, but the FAA is going to be very careful in their approval process for licensing. They have a mission to protect the public.  (Epatko, 2013).   Other pending uses include surveillance for law enforcement and emergency personnel, inspection of power lines, and monitoring crops and forestry. However, drone advocates say it will take longer for approval over populated areas for services such as wedding photography, real estate, or delivery.  Pizza delivery drones are at least a few years away (Jansen, 2014).

Other speculative uses in daily life may include a “tacocopter”, a food delivery drone using GPS coordinates. This same concept may be used for medical purposes in rural hard to reach areas where doctors could send blood samples via “quad copters” to labs for testing, allowing them to get results much faster. Drones may really catch on where innovation crosses with profit seeking. Companies may come up with entirely new roles related to drones that people haven’t even thought of yet (Epatko, 2013). 

Amazon has been working to seek FAA approval for package delivery using drones.  One of their major challenges has been getting the FAA to sign off on Amazon’s flight plans. It is predicted that the company will eventually get approval. Package delivery may not be right around the corner, as several concerns need to be addressed in full to a large extent. These delivery drones will have a 10-mile radius, so folks in large cities are a lot more likely to qualify than those in remote areas for Amazon delivery. The drones they are considering can carry up to five pounds.  One concern of Amazon’s is that people on the ground may shoot at these delivery drones, not only for recreation, but also to get the packages.  Therefore, drones will need to fly at least 400 ft above ground as much as possible to avoid pot shots from target shooters or thieves.

Another concern is that drones can fly in some precipitation but not heavy precipitation.  Sleet and snow would block some of the sensors. It is hard to make it a solid business if the weather holds you back, and they will have to work on that (Gross, 2013). 

Drones have already been in use for making movies. Six movie companies have already been allowed to film movies and television shows from the sky. The companies have been filming on closed sets with extra precautions that would essentially be safer than using conventional aircraft. Filmmakers agreed that the drones would travel no faster than 57 mph and no higher than 400 feet off the ground.  Prior to the FAA’s approval for U.S filmmakers to use drones here in the U.S, drone technology had already been allowed overseas for filming for a while.  Now, with the FAA’s approval, U.S. filmmakers will be able to shoot more footage domestically, which will make a tremendous difference, according to Hollywood (Jansen, 2014).

Before many of these pending approvals and speculative dreams for drone usage can be realized, several issues and concerns still need to be addressed. One major concern by the FAA is preventing aircraft collisions and providing for safe landing in the case a remote drone pilot loses contact with a drone because they are running it from a remote site. Another very large concern is that designers of a new U.S. Air traffic control system have neglected to take drones into account, bringing up questions about whether it can handle the demand for unmanned aircraft with predicted congestion in the sky. The U.S. controllers didn’t understand the magnitude that this upcoming tidal wave of drones would have on the air traffic system, but it’s extremely important that they consider it in their plans for a new system (Associated Press in Washington, 2014).  Yet another issue that the FAA must consider is that drones fly much slower than other planes. Aircraft are supposed to follow highways in the skies to avoid collisions. A typically airliner on that highway might fly over 500 mph, while a drone at the same altitude might fly at only 175 mph. The more drones there are in the sky, the more potential for traffic jams. (Associated Press in Washington, 2014). 

Although there are many restrictions and concerns regarding drone usage, some of the concerns hare becoming a reality due to unauthorized drone users. For instance, a Brooklyn man was arrested after his drone struck two skyscrapers, and crashed 20 ft. away from a pedestrian.

An Ohio man was arrested while filming a scene in a car crash because his drone blocked a medical helicopter. Yet another example is two men in NY were arrested when flying a drone too close to a police helicopter. As drones have gone from military weapons to recreational toys, many hobbyists have found themselves in handcuffs for recklessly flying their drones near aircraft or crowds of people. Over the past couple years, pilots have reported 15 close calls with small drones near airports. These small drones don’t often show up on air traffic controllers’ radar screens. The issues and arrests reflect both growing popularity of recreational drones and confusion over the rules that drone users must follow. As of now, anyone can buy a drone for as little as $300 and start flying it without proper training or knowing what is legal and illegal. The FAA estimates there will be about 7,500 drones in the skies for commercial use by 2018. It plans to issue rules by the end of 2014 covering the flight of drones weighing less than 55 pounds.

This means flying no higher than 400 ft. and within 5 miles of an airport without special permission. Drone operators who ignore these rules have been arrested and fined as much as 10,000 (Smith, 2014). 

Although drones are relatively new technology, their usage and popularity has exploded over the past decade or so. Drones have already proven to be successful tools with varied uses by the Military, CIA, filmmakers, farmers, meteorologists, photographers, recreationalists, and many others.  As the issues and concerns regarding drones are resolved, the opportunities and dreams for further drone usage may prove to be limitless.


Associated Press in Washington. (2014, Sep 24). US officials concerned "tidal wave" of drones will overhelm air traffic system. Retrieved from The Guardian:

Epatko, L. (2013, April 18). How are Drones Used in the U.S. Retrieved from PBS News hour:

Gross, D. (2013, Dec. 2). Amazon's drone delivery: How would it work. Retrieved from CNN:

Jansen, B. (2014, Sep 26). FAA approves drones for moviemaking. Retrieved from USA Today:

Sifton, J. (2012, Feb 7). A Brief History of Drones. Retrieved from The Nation:

Smith, G. (2014, July 11). Why Drone Enthusiasts All Over the Country Are Getting Arrested. Retrieved from Huffington Post:

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