Flying Solo, in the Extreme

By Noah Shachtman
The New York Times

November 14, 2002

No pilot could be persuaded to fly that day. A wall of fog had reduced visibility to less than a quarter-mile in Barrow, a pinprick of a town of 4,500 on Alaska's northernmost skin. Temperatures were near freezing -- mild for a region 340 miles above the Arctic Circle. But with humidity close to 100 percent, the weather was almost ideal for turning airplane wings into icicles. Even the Alaska Airlines flight from Fairbanks, 500 miles to the southeast, had to turn away.

But there was no pilot on this plane. It was a drone that crept out on that gloomy September morning. Flying over the barely liquid Beaufort Sea, the three-foot-long, 30-pound, single-engine craft drifted toward a polar vortex -- a low-pressure system responsible for the conditions keeping every sane pilot on the ground. And there it hovered like a curious hummingbird, for the next 10 hours, taking stock of the storm with equipment supplied by the University of Colorado meteorologists who were its handlers.

Seemingly overnight, unpiloted aerial vehicles, or U.A.V.'s, have become a centerpiece of military planning; just last week, a missile-firing Predator drone was used by American forces to attack operatives of Al Qaeda in Yemen. Now drones are starting to edge their way into civilian life as well, and not just in Alaska.

They have been used in Hollywood to film high-flying action scenes, in Hawaii to look for the ripest coffee crops and in Japan to drop rice seeds into paddies.

The drones face significant hurdles, however, before they can become commonplace in American commercial flight. The Federal Aviation Administration has no standard guidelines for the use of drones, so groups that want to operate them must wait months for waivers that permit only the narrowest of flight plans. And with price tags that can climb into the millions, civilian drones are often too expensive for those who could use them the most.

But they make sense for Jim Maslanik, a University of Colorado professor who is leading a five-year study of the oceans and atmosphere around Barrow. The drones, built by Aerosonde, an Australian company, have already been used throughout the Pacific for weather monitoring. They can stay aloft for more than a day. They fly lower and more slowly than piloted planes, so they take more accurate readings. They can also operate in conditions too dangerous for pilots.

''These measurements aren't worth risking people's lives,'' Mr. Maslanik said. ''U.A.V.'s allow us to take them without putting anybody in harm's way.''

Unpiloted aircraft have been flying in one form or another since the days before Orville Wright took off from Kitty Hawk, N.C., on the first powered airplane flight, according to Tom Crouch, a senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum. But it was the development of the 24-satellite Global Positioning System in the early 1990's that allowed them to flower. Instead of operating in the tightly controlled airways flown by piloted craft, drones could now be guided -- and guide themselves -- to any point on the globe. Communications satellites like those of the Iridium network have also freed pilotless craft from their tethers.

The drones had previously been controlled by radio, but that meant they had to stay in range of an antenna. By routing their chatter through satellites, transmitting data with satellite-enabled modems like those used for wireless Internet access in remote places, drones are free to roam.

Lightweight materials like carbon fibers have also been a major factor. Drones need to be light to fly slowly and to stay aloft for long periods. So heavy aluminum and steel structures have been replaced.

''For every two paper clips in weight we lose, we get another kilometer in range,'' said Steve Sliwa, president of a drone maker called the Insitu Group.

Prices for the pilotless craft can range from $80,000 for a remote-controlled miniature helicopter that has become popular in Japan to $3 million for the solar-power drone used in the Hawaiian coffee project.

One of the most supple craft is the solar-powered U-shaped Pathfinder Plus model, a drone from AeroVironment that weighs 800 pounds and has a wingspan of 121 feet. In an experiment in late September, Stan Herwitz, a NASA researcher and professor of earth science at Clark University, used the Pathfinder and its two onboard cameras (for different bands of the visible spectrum) to locate the ripest coffee plants in the Kauai coffee plantation, Hawaii's biggest.

Mr. Herwitz said ''the growers were shocked'' to spot plants they would have missed from the ground.

Jim Brass, a colleague of Mr. Herwitz at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., sought to use a drone last November to look at a forest fire in the San Gabriel Mountains, north of Los Angeles.

But the Federal Aviation Administration refused to let the drone fly. Getting to the fire, a ''controlled burn'' begun by the Forest Service to thin trees, would have involved flying through the approach to the suburban airport in Ontario, Calif., and the F.A.A. did not want a drone in crowded airspace.

It is a common problem for civilian drones. A small, piloted airplane can operate pretty much anywhere with little or no notification. But flying a drone means filing for a certificate of authorization, a narrowly drawn permission slip from the F.A.A. to roam a small strip of the skies. Getting the certificate takes months.

''We aren't pursuing commercial applications over America because U.A.V. flights are so restricted by the F.A.A.,'' Mr. Sliwa said, reflecting a common approach in the industry. The agency has yet to issue minimum standards for the drones' hardware and software. There are no guidelines on how the drones' human operators should be trained.

Guidelines are not the only hurdles that civilian drones face. ''Even if the F.A.A. came out with regulations that said you could fly anytime, any way, commercial U.A.V.'s still wouldn't be competitive with manned aircraft,'' said Lawrence Newcome, who directs drone programs for Adroit Systems, an aerospace company. ''They're not priced competitively.''

The Forest Service, for example, is interested in a drone that can monitor fires for days at a time. But the craft -- Altus, from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems -- would run ''at least 10 times what a manned aircraft would cost,'' said Paul Greenfield, an official at the Forest Service's Remote Sensing Applications Center.

Nevertheless, some companies are finding a way to profit from the drones. Coptervision of Van Nuys, Calif., uses five-and-a-half-foot-long pilotless helicopters to film chase scenes for movies and commercials. The drones can maneuver through tunnels and over bridges -- places beyond the reach of conventional helicopters.

Industry insiders predict that other markets will emerge for small, low-flying drones, particularly in traffic and environmental monitoring. But the big commercial opportunity is likely to be in missions at 50,000 feet and higher that last for months. There, drones can serve as ''long-endurance, orbiting relays -- airborne cell towers,'' Mr. Newcome of Adroit Systems wrote in the trade journal Unmanned Vehicles.

Traditional cell towers are expensive -- up to $1 million each -- and cover three square miles or less. Given their mobility, drones could offer a cheaper alternative.

In a demonstration conducted with the Japanese government in July, AeroVironment used a Pathfinder drone of the same type employed in the coffee experiment -- to transmit several hours of video, voice and data to wireless phones operated by NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese mobile provider.

But Pathfinder is not a realistic telecommunications solution. Powered by the sun, it can stay aloft for 18 hours at most. AeroVironment promises that the craft's successor, Helios, will be able to store energy in a hydrogen fuel cell and stay aloft for months at a time. But cells have been hard to shrink to an appropriate size. Helios is several years away from seeing action.

In the meantime, commercial drone development continues worldwide.

''We're crawling,'' James Masey, the editor of Unmanned Vehicles, said of the civilian drone industry. ''But we're going to go from a crawl to a walk to a run in a tenth the time manned aviation did.''

Correction: November 15, 2002, Friday A picture caption in Circuits yesterday with an article about pilotless aerial vehicles misidentified the manufacturer of the Pathfinder Plus, a solar-powered drone.

Copyright 2002