WASHINGTON, Jan. 12 (UPI) -- Unmanned aircraft are not just useful for the military but for urban planners and firefighters as well, speakers said Sunday at a Transportation Research Board conference.
With new developments, the miniature airplanes can help people in diverse fields -- but they have yet to gain widespread access to the nation's airspace.
Unmanned-aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have been around since the Korean War, said Lt. Cmdr. Troy Beshears, UAV program manager for the U.S. Coast Guard, at the Washington meeting. But recent improvements have made the remotely controlled aircraft smaller, less expensive and more accurate.
One of the most appealing aspects of the technology is the low cost.
"For under $10,000, you could put an unmanned vehicle up and looking around," said Sal D'Agostino, president of Computer Recognition Systems, Inc. of Cambridge, Mass.
"We can't have a $3 million helicopter in every community," noted Thomas Hodgson, a sheriff in Bristol County, Mass.
Near real-time video and infrared images from UAVs could help security forces detect and classify people and vessels as either friend or foe. The mini-aircraft could be instrumental in monitoring major transportation centers in the United States, its nuclear power plants, the coastline and the nation's borders to help prevent terrorist attacks, said workshop participants.
Not only can UAVs provide images to on-the-ground operators, but they can also detect chemical agents and radiation. Researchers have miniaturized sensor technology enough to allow developers to add detectors to UAVs.
In addition to security uses, researchers have developed many non-defense applications.
Workshop participants envision firefighters using UAVs to look into the top floors of burning buildings to determine whether people are trapped. Urban planners can use the devices to operate cities more efficiently, for example surveilling key intersections to help plan traffic flows. Because of their potential to cover large and remote areas, UAVs can be useful to monitor the nation's borders.
Science researchers also find UAVs useful. Steve Morris, president of MLB Co., of Palo Alto, Calif., told United Press International his company sold at least one UAV to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for monitoring wildlife habitat and animal populations.
Although the Federal Aviation Administration allows use of UAVs in some regions, it has not approved them for widespread use. FAA also requires extensive advance notice to fly a UAV. Currently, the FAA requires 90-day notice before the U.S. Coast Guard is allowed to use a UAV.
Morris said the FAA could approve UAV widespread use of airspace between 500 and 1,000 feet within one year.
"We can operate in a band near the ground and not interfere with any other aircraft at all," Morris said.
Others are not so optimistic.
"We're not close to getting the FAA to approve operations using UAVs -- even for homeland security," Beshears, the Coast Guard's UAV program manager, told UPI.
One of Beshears' concerns was to be able to see and avoid other aircraft, especially near metropolitan areas.
"If a UAV hits a tower, what happens if it falls on a kid?" Beshears said.
The question of liability was a major concern at the workshop while privacy issues barely made a dent in the discussions. Video monitoring from a bird's eye view is not a problem, participants said; however, the possibility of having hovering aircraft outside private residences was brought up.
"People make a big deal about the legal issue," Morris said. But the value outweighs the negative possibilities, he added.
Morris envisions having, at any one time, teams of about 10 UAVs monitoring each major city around the country. Control would be in the hands of private companies that will sell the data to various clients.
"Hundreds of people would be interested in this data," Morris said.