Image: Predator
Members of the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron perform maintenance checks on a Predator unmanned reconnaissance aircraft prior to a mission in the region around Afghanistan.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
msnbc.com

First, an orbiting satellite snaps a picture of the zone where the suspect is hiding out. That serves as a map for the unmanned drone looking for the right house. When that house is found, a remote-controlled mini-copter peeks through a window, sending back video of the suspect. If the window is opened, a birdlike robot flies in and drops a dusting of miniaturized wireless sensors. It’s a blueprint for remote surveillance that could pin down a future Osama bin Laden — in Kandahar or Kansas City.

Today, that scenario is science fiction, at least when it comes to the part about tiny robots flying through windows. But the war in Afghanistan serves as a real-life example demonstrating how powerful aerial surveillance can be — and how quickly it has been brought up to speed.

Just a year ago, in the course of a CIA experiment conducted over Afghanistan, an unmanned Predator aircraft had someone who looked like bin Laden in its sights, according to The Wall Street Journal. But at that time, no one had figured out how to arm the unmanned aircraft.

Afghanistan is now patrolled by Predators armed with Hellfire anti-tank missiles, and the drones are said to have played a role in the attack that killed Mohammed Atef, one of bin Laden’s closest aides. An even more advanced drone known as Global Hawk has been rushed into the region’s skies as well, even though it’s still considered experimental.

The rapid rise of unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as UAVs, fills out a picture of futuristic surveillance that ranges from Earth orbit to on-the-ground monitoring — and the people who make UAVs say it’s only a matter of time before that picture comes into focus here at home as well.

Low-cost drones could be used by police departments to watch criminal hideouts and rush-hour traffic, or by media organizations to send back video from news scenes, or by firefighters to keep an eye on wilderness hot spots. Robotic planes could monitor power lines, pipelines, border lines and coastlines.

James Rolig of Austria-based Schiebel Technology, which is developing unmanned mini-copters for the U.S. military, says the industry is “sort of where the Internet was in, say, 1988 or 1989. It’s definitely not a mature industry yet … (but) the building blocks have already been laid.”

He estimates that unmanned aerial vehicles could break onto the commercial scene in five to 10 years.

The aerial arsenal
Others caution that the aerial revolution may not proceed that quickly. John Pike, an intelligence analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, says the challenges associated with manufacturing workable and affordable drones are “enormously difficult.”

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the drones have already come to occupy a valuable niche in a 21st-century style of surveillance that builds on the Pentagon’s past experience in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans.

During the Balkan conflicts of the mid-1990s, the U.S. military had to learn “how to synergize the strengths and weaknesses of satellites and UAVs,” he says. High-flying spy satellites are great for wide-scale, detailed maps of a target zone — but because they have to follow a set orbital path, they’re not so good for real-time tracking of a specific target.

In contrast, “because of the slow speed of Predator and the narrow field of view of the camera, it was not very good at finding things,” Pike says. But if they’re put in the right place, the drones can watch people or vehicles in real time, using video or even all-weather radar imagery.

The Predators are tough to land and hard to fly in icy conditions. But they are working well enough to spark heightened interest in the Boeing Co.’s Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle project, which some financial analysts think could muscle in on the billions of dollars set aside for next-generation piloted jets like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

On the other end of the spectrum, Schiebel Technology is developing a small-scale drone dubbed the CamCopter, and the Navy is testing another breed of unmanned helicopter known as the VTUAV. Other companies are building backpack-sized “micro air vehicles” that soldiers could launch like robo-birds to see what lies over the next hill.

And someday, the answers to surveillance questions could literally be blowing in the wind: The Pentagon is funding research into “smart dust” — wireless sensors, perhaps no bigger than grains of sand, that could send back data about light, temperature and sound.

Reality check
All this may sound like the promised land for soldiers and spies, but there are plenty of pitfalls between here and there — not the least of which is determining whether future drones will actually work more efficiently and cheaply than existing technologies.

“It’s still unclear how many of these UAVs are going to prove militarily useful,” Pike says. “It is not difficult for a small company with a small amount of money to build them. Historically, it has proven enormously difficult to convert them into operational military units.”

Further obstacles stand in the way of using the drones domestically. The Federal Aviation Administration says it has not yet started to develop the required regulations for unmanned drones or their remote operators. Currently, the FAA authorizes UAV projects on a case-by-case basis, and agency spokesman William Shumann says there haven’t been all that many requests so far.

“What is the demand for this?” he asks. “That’s unclear to us. … There hasn’t been a great deal of demand to fly UAVs commercially.”

Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, says commercial regulations for drones were “very low on the radar screen for the FAA, and after Sept. 11 it’s even lower” because of more pressing aviation safety issues.

But he voices confidence that UAVs eventually will become affordable and reliable enough to justify a case for commercial operations, “and that’s where our members will make it clear if there are restrictions that impede their business productivity.”

“The success of these systems in Afghanistan will expedite their affordability and reliability,” he says.

Protecthing privacy
Davidson says law enforcement agencies were the “likely second market” for unmanned systems, after the military. The U.S. Border Patrol and the Drug Enforcement Administration have already conducted pilot projects with drones, he notes.

That gives privacy advocates pause — even though they’re currently focusing on more immediate challenges such as the expanded wiretap authority contained in recently approved anti-terrorism legislation.

The constitutional questions about aerial surveillance have much to do with what exactly is being surveyed, says Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

“There’s less concern (if) it’s a public space or a very private space that a company wants to protect,” such as a nuclear reactor, he says. “Individuals don’t have a reasonable expectation that if they’re hanging around nuclear power plants, they’re going to have a lot of privacy.”

But when it comes to that mini-copter peeking in the window — or “smart dust” dropped inside a suspect’s home — “you have a lot more questions raised,” Schwartz says.

In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court already has addressed some of these questions in a case that focused on an Oregon police operation using high-tech sensors. The police pointed thermal sensors at houses to look for clues that the people inside were using heat lamps to grow marijuana, but the court ruled 5-4 in June that such scans were illegal without a warrant — a decision that could set a precedent for the future of surveillance.

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