GEOG 892
Geospatial Applications of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)

UAS Status


Although studying the origins of UAS development is crucial to understanding the evolution of UAV/UAS, its status in modern times is what we’re concerned with in this course.

UAV/UAS has shown sporadic appearance over time, and individual appearances have lacked momentum and continuity. It has become the pattern for UAV/UAS to serve a limited purpose and then discontinue as the purpose is satisfied. The utilization of UAS during the Vietnam War is a good example of such a sporadic rise of the use of drones. Very little was achieved surrounding the development of UAS after the war ended.  This is not the case with the current period of unmanned aircrafts development.

In the last two decades, UAV technology has become very strong. This is mainly due to advancements in the fields of GPS, IMU, and electronics. Since the wars in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, the pilotless aircraft industry has witnessed increased and sizable investment that has continued to the present time. 

The use of pilotless aircraft in Desert Storm in 1991, and later in Desert Shield, can be considered to be the first wide-scale deployment of UAS/UAV. During Desert Storm, some 500 UAS sorties were conducted to support intelligence gathering and to guide heavy artillery from battleships in the Persian Gulf. The success in deploying UAS in desert storm convinced militaries around the world of the usefulness of UAS in spotting enemy locations and directing artillery units.

Strong opposition to the use of UAS for defense purposes came from manned aircraft pilots and their leadership. They found a weakness in the technology that supported their claims. They built their case on the vulnerability of the data link, especially for the UAS, that relies on line-of-site based operation. However, advances in the space communications field, especially GPS, weakened their claim, as the space-based data link made the UAS no less more vulnerable than the piloted aircraft.

The United States has committed valuable resources and investments to the development of the modern UAS. NASA was immensely involved in such developments, as it is clear in the following video clip.

Four Decades of UAVs - NASA, UAV Simulation - AIAA Policy Symposium, March 2013 (4:48)

Four Decades of UAVs
Click here for text description of Four Decades of UAVs - NASA, UAV Simulation - AIAA Policy Symposium, March 2013 video.

This video has clips of the following types of UAVs.

Lifting Body Remotely Piloted Vehicle (Hyper III, 1969)
Remotely Piloted Research Vehicle (Piper PA-30, 1970)
F-15 Remotely Piloted/Spin Research Vehicle (SRV, 1975)
Drones for Aerodynamic and Structural Testing (Firebee/DAST, 1977)
Highly Maneuverable Aircraft Technoloby (HiMAT, 1979)
Controlled Impact Demonstration (Boeing 720 CID, 1984)
Expendable Air-Launched Orbital Booster (Pegasus, 1990)
Spacecraft Autoland Demonstrator (Space Wedge, 1991)
Environmental Research Aircraft & Sensor Technology (Perseus, 1993)
Environmental Research Aircraft & Sensor Technology (Theseus, 1996)
Environmental Research Aircraft & Sensor Technology (Altus, 1996)
Environmental Research Aircraft & Sensor Technology (Pathfinder, 1997)
Environmental Research Aircraft & Sensor Technology (Centurion, 1998)
Environmental Research Aircraft & Sensor Technology (Helios, 2001)
High Altitude Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (Tier III, 1996)
Tailless Fighter Agility Research Aircraft (X-36, 1997)
Lifting Body Crew Return Vehicle (X-38, 1998)
Space Maneuvering Vehicle (X-40 SMV, 2000)
Inflatable Wing Technology Demonstrator (I-2000, 2001)
High Altitude Lon-Endurance Research Aircraft (Altair, 2002)
Scramjet Engine Experiment (X-42 Hyper-X, 2001)
Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (X-45, 2002)
MQ-9 Predator B UAS (Ikhana, 2007)
Blended Wing Body [BWB] (X-48B, 2007)
RQ-4 Environmental Science Aircraft (Global Hawk, 2007)
UCAV Demonstrator (Phantom Ray, 2011)
Hydrogen Powered HALE (Phantom Eye, 2007)
Hybrid Wing Body [HWB] (X-48C, 2012)

Credit: Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics

The use of UAS in US Army combat operations grew from 51 operational UAS in 2001 to over 4000 in 2010. Studying the “US Army Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2010-2035” can tell a lot about the importance of UAS in the US Army’s current and future activities. The Roadmap states that “Army UAS are the ‘Eye of the Army’ and support information dominance by providing the capability to quickly collect, process, and disseminate information to reduce the sensor-to-shooter timeline. In addition, UAS support tactical echelons in Army and joint operations and provide the warfighter a tactical advantage through near real-time situation awareness, multi-role capabilities on demand (including communications, reconnaissance, armed response, and sustainment applications), and the ability to dynamically retask.” 

UAS use for daily civilian activities is no less important than it is for the armed forces. UAS are used around the world for different tasks, and most recently, for package delivery. The first video below (1:12) provides a fairly good idea about the different types and uses for the modern day UAS. UAS commercial use outside the United States is growing rapidly, as is illustrated in the second video clip. Growth in the commercial UAS market within the United States is slower than one would like to see due to tight regulations by the FAA. UAS is not allowed to be used for any commercial purposes in the United States. In a recent report, 6 Predictions for 2016: UAV Experts Discuss Important Developments for Commercial Drone Applications, by Jeremiah Karpowicz of the Commercial UAV News, the author discusses the latest developments in the UAS market and technologies as well as predictions on the status of UAS use for commercial applications.                 

"Unmanned Aerial System (UAS): Equipment and Applications" (1:12)

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS): Equipment and Applications
Click here for text description of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS): Equipment and Applications

Video of Unmanned Aerial Systems taking off, in flight and landing. The UAS's are flying over mountains, neighborhoods, airports, roads, forestfires, lakes, oceans, and military operations. The following words appear on the screen indicating how UAS's are used: Disaster Response, Weather Monitoring, Maritime Security, Border Security, Firefighting, Drug Interdiction, Search and Rescue, and Wildlife Management.

Credit: Aerospace Industries Association (AIA)

"Drone On: The Future of UAV over the US Motherboard" (22:22)

Drone On: The Future of UAV over the US
Click here for a transcript of Drone On: The Future of UAV over the US Motherboard.

[MUSIC PLAYING] BRIAN A. ANDERSON: Hey, it's Brian with Motherboard. I've got one word for you-- drones. Now, you've probably heard a little bit about drones in the news lately. These things fly all throughout the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. When they're not spying on suspected terrorists, they're probably killing them with Hellfire missiles. 

But here's the thing. Drones are coming to the States. They're actually already here. They're being used to keep an eye on things, so they're not going to kill you, at least not yet. Motherboard has been fascinated with drones for a while now. It seems there's some misconceptions about the age of unmanned aerial vehicles. 

To try and clear the air just a little bit, we're going to head out and talk to some people who are building drones, who are selling drones all over the world. With any luck, we hope to fly some drones, as well. We have absolutely no idea what we're getting into. 

New York City captured by a Swiss drone hobbyist. As you're probably thinking, yes, this is illegal as all hell. And I'll be the first to say that doing this sort of thing over the site of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil? Probably not the best idea. The drone view that you've seen probably looks a bit more like this. Or more accurately, this. 

The grainy, pixelated, bird's-eye views that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs, offer have become wildly popular on the internet. Maybe you've heard of the grim footage under its nom de YouTube, drone porn. How did we arrive at the robo wars? And where are they taking us? 

To get an idea, we left our Brooklyn offices for Washington, DC, to meet up with PW Singer, one of the world's foremost experts on military robotics. 

PW SINGER: We are wrestling with what it means to live, work, and even fight through a robotics revolution. The technology that we're using, with things like the Predator or the PackBot-- those are Model T 4. Those are Wright brothers equivalents. But even with that first generation, we're seeing impact on questions like, how do we catch up our laws in war, but also how do we start to catch up our laws domestically as we start to see that technology move over to the domestic side? 

We're seeing an evolution that is following many other technologies. And the story of the airplane is, I think, a good illustration of where we're at and the impact of the war on an industry that becomes a game-changer. The flying machine was once thought as mere science fiction. Then the Wright brothers make it real. Within a couple years, it's utilized in war. 

In World War I, at the start, they're not armed. They're just used for observation. Then they jerry-rig arm them. Then they start to specially design them to be armed. And then by the end of World War I, you see all these other roles being visualized for planes that soon move over to the commercial sector. Passenger, postal delivery, medical evacuation-- you name it. 

Same exact thing is happening with robotics. First science fiction, then becomes real. The Predator was originally unarmed, just used for observation. Then they jerry-rig arm it. Then they specially design them to be armed. Now we're seeing all sorts of other roles. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: One of the latest developments in militarized drones is autonomy-- being able to tell your drone where to go and then basically setting the thing on cruise control until it gets there is a game-changer. At the same time, drone technology is doing what most any other killer app does as it proliferates. It's becoming smaller. 

We actually noticed this evolution last year when Vice was in Amman, Jordan, home to SOFEX, the world's largest military weapons expo. 

SHANE SMITH: You know when you were a kid, you used to have those little model airplanes and somebody's dad would be a real nerd and have a model airplane? Now, it's all model airplane-style drones that can take pictures or drop bombs. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: We want to check out some of these drones and size up their market, so we decided to go back. 


Drones are becoming hot commodities for armed forces around the world. Some 600 companies from well over 50 countries are dabbling with drone tech for both spying and killing. And nowhere is this more evident than among the trade booths at SOFEX, where we first meet this guy, a rep for a Turkish drone company. 

FATIH SENKUL: My name is Fatih Senkul. I am working for Atlantis Unmanned Vehicle Solutions developing unmanned vehicles, like Aeroseeker. Some photographers want to use it for surveillance purposes, military issues, and maybe some go track-and-seek missions. Some of the military, even the Turkish Army-- what's the payload? They asked. We said, 500 grams. So let's put a very little camera and just put 500 grams of bomb and they will do a suicide attack. 

That's one of the issues they offered we hadn't thought of. This is something that the military's thinking. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: If that sounds crazy, well, then there's this. 

FATIH SENKUL: I am a fan of Terminator and I love these movies, and I really would like to see some of them in the future, like 2030 maybe. So I am trying to do my best to see them, yes. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: Unlike Fatih, I'm in no rush to hasten the rise of the machines. The next guy we meet at SOFEX maybe isn't either. Then he says something almost as crazy. 

CHRIS BARTER: To me, drone means you've got something that's operational on its own. It's kind of doing its own thing, like a Hal of 2001, A Space Odyssey. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: Here's hoping his robot, the Scout, has no intentions of becoming self-aware, like Hal, and refusing to open the pod bay doors. Now to be clear, the Scout is built by Aeryon Labs, a Canadian drone firm. Datron and its reps, like Chris, work with Aeryon on the supply side of the chain. Chris Barter is a drone dealer. 

The Scout is the flagship UAV in Datron's suite of tactical robotics. Take one look at its size, and it's pretty clear that the Scout is nothing more than a surveillance system. It can fly at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. It's fully operational from negative 22 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. And it can withstand wind gusts up to 50 miles per hour. 

It's a compact, capable machine, and has been sought after by the likes of NOAA, the US Coast Guard, and FEMA. 

PRESENTER 1: Is there anything that you can give me? 

CHRIS BARTER: Like a hand-- 


CHRIS BARTER: Like a brochure or something like that? 

PRESENTER 1: I think we're going to hopefully be contacting you very, very soon. 

CHRIS BARTER: Sounds like a plan. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: After Chris closes the deal, he invites us back to Datron's headquarters just outside of San Diego. In addition to drones, he promises there's going to be some pretty decent surfing. 


CHRIS BARTER: I'm a pretty Buddhist guy. There's not much that makes me tic out there, outside of bad driving and bad surfing. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: Would you ever use a Scout to shoot some pretty gnarly, big wave surfing footage? 

CHRIS BARTER: Oh absolutely, man. That's actually one of my dreams, is to take it out to Pipeline or [INAUDIBLE]. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: So even though Chris exudes the calculating precision of a drone capitalist, he's a surfer dude at heart, and maybe even a drone hobbyist. And he isn't the only one who views drones as being a whole lot more than killers and spies. This is Justin Wellender. Notice those goggles he's putting on. Those allow for what's known as first-person viewing. So suddenly, what the drones camera sees transmits back to Justin's goggles, in effect allowing him to fly. 

But we'll get back to the hobbyist later. 


Southern California has long been a hub of aerospace R&D. And today, drone firms like Datron are popping up all over the region. You can call it Drone Valley or even the Drone Zone. Datron's campus is in one of these cookie-cutter industrial parks. But soon enough we find the place and we're greeted by Chris and two of his colleagues. We'll get down to the brass tacks. Who buys a Scout? 

CHRIS BARTER: I will not go into specific customers by name, but I can address customer bases that we will go after. 

PRESENTER 2: The scout is man-packable, and offers fast setup, ease of use, and hot-swappable payload capabilities. The snap-together assembly requires no tools, and total assembly to takeoff time can be measured in seconds. 

CHRIS BARTER: We're targeting the guy, be it the law enforcement officer, be it the squad guy who's out in a combat theater, who doesn't want to rely on some guy flying a system in Las Vegas that's being launched out of an airport that's 7,000 miles away. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: Unlike the Scout, most so-called hunter-killer drones are flown out of Force bases throughout the American West. Many people lose sleep over the thought of these hulking drones, but many others accept the new bug-splat warfare. 

CHRIS BARTER: I have no qualms when I read the news about a drone strike in Pakistan. What troubles me is that people have a tendency to kind of lump in a lot of these unmanned systems, one with another. So a Scout, which is unarmed and will probably always be unarmed, is meant specifically for surveillance, will never be harming any individual, for the most part, unless any kind of accident. 

PAUL WILSON: The unit really and truly flies itself. It just waits for us to tell it when to take off, how high to go, how fast to fly, where we want it to go, and what to look at. All of our status says we're OK. We've got a GPS accuracy of 2.6 meters. So we're ready to take off. It spins up. It says, I've done all my check, so now I'm ready to take off. So I take off. 

The vehicle is very good at flying itself, and it just listens to the directions of how high we want it to go, where we want it to go to, and what we want it to look at. 

CHRIS BARTER: We've had a lot of interest in special use cases, like in Nome, Alaska, where they actually had an oil tanker trying to ship oil into Nome. Unfortunately, the harbor froze really early in the year. And what they actually did with the Scout was they took it off and they took photographs of the ice surrounding this harbor. And using post-processing software, they were able to actually map out the sea ice thickness so they could navigate this tanker accordingly. So it's a pretty diverse system. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: It takes some convincing, but eventually Chris and his team let us take this diverse system of theirs for a spin. So I'm gazing up at this airborne robot, only to see it looking back down at me. I begin to feel the sting of my own privacy potentially being compromised, and I can't help but wonder if Chris and Datron feel the same. 

CHRIS BARTER: Yes, we do empathize with the security and privacy rights. But we're more so focused on supporting that agency, supporting that firefighter, or supporting that law enforcement officer going into the building who needs to know either what's happening in that building, in a tactical type of situation, or what's happening on the other side. So really, it's in the court of public opinion how that gets flushed out. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: Datron doesn't want to talk about privacy, but Chris hopes everyday civilians will come to see something like the Scout as a friend, not big brother. 

CHRIS BARTER: As we deploy these into real world environments, what I hope happens is that people obtain an understanding of how these systems are actually working for them, as opposed to against them. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: How do you think we did? 

PAUL WILSON: You guys did pretty good you. Took off and you landed exactly where you wanted it to, and you didn't crash a thing. You did good. 


PAUL WILSON: No blood. No blood, no dents, no scratches. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: Now that we've gotten a glimpse of the defense and professional side of this equation, we decide to check out some of the folks at the leading edge of hobby drones. A few miles down the road from Datron is 3D Robotics, a company that represents a drastic culture shift in drone tech. Alan and Sam, two engineers of the company, give us a quick run of the lab. 

ALAN SANCHEZ: This is where we design all the frames, the autopilot, all the circuits, and also where we play around. So this is just where everything starts. And then the manufacturing, shipping, and testing's on the other side. 

So right now, the word drone I feel has a negative connotation, especially with all the wars that have been going on, and military drones being the most common use of the word. But really, a drone is a machine that can pre-program or that has a level of autonomy that can do a job that the user can't do or doesn't want to do. 

So what we're doing is turning regular RC aircraft, or even helicopters, quadcopters, into autonomous vehicles. With our autopilot, you just drop it into your existing vehicle and turn it into a fully autonomous aircraft, something that wasn't available for the masses before. And then what to do with that? That's where the user comes in. We're selling the tool, and it's up to the user to come up with a use for it. And you go buy scissors and do something bad with it, so it's basically the same thing. 

CHRIS ANDERSON: I'm Chris Anderson. I'm the co-founder of 3D Robotics and I founded DIY Drones, the community that spawned us initially. This is not my day job. My day job is I'm the editor of Wired. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: Shortly after taping this interview, Chris Anderson announced his departure from Wired to focus on 3D Robotics full-time. 

CHRIS ANDERSON: Well, what you're looking at here is what we think of as something like the Apple from 1977, coming out of the Home brew Computing Club, amateurs, hobbyists, not the IBMs of the day. They're the technology in your cell phone-- the sensors, and the processors, and the wireless, et cetera. The fact that this has become cheap, and available, and ubiquitous is the enabling technology of the personal drone movement. 

And we don't come out of the aerospace industry. We definitely don't come out of military. We come out of the hobbyist world, and what you're seeing here is just a bottoms-up open source community-based attempt to take a technology was once a military-industrial one and democratize it, make it available to everybody, and introduce the word personal to drone. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: Minutes later, we're heading to a nearby field that serves as one of the main proving grounds for 3D's aircraft. Alan and Sam bring along two drones-- a small quad copter and a more traditional RC glider. We're curious to see how these guys stack up against the pro model, like the Scout. 

CHRIS ANDERSON: These things are light. The planes are foam. They hit you on the head, they'll just bounce off. They won't hurt you. But they don't have weapons. They can't carry anything very heavy. They're designed basically like radio-controlled toy airplanes, but they just have a brain. 

ALAN SANCHEZ: Yeah. So these things take a while to get some altitude. 



BRIAN A. ANDERSON: And just like that, our graceful flight is cut short. The guys are spooked by a small private plane passing through our airspace, which brings us to the Federal Aviation Administration's stance on drones. 

ALAN SANCHEZ: Since the FAA doesn't really have rules for what we make, we just piggyback onto RC aircraft. And so we're limited by altitude. We can only fly 400 feet or below. We have to fly within line-of-sight. Just various rules that are there that maybe we can do away with because our drones are more capable than that. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: While 3D's quad copter and the Scout might look similar, their differences far outweigh any similarities. 3D's shoots seemingly better looking footage than the Scout that we flew, for one thing. Just compare the two. Then again, what the Scout might lack in visuals, it makes up in durability. And of course, the GPS and the slick user interface allow for reconnaissance and search-and-rescue capabilities that put it above and beyond 3D's systems, which are more or less pimped-out aircraft. 

We fly 3D's drones the old-fashioned way-- with RC controllers. But thanks to 3D's autopilot, these are autonomous aircraft, meaning that just like the Scout, you can tell your DIY drone where to go, let it get there by itself, and then regain control once it's at point B. I can see how it would be easy to drop out and kick it in the Drone Zone forever, but it's time we get back to New York. 


So we've made it back to Brooklyn. Before this trip, a lot of my thinking about today's drone world came with a certain alarmism. And to a degree, I think it still does, and for good reason. When you're playing with toys like these, it can be hard to forget that drone technologies are evolving in large part to be really, really good at killing a lot of people. 

ALAN SANCHEZ: So if you want it to come back to you-- 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: Yeah, I will. 

ALAN SANCHEZ: --take this switch and pull it all the way down. 

BRIAN A. ANDERSON: So I think that rigging up big Predator and Reaper drones to incinerate innocent civilians, and American citizens on foreign soil, is too much of the stuff of war crimes and extrajudicial killings. And I certainly don't sit well with the thought of a spying robot peering into my apartment window. But when it comes to some of the tactical and hobbyist drone deployments that I saw out in Jordan and San Diego, I kind of caught the bug. 

It's getting harder and harder to argue against the fact that for certain scenarios, drones this makes sense. Think about Aeryon giving a couple of Scouts to Libyan rebels last year to help aid their fight against Muammar Gaddafi's forces. We all know how that story ended. 


But beyond the war time theater, think of the myriad possibilities that drones open up for research, filmmaking, even the next generation of taco delivery. Or think about a guy like Justin, who's just really, really stoked on flying. My guess is what the domestic drone scape is going to look like in the next 5 to 10 years is about as good as yours. 

But having spoken with people like Chris Barter and Sam and Alan out at 3D, I can say with relative assurity that drones are going to become more a part of our everyday lives than they already are. Should we be concerned about that? Absolutely. But so long as these drones are being put to legitimate uses, that's maybe not the worst thing, is it? 



To Read

  1. Chiles, J. Air and Space Magazine, "Drones for Hire." Last modified January 2013. Accessed February 4, 2014.
  2. Maksel, R. Air and Space Magazine, "Robot Reporters." Last modified November 06, 2012. Accessed February 4, 2014.
  3. Commercial UAV News report "6 Predictions for 2016: UAV Experts Discuss Important Developments for Commercial Drone Applications"