By John Collins
LONDONDERRY, N.H. -- Drones are the new babies on the block in the history of flight, and their growing uses seem as infinite as the clear blue sky.
And the Department of Defense's newest "road map" released last week points toward having unmanned aircraft make up one third of the military's air fleet in the near future.
That's according to three experts in the field who spoke Saturday at the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire's "Romancing the Drones" forum to a roomful of 75 flight enthusiasts about unmanned flight systems, and efforts by some state lawmakers to regulate them.
"People are figuring out what to do with them faster than regulators can figure out how or if they need to regulate those uses," said Steve Lundquist, a retired Air Force pilot who now works for Kollsman, an Elbit Systems subsidiary in Merrimack, which has an unmanned aerial vehicle division.
For two sessions, the New Hampshire Legislature has considered joining eight states -- Virginia, Montana, Oregon, Idaho, Illinois, Texas, Tennessee and Florida -- that have placed restrictions on government, corporate and private use of drones to protect people's privacy, but so far has failed to act.
Massachusetts lawmakers are also taking a look at a bill that would require a warrant for the use of unmanned aircraft in criminal investigations, while prohibiting drones from carrying weapons.
"Airspace is peculiar to deal with. Somebody in the New Hampshire Senate may say, 'I'm thinking we shouldn't have drones flying all over the place,' but he doesn't have a lot of control over that," said Lundquist. "They're going to have to work with federal agencies to do that and we all know how federal agencies are ... let us say, not always as nimble as we'd like them to be."
Producing new and better drones is an increasingly demanding "3D" business, Lundquist told the audience, as unmanned flight systems are especially useful for handling "dull, dangerous and dirty" missions that in the past would have required putting people at risk.
"The commercial aerospace defense industry is paying attention to what people in Washington are doing. They see the ongoing drawdown in force, and the military going more toward unmanned systems, and the industry is looking at 'how can we support that (trend)?" Lundquist said.
"Dull, dangerous or dirty are the three things they say unmanned systems are perfect for," he added. "Obviously, if you're sending somebody someplace that is really dangerous, you can lose him. If you lose a machine instead, it might hurt our pocketbook but you won't have to write a letter to his mom, wife or family members."
Joining Lundquist for the panel discussion was Daniel Webster College professor David Guo, who has a Ph.D. in engineering and computer science plus years of experience in teaching his students how to design, build and operate drones. This year, his Daniel Webster students are engaged in a drone-construction project with engineering students from UMass Lowell and University of Colorado/Boulder.
The third guest speaker was Rodger Burkley, a retired Air Force pilot who works for EMC Corp. and whose military career included commanding more than 250 combat-support sorties and logging nearly 1,400 hours on the ground in New Mexico remotely piloting an MQ-1B Predator, used to deliver Hellfire missiles and other weapons and for surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
Lundquist, Burkley and Guo used videos, photos and display models of unmanned vehicles to give their audience an idea of the blossoming, wide-ranging varieties of "micro, mini, small, tactical" and extra-large "theater-sized" unmanned aircraft that are cropping up everywhere. The panel noted that drones may also be divided into two distinct sub-categories: Either remotely piloted, or autonomous, meaning they have been pre-programmed to fly robotically to a destination with no one actively piloting the aerial vehicle from the ground.
"I'm sure you heard a little while back how Amazon talked about autonomous vehicles on a pre-programmed path to bring you that item you absolutely have to have tomorrow. But police are also using unmanned systems for surveillance now, as is the U.S. Forestry Service."
More hobbyists are getting busy with drones, too, Lundquist noted. "I heard recently about a guy who decided he wanted to create a drone so that his dogs could chase it," he said.
Lest he be accused of droning on, Burkley injected humor into his 20-minute presentation by playing a 35-second YouTube video (www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2MLW9RRIEk) in which the Air Force did a take-off on the E-Trade commercials by showing a baby talking about remotely flying Predators.
The video, which doubles as a recruiting ad for the Air Force, spoofs what Burkley cited as a common misconception that operating a drone is simple compared to traditional, manned aircraft.
"Flying a drone is easy, right?" said Burkley. "You really need to have the same skills as you would flying a regular aircraft, a basic knowledge of aerodynamics."
Operating drones for the military presents many challenges that can be overwhelming even for the most experienced pilots, Burkley said.
After the event, audience member Doug Fortnam, a commercial pilot and flight instructor, said he's concerned about the lack of FAA regulations on drones.
"It's kind of a free-for-all right now," said Fortnam, of Nashua. "The drones don't really have any see-and-avoid capability, so we really have to think about how we're going to operate them, and mix them up with regular aircraft. Hopefully, we'll get some organization, some regulation, so nobody gets hurt."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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