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Drones on Patrol
Photo: Ovidiu Marian
As the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, new stories about New Orleans are being shared. One of the most startling appeared in the Wall Street Journal on August 7, 2006.

Titled “Drones in Domestic Skies?” the article reports that during the response to flooding “military and local officials urgently requested unmanned surveillance planes (UAVs) for search and rescue missions. The drones were delivered, but aviation authorities kept them on the ground out of concern about mixing drones with manned aircraft in the crowded skies over New Orleans.”

Primarily associated with excursions throughout war zones, drones gather information without endangering a pilot. Who knew that urban skies might be a venue for drones? Considering the use of military officers to lead the response, it may not be surprising that drones were requested.

Implementation in New Orleans didn’t go as one might have imagined. “Eventually, some made it aloft, strapped beneath helicopters. One company settled for mounting a camera-equipped drone atop a 53-story building and feeding its idea of flooding and vandalism to troops below.”

Some readers undoubtedly exclaimed, “What a concept!” Others, possibly thinking about crowded skies, probably cringed.

Possible Applications

Reporters Jonathan Karp and Andy Pasztor identified possible applications:  crop dusting, inspecting pipelines, disaster relief, wildfire fighting, information-gathering during hostage incidents, and border surveillance. Their size ranges from fitting into one’s palm to the size of “a small airliner.” The authors also report that for one type of drone the accident rate is “100 times that of manned aircraft . . . ”

More details about drones on patrol can be found in USA Today on August 7, 2006, which reported that in six years the Pentagon has increased its number from 100 to 3,500 this year with “about 700 of those operate in the USA . . . While most drones are small and fly only above military bases, some large UAVs are allowed under U.S. regulations to enter civilian airspace.”

USA Today also recounts the crash of a border surveillance drone (“which can weigh up to 10,500 pounds”) in April along the USA-Mexico border that “slammed into a hillside near several homes. . . .about a thousand feet away.” A few paragraphs later, one reads that “It’s not clear who should investigate UAV accidents. The NTSB’s [National Transportation Safety Board] says it can investigate only severe accidents of planes with people aboard. (The NTSB is investigating the Predator case as an ‘incident,’ usually defined as an event that does little or no damage to the plane.”

Drones on patrol—another issue that governments (urban and otherwise) need to address.

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