In the 1983 Chevy Chase movie Deal of the Century, a satire of the defense industry, a remote-controlled, armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) runs amok at an arms show and destroys the multimillion-dollar wares on display.
That cautionary if comedic tale comes to mind after an August incident in which the military lost communication with a Navy Northrop Grumman MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV undergoing tests at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland. Beyond the control of its handlers, the drone—apparently unarmed—flew on for roughly 30 minutes, covering 23 miles and entering restricted airspace around Washington, D.C., before controllers reestablished contact and guided it back home.
The Fire Scout employs software that is supposed to automatically fly the craft back to its point of departure in the event of a communications failure. That software did not work, and several weeks later the Navy acknowledged that the Department of Defense had considered scrambling manned fighter jets to shoot down the UAV.
The incident occurred amid efforts led by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and some members of Congress to open up more domestic airspace to UAVs for homeland security missions. “Clearly that incident is a setback,” says Phil Finnegan, director of corporate analysis for aviation consultancy Teal Group Corporation in Fairfax, Virginia.
UAVs like General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator have more than proven their worth in U.S. military and intelligence operations abroad. They have been used to spot threats for troops in harm’s way, and armed with guided missiles, they have helped to thin the ranks of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Use of UAVs stateside has been restricted by the inherent, elevated risk posed by the absence of a pilot and the lack of backup control systems but some projects have been undertaken. For example, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) received permission to use UAVs as eyes in the sky along the northern and southern U.S. borders beginning in 2004. By the end of 2010, CBP’s fleet of UAVs was slated to total seven Predators or variants: three out of Sierra Vista, Arizona; two from Grand Forks, North Dakota; one out of Cocoa Beach, Florida; and the seventh based in Corpus Christi, Texas.
The primary benefit of drones is endurance. The Predator can “dwell” and observe a target or await a mission for up to 30 hours, compared to about three hours for a typical helicopter, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).
Benefits in cost of operation are less clear, however. Bigger drones can range in cost from roughly $350,000 for the Army and Marine Corps’ AAI Corporation RQ-7 Shadow to roughly $4.5 million for the Predator. While CBP’s H-60 Black Hawk helicopters and P-3 aircraft cost $8.6 million and $36 million, respectively, a Predator takes a support crew of 20 to operate, CRS found, compared to roughly four aircrew and several more ground support personnel for a helicopter.