Drones don’t just end human life, they also save it, a panel of industry executives and government officials said Wednesday.
WASHINGTON--Drones don’t just end human life, they also save it, a panel of industry executives and government officials told journalists Wednesday at the National Press Club.
From forest fires in California to the radioactive destruction at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, unmanned vehicle systems have given first responders the technological edge they need to expand their reach without putting themselves in danger, allowing them to make critical decisions to maximize the productivity of scarce resources.
“First responders around the world are using robots to increase the distance between their operators and the dangerous environments” they encounter regularly, said retired Lt. Col. Charlie Dean of the U.S. Army, director of business development for the unmanned systems group at QinetiQ North America .
Retired Maj. Gen. David Heinz of the U.S. Marine Corps, now vice president of the iRobot Corporation ’s maritime division, also spoke of his company’s deployment of 4 robots--two 30 lbs robots and two 300 lb robots--to the Fukushima devastation site a week after the disaster. The company’s robots were the first into the reactor cell, opening the inner door and providing the first access to the Unit 1 reactor. The high radiation levels in the reactor, Heinz said, would have killed a human being within 90 minutes.
QinetiQ also deployed unmanned systems to the Fukushima disaster site, including its robotic application kit that turns Bobcat frontloaders into an unmanned vehicle in approximately 15 minutes. After conversion, Japanese first responders were able to control the unmanned Bobcat with an X-Box controller, moving debris and giving other smaller and more agile unmanned systems access to the disaster site, said Dean.
iRobot also deployed an underwater system used during the Gulf Oil spill to track the oil plumes satellites couldn’t see. The system can operate for 9 months and dive to depths of 3,300 feet and provide data on the water column its maneuvering through, Heinz said.
Lt. Col. Ricky Thomas of the U.S. Air Force noted that his service has used its Global Hawk in various humanitarian missions, including 2007’s Southern California wildfires, the Haitian earthquake, and over Japan. Thomas said that the Global Hawk, a controversial piece of equipment because of cost overruns , was used, among other things, to survey the damage to Japanese infrastructure after the earthquake and tsunami.
In the United States, aerial drones have given first responders the situational awareness necessary to make fast decisions of where to use resources most efficiently during forest fires and floods, said John Priddy, director of National Air Security Operations Center at Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Priddy says aerial drones, like the Predators CBP uses, “let you know exactly how bad the situation is and lets you know what assets you need to bring to the fight.”
Not everyone was content to concentrate on drone’s humanitarian side though.
During the Q&A portion of the conference, Medea Benjamin, cofounder of the antiwar organization Code Pink , stood up to denounce the use of drones by the United States in places like Pakistan.
“We know drones through a different way, not saving lives but actually taking lives,” Benjamin said. “Drones for people in Pakistan have killed hundreds and hundreds of innocent people.”
iRobot’s Heinz told Benjamin that his company doesn’t make weaponized drones.
♦ Photo of QinetiQ's Bobcat unmanned vehicle courtesy of QinetiQ North America