Friday, November 30, 2012

Unmanned vehicles are more and more useful

There is an interesting article in The Economist on airplanes being flown automatically or by pilots on the ground.
Pilotless aircraft are now widely used by the armed forces, but those drones fly only in restricted airspace and conflict zones. The Jetstream mission (being piloted in England from the ground)  is part of a project to develop the technologies and procedures that will allow large commercial aircraft to operate routinely and safely without pilots in the same skies as manned civilian flights......... 
Some small drones are already used in commercial applications, such as aerial photography, but in most countries they are confined to flying within sight of their ground pilot, much like radio-controlled model aircraft. Bigger aircraft would be capable of flying farther and doing a lot more things. 
Pilotless aircraft could carry out many jobs at a lower cost than manned aircraft and helicopters—tasks such as traffic monitoring, border patrols, police surveillance and checking power lines. They could also operate in conditions that are dangerous for pilots, including monitoring forest fires or nuclear-power accidents. And they could fly extended missions for search and rescue, environmental monitoring or even provide temporary airborne Wi-Fi and mobile-phone services. Some analysts think the global civilian market for unmanned aircraft and services could be worth more than $50 billion by 2020. 
Whatever happens, pilots will still have a role in aviation, although not necessarily in the cockpit. “As far as the eye can see there will always be a pilot in command of an aircraft,” says Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal, the director of ASTRAEA. But that pilot may be on the ground and he may be looking after more than one unmanned aircraft at the same time.
It occurs to me that the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance should establish a drone capability now. It should be able to dispatch drones immediately to the site of a disaster to carry out surveillance to establish the magnitude of the disaster and to map out the available transportation network and operational facilities such as hospitals and buildings that can be used as refuges. It should also be able to quickly provide cell phone communication via drones. Perhaps drones should be available to deliver life saving supplies such as vaccines or medicines quickly when roads are blocked.

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