What drones may come

Are unmanned aerial vehicles good for Nevada’s economy or bad for Nevada’s humanity? Maybe both.

There was rejoicing in many quarters last December when Nevada was chosen as a test site by the Federal Aviation Administration for the development of commercial applications of drones. It would mean an influx of high-paying technology, aerospace design and engineering jobs for the struggling state.

“It will open up a whole new world to the people of our state for education and job opportunities,” the Las Vegas Sun reported Gov. Brian Sandoval saying when the FAA’s decision was announced. “This is a day that 10 years from now and 20 years from now, we’ll look back on and see that it really changed the trajectory of our economic development efforts.”

Nevada’s U.S. Senators, Harry Reid and Dean Heller, along with other state officials and politicians, also issued statements praising the successful effort to establish Nevada as ground zero for drones.

But for some, inviting drones into the state was like inviting a vampire into the house. The perception exists that since the technology was developed for military purposes, drones are inherently deadly and dangerous. Unmanned aerial vehicles high in the sky mean the end of personal privacy and the beginning of a police state that could, like the plot of hundreds of science fiction movies, suddenly go rogue, turn on its creators, and start a war of machines against men.

Nevada, of course, has a long history of being the birthplace and testing ground of new weapons. Nuclear bombs were tested here. The U-2 spy plane was developed here. So it’s not surprising that, long before the advent of commercial drone companies in the state, Creech Air Force base north of Las Vegas was the central hub for military use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).

The governor’s office was the primary organizing force of the effort to bring the FAA drone testing to Nevada, but both of the state’s universities also assisted in the appeal. The University of Nevada, Reno recently launched a new minor degree program in Unmanned Autonomous Systems offered by the university’s College of Engineering.

“We decided to be a little proactive because we were told that Nevada was a very strong contender to be one of the FAA test sites, and of course that’s happened since then, and we are one of the test sites,” said Indira Chatterjee, the associate dean of engineering. “We felt that we need to educate our students in this area, so that they would have expertise to fit into the jobs that hopefully would be coming to Nevada because of the FAA test site designation.”

Chatterjee said that the program has already attracted a lot of student interest. Most of the written materials about the program on the university’s website and elsewhere seem to carefully avoid using the word “drone” in favor of the clunky, but less loaded, phrase “Unmanned Autonomous Systems.”

“It includes drones, said Chatterjee. “We’re not using that terminology because we don’t want it to be just drones. There are lots of other systems that are unmanned and autonomous. … We wanted it to be a more general term.”

Many of the faculty and student projects using the technology are for civilian applications like fighting wildfires, and environmental hazard monitoring.

Watch the drone

One of the clearest voices of dissent about the state’s embrace of drones comes from across campus. It belongs to University of Nevada, Reno art professor Joseph DeLappe, one of the city’s most respected and high-profile artists. He’s possibly the only Reno-based artist to have recently had his work described as “significant” by the New Yorker magazine. Much of his recent artwork has been very politically engaged and many of his most recent projects have taken drones as the principle subject.

Volunteers work on Joe DeLappe's sculpture "The Drone Project: A Participatory Memorial" in Fresno, Calif.

He recently completed “The Drone Project: A Participatory Memorial,” a memorial sculpture for civilians killed by US military drone strikes in Pakistan. The sculpture was created by DeLappe with the assistance of over 100 volunteers. It’s publicly installed on the campus of California State University, Fresno, where DeLappe is currently a visiting artist in residency. The sculpture is a full-scale, bright yellow plastic reproduction of an MQ-1 Predator drone. On it have been written the names of 334 civilian casualties of drone strikes in Pakistan. Alongside the names, when available, are the ages of the deceased, which includes many children as young as 6 or 7. The data was compiled by an independent, not-for-profit UK organization, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

DeLappe is disturbed by the central role that Nevadans have played in the development and use of drones from Nellis and Creech Air Force bases.

“Reading up on Area 51, the whole flying saucer thing is just conspiratorial nonsense,” he said. “That’s a weird non-story compared to what actually goes on there. Area 51 has been the main testing site for all of these systems. That’s where all the drones were first flown and tested, and the SR-71 and the U-2 spy plane. There’s this lineage of secret aircraft. … It’s almost become a cliché: the drone pilot living in suburban Las Vegas, driving to work, going into the air-conditioned trailer and blowing shit up on the other side of the world.”

Much of DeLappe’s past art work has focused on the ways in which technology, like computer games and social media, affects our lives. For him, drones are a disturbing synthesis of technology worship, computer gaming—drone controls are modeled on video game controllers—and aggressive foreign policy. He also compares drones to the detachment of social media. Instead of clicking on an image of some distant person and asking them to be “friends.” You click on them as an enemy to be eliminated.

“Right now we’re looking we’re looking at drones as a way of very safely, from our perspective, going around and being involved in these kinds of wars that are essentially illegal,” he said. “We’re violating sovereign air space with targeted assassinations.”

Although his concern is primarily with the military use of drones, DeLappe also views many civilian applications of the technology as potentially problematic—for example, replacing postal workers and delivery drivers with drones.

“That’s part of the mechanization of labor,” he said. “That’s something to think about carefully because we’re in an unemployment crisis already.”

But DeLappe says his biggest concern is the eventuality of this technology getting into of the hands of terrorists or some other hostile military force.

“Right now, we have this superiority that we are the ones able to control these things from 5,000 miles away, on the other side of the planet,” he said. “That’s going to change. My radical position that I would take: We have an international ban on chemical weapons. We decided not to build the neutron bomb back in the ’70s. Why not an international ban on weaponized drones?”

Drone on

While many in the industry shy away from using the word “drone,” Mike Richards, the president and CEO of the Reno-based company Drone America, embraces the term.

“There is a negative connotation to the word ’drones,’” he said. “I called the company Drone America because those two names were struggling at the time. … Trying to convince the public that drone is not a drone by calling it a different name is a losing battle. It’s the same as a helicopter. You don’t call a helicopter a gun ship. You don’t call it an air ambulance. But it can do both things. Helicopters don’t have such a negative connotation like the drones. It’s only because people have been made aware of the negative side, and not been made aware of the good side.”

Drone America builds and designs unmanned systems. The company has pilots and resources to fly and maintain these systems. It currently employees 18 people, but with the FAA designation of Nevada as a drone test site, Richards said he hopes the size of the company will double in the coming year. He said that in addition to the test site designation, Nevada has a variety of terrain and atmospheric conditions—not to mention the open space—ideal for research and development of unmanned vehicles.

Mike Richards is the president and CEO of the Reno-based company Drone America.

Photo/Eric Marks

Drone America has developed applications for disaster response, emergency supply relief, fire suppression, agriculture purposes and wildlife photography.

Richards says he was inspired to start developing humanitarian applications for unmanned vehicles after his experience rescuing three teenagers whose boat had capsized on Lake Tahoe.

“After that, I started wondered if there was something out there that could actually transport a life raft or medical supplies in order to buy people time,” he said. “So I conducted some research and couldn’t find too much. Curiosity started me playing with initial designs, and the initial designs turned into an obsession. And the obsession finally turned into a business.”

For Richards, developing commercial and humanitarian applications for military technology is not a contradiction.

“We regard the military as an important part of our business, on the basis that the military, particularly the expeditionary force of the Marine Corps, are always the first into a disaster zone, so if we were to ignore that sector of the market, we would be not addressing the humanitarian side of our mission statement,” he said. “The military over the years has thrown a lot of money at unmanned systems, and because of their activity it does result in a commercial opportunity. There’s a lot of things that you can say, ’Oh, it was developed by the military, it must be bad. But a lot of what we see in our normal lives has been developed by the military.’ ”

He cites space exploration technology, Velcro, weather proofing materials, emergency rations, and various medical supplies and trauma treatments as examples of things originally developed for military use but subsequently employed by civilians for day-to-day or even humanitarian purposes.

The autonomy of drones frightens a lot of people, akin to the classic science fiction plots of the haywire machines that turn on their creators.

“A robot scares people—something that has its own intelligence or makes its own decisions,” said Richards. “But none of the drones that we fly actually have that capability. They have the ability to fly just like an airliner, but they don’t have the ability to decide to crash over here or drop something on somebody over there on their own. Nor does any of the systems that the military has.”

For Richards, the development of drone technology for commercial purposes does not necessarily mean a loss of jobs. The pilots of crop-dusting planes, for example, he said, are the best qualified to remotely pilot drones for that application. With that, just like the military uses of drones, there’s significantly less danger to the actual pilot as well.

There’s also the issue of privacy. Cameras mounted on flying robots, once again, might seem like something from a dystopic science fiction police state.

“Honestly, if you look at Facebook, most people tell Facebook more information than you’ll ever get from a camera or a drone,” he said. “It would cost so much money to task a drone to go follow someone—that kind of paranoia is not validated at this point.”

But Richards acknowledges that as the technology becomes less expensive, it’s a concern for the future and a reason why unmanned vehicles should be subject to extensive regulation.

“I think after we demonstrate that it can deliver medical supplies, can spray for mosquitoes, can provide aerial communications to disaster zones, and look for lost people—whether it’s in the ocean or in a conflict area—the good can outweigh the bad,” he said. “It’s like computers in the ’80s. Everyone was afraid that people were going to get on the internet for the wrong reasons. Well, guess what, they do, so what do you do? You regulate to a level where it makes sense, and the people who are in it are licensed and legitimate. They’ll be accountable to the rules and regulations which the government and the FAA set up. You’ll always have those that circumnavigate rules of law, but should you inhibit the capability to do good based on your fears of something going bad?”

Like many things, perceptions about drones on both sides are firmly entrenched. For those who see potential for economic and technological development with the tools, the military history of drones is something that will eventually become a footnote. For those concerned about American military aggression, the history of the tools is unforgettable and unforgivable. Regardless, unmanned autonomous systems are part of the culture and history of this state. For better or worse, economic development or military surveillance, good or bad, drones are flying over Nevada.