Upon mention of the Predator B drone one may picture an aircraft used to assist troops in fighting insurgents overseas and patrolling the U.S. borders searching for drug smugglers or curbing illegal immigration. In recent months, however, this versatile aircraft has been deployed to search out brush fires and assess damage from natural disasters.
The Predator B is remotely controlled via a pilot located at a ground station. The aircraft possesses an infrared camera and an effective communication system that can relay back heat signatures and coordinates from brush fires. The information is forwarded to airborne firefighters to alert them to the location of the fire. According to the LA Times, dozens of drone missions were flown between Grand Forks, ND, and Columbia, MO, during the months of March to July 2011 to monitor flooding of several major rivers.
With the recent successes of monitoring natural disasters the number of drones deployed around the United States is planned to increase, and despite the aid they have provided in these areas, some are skeptical about their future use. Many are concerned with invasion of privacy and being watched by “eyes in the sky”. According to the LA Times article, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) fears that the “unregulated use of drone aircraft ‘leaves the gates wide open for a dramatic increase in surveillance of American life.’”
Another concern with the increased use of drones in U.S. airspace is the ability of the remotely located pilots to spot other air traffic. It is an ongoing issue within the Federal Aviation Administration and only after a complete assessment is a drone released in U.S. airspace for border patrol or disaster surveillance, although the process can be sped up in emergencies. Collision avoidance capabilities for drones are not currently at a level where they can avoid all surrounding air traffic, so there is a known risk when operating these aircraft. Incidents such as the loss of contact of the MQ-8B Fire Scout UAV during tests at the Naval Air Station in Patuxent River, MD, often bring national attention to the risks associated with the use of unmanned aircraft. Last August the Fire Scout flew 23 miles off course and entered restricted airspace over Washington, D.C. before controllers regained contact and brought it back to base.
Despite some of these concerns, these aircraft also bring unique capabilities to the table that have already proven beneficial in during their use. Some of these aircraft have the ability to remain in the air for 20 hours at a time, and they can provide essential information from areas where it may be too dangerous for a manned aircraft. Whether it is locating rogue brush fires or providing live footage of flooded areas, these aircraft have shown that they can be capable of performing when needed.