National Geographic : 2013 Mar
124 national geographic • march 2013 A law signed by President Barack Obama in February 2012 directs the Federal Aviation Ad- ministration (FAA) to throw American airspace wide open to drones by September 30, 2015. But for now Mesa County, with its empty skies, is one of only a few jurisdictions with an FAA per- mit to fly one. The sheriff ’s office has a three- foot-wide helicopter drone called a Draganflyer, which stays aloft for just 20 minutes. The Falcon can fly for an hour, and it’s easy to operate. “You just put in the coordinates, and it flies itself,” says Benjamin Miller, who manages the unmanned aircraft program for the sheriff ’s office. To navigate, Johnson types the desired altitude and airspeed into the laptop and clicks targets on a digital map; the autopilot does the rest. To launch the Falcon, you simply hurl it into the air. An accelerometer switches on the propeller only after the bird has taken flight, so it won’t slice the hand that launches it. The stench from a nearby chicken-processing plant wafts over the alfalfa field. “Let’s go ahead and tell it to land,” Miser says to Johnson. After the deputy sheriff clicks on the laptop, the Fal- con swoops lower, releases a neon orange para- chute, and drifts gently to the ground, just yards from the spot Johnson clicked on. “The Raven can’t do that,” Miser says proudly. Offspring of 9/11 A dozen years ago only two communities cared much about drones. One was hobbyists who flew radio-controlled planes and choppers for fun. The other was the military, which car- ried out surveillance missions with unmanned aircraft like the General Atomics Predator. Then came 9/11, followed by the U.S. inva- sions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and drones rapidly a stubbly, dried-out alfalfa field outside Grand Junction, Colorado, Deputy Sheriff Derek John- son, a stocky young man with a buzz cut, squints at a speck crawling across the brilliant, hazy sky. It’s not a vulture or crow but a Falcon—a new brand of unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, and Johnson is flying it. The sheriff ’s office here in Mesa County, a plateau of farms and ranches corralled by bone-hued mountains, is weighing the Falcon’s potential for spotting lost hikers and criminals on the lam. A laptop on a table in front of Johnson shows the drone’s flickering images of a nearby highway. Standing behind Johnson, watching him watch the Falcon, is its designer, Chris Miser. Rock-jawed, arms crossed, sunglasses pushed atop his shaved head, Miser is a former Air Force captain who worked on military drones before quitting in 2007 to found his own company in Aurora, Colorado. The Falcon has an eight-foot wingspan but weighs just 9.5 pounds. Powered by an electric motor, it carries two swiveling cameras, visible and infrared, and a GPS-guided autopilot. Sophisticated enough that it can’t be exported without a U.S. government license, the Falcon is roughly comparable, Miser says, to the Raven, a hand-launched military drone— but much cheaper. He plans to sell two drones and support equipment for about the price of a squad car. By John Horgan Photographs by Joe McNally at the edge of Science writer John Horgan’s most recent book is The End of War. Joe McNally likes technology; his photos of the electrical grid appeared in July 2010.