National Geographic : 2013 Mar
132 national geographic • march 2013 military or the CIA. Nor do they include drone attacks that accidentally killed civilians or U.S. or allied troops. Even some proponents insist that drones must become much more reliable before they’re ready for widespread deployment in U.S. airspace. “No one should begrudge the FAA its mission of as- suring safety, even if it adds significant costs to suggest that defending against small drones would be difficult. Under a program called Black Dart, a mini-drone two feet long tested defenses at a military range. A video from its onboard camera shows a puff of smoke in the distance, from which emerges a tiny dot that rapidly grows larger before whizzing harmlessly past: That was a surface-to-air missile missing its mark. In a second video an F-16 fighter plane races past the drone without spotting it. The answer to the threat of drone attacks, some engineers say, is more drones. “The new field is counter-UAVs,” says Stephen Griffiths, an engineer for the Utah-based avionics firm Procerus Technologies. Artificial-vision systems de- signed by Procerus would enable one UAV to spot and destroy another, either by ramming it or shooting it down. “If you can dream it,” Griffiths says, “you can do it.” Eventually drones may be- come smart enough to operate autonomously, with mini- mal human supervision. But Griffiths believes the ultimate decision to attack will remain with humans. Another Man’s Nightmare Even when controlled by skilled, well-intentioned op- erators, drones can pose a hazard—that’s what the FAA is concerned about. The safety record of military drones is not reassuring. Since 2001, according to the Air Force, its three main UAVs—the Predator, Global Hawk, and Reaper—have been involved in at least 120 “mishaps,” 76 of which destroyed the drone. The statistics don’t include drones operated by the other branches of the This “micro air vehicle” with four rotors, made by KMel Robotics in Pennsylvania, can fly in swarms with its mates. The drones navigate autonomously, without a pilot.