Drone on the range

IAI Heron 1 UAV in flight. SSGT REYNALDO RAMON, USAF wiki commons

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! What is that thing swooping through the Oregon skies?

It’s not the May 21st Rapture — no planes are needed for that — but something strange might be flying through Oregon’s atmosphere with a proposed new drone testing area on the state’s east side. Unmanned aerial vehicles can be as small and virtually undetectable as an insect or a hummingbird (and look disturbingly like one) while the Predator drones being used by the Pentagon in Afghanistan and Pakistan are full-size airplanes armed with deadly missiles.

If the thought of micro-spy planes disguised as pretty birds or of giant unmanned flying robots shooting people creeps you out, you are not alone. A British Ministry of Defence study on the ethics of drones in the military released in April says the robotic vehicles have the potential to begin an “incremental and involuntary journey towards a Terminator-like reality.”

Jean Aguerre of Not 1 More Acre, who has been fighting the establishment of the world’s largest joint forces future combat systems training area stretching from Colorado into New Mexico, says when it comes to remote control warfare, “The technological genie is already out of the ethical bottle.”

The British report was ordered by officials concerned about the growing controversy over the use of drones against insurgents in Afghanistan and Pakistan — a controversy incited by the U.S., although Aguerre and others say the U.S. has avoided dealing with the ethical issues of high-tech warfare, concentrating instead on the profit to American industry. “Is this the road to perpetual war because it’s so profitable?” Aguerre asks. She adds that “robotic warfare is the most expensive weapon systems ever designed and built.”

The drone attacks have not slowed down in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. That mission against the al Qaeda leader was manned, though drones were debated as an option. Ironically, a free computer videogame emulating the mission, “Bin Laden Raid,” came out only a week after his assassination.

The British report goes on to say, “It is essential that before unmanned systems become ubiquitous (if it is not already too late) … we ensure that, by removing some of the horror, or at least keeping it at a distance, we do not risk losing our controlling humanity and make war more likely.”

If senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and some folks from Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO) have their way, and the FAA reauthorization bill is signed into law with an increase in drone-testing areas inserted, then a swath of Oregon’s high desert, currently home to sage grouse and antelope, could become prime real estate for drones or more accurately, unmanned aerial vehicles, also called unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Drone zone advocates see the testing area as a way to bring money and business back to Oregon, and the pro-drone contingent says that the planes will benefit everyone from unemployed aviation industry workers to lost hikers. But drone drawbacks include not only potential effects on Oregon’s wild lands, but ethical considerations as well. As war becomes more and more like a high tech video game, the question becomes: Does Oregon want to be in the business of testing killing machines?

A sage grouse struts his stuff
map courtesy onda

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

A typical “drone,” says Oregon State University professor Belinda Batten, is a big plane requiring a bunch of people to remotely pilot it.

For example, a large Predator drone in Afghanistan can be manned by as many as seven or eight crewmembers sitting in the United States.

Batten, a professor of mechanical engineering, researches something called autonomous vehicles — craft, both in the air and at sea — that guide themselves. They can have a wingspan as small as six inches. “An autonomous vehicle is responsible for getting itself from point A to point B,” she says. Batten and a team of OSU grad students are part of a $6-million joint research project, funded in 2007 by the U.S. Air Force, studying the way bats fly in order to “develop autonomous vehicles that are more maneuverable, more agile,” she says.

The study looks at details like the way hair on a bat’s wings acts as a sensor and allows it to adjust itself and become more aerodynamic, as well as at the flexibility of its wings. The idea would be to develop a plane that — like a bird — can tumble, flutter, roll and fly into something, bounce off it, correct itself and continue.

“The applications are vast,” says Batten, adding that UAVs are particularly useful in humanitarian situations. She points out that Oregon is on the Cascade Subduction Zone and if there was a catastrophic earthquake, unmanned vehicles could be sent into collapsed buildings instead of human rescuers to find survivors. UAVs could find lost hikers on Mt. Hood and determine if they were still alive and capable of being rescued without risking more lives. On the science front, a UAV could fly into forest canopies, Batten says, and assess bird populations.

It’s important to remind people, Batten argues, that many technological advances that improve life start out funded by the military or NASA. “Anything can be used for both good and bad purposes.”

But one scientist’s humanitarian aid is another person’s nightmare. While UAVs might save lives in the United States, UAVs and drones are being used to spy and to drop missiles that kill more civilians than military targets. A 2009 report by the Brookings Institution suggests that in Pakistan drone attacks, “for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.”

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the Los Angeles Times recently acquired the transcript of the radio transmissions of a Predator drone’s crew from February of 2010. The transcript records the crew discussing whether to bomb two sport utility vehicles and a pickup truck in Afghanistan. In the end, they dropped Hellfire missiles on the convoy. More than 20 innocent civilians — no weapons or Taliban were found — were killed and wounded by the attack, including women and children. The conversation of the drone’s crew, operating from a military base in Nevada while talking to “screeners” at another base in Florida who were reading the drone’s video feed, is casual, callous.

“Sweet target,” the drone’s camera operator comments, looking at people riding in the bed of the pickup truck as the crew tries to determine if the Afghans are friend or foe. “Be ready for a lot of (expletive deleted) squirters, dude,” says the pilot. “Squirter” is slang for people who run for cover as drones fly overhead and reflects the videogame attitude that is the result of bombing humans via video feed. Drones target and shoot the squirters as they flee after an attack.

Home Sweet Drone

If a UAV testing area were opened up in Central Oregon, there wouldn’t be any bombs falling from drones, Predator or otherwise. “They would not be dropping ordinances; it couldn’t happen in the air space we’re looking to create,” says Roger Lee, EDCO director.

When the recession hit the east side of Oregon, Lee says, “There was a half a billion dollar industry here in manufacturing general aviation aircraft and components.” There is less than a fifth of that today, he says. Collins Hemingway, chair of the aviation recruitment committee for EDCO, adds that at least two aircraft companies went bankrupt in the region. The industry got together, Lee says, and began meeting to figure out what could utilize the talent base that was still there. The UAV industry had the most promise, Hemingway says, and “what we’d like to see is getting some of our unemployed people back to work.”

EDCO says a dozen companies have already said they would use the testing area and cites Northwest companies including Insitu, Boeing and Evergreen Aviation as all benefiting from a drone testing area.

There are benefits for Oregonians not in the aviation industry too, Hemingway says, echoing Batten’s list of nonmilitary uses for drones. He says unmanned craft could be used in place of human pilots in high-risk situations such as tanker drops to put out forest fires. Mini UAVs, he says, can be used in orchard management. Hemingway says the planes could also be used to patrol for invasive weeds. Ranchers could monitor fences with unmanned craft; law enforcement could patrol for drugs. “Anything you can practically think of when it comes to getting information,” Lee adds.

EDCO drew up a proposal in November asking Wyden, Merkley and Rep. Greg Walden “to request an amendment to the FAA reauthorization bill or other action necessary to establish a test area for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) within an hour’s drive of Bend, Oregon.”

According to the proposal, 35 percent of all aircraft ordered by the Air Force next year will be unmanned systems, and “the Air Force’s Unmanned Aircraft System Flight Plan predicts that UAS will replace nearly every manned plane — from fighters to tankers to bombers — by mid-century.” EDCO estimates that if the region got just 5 percent of the military’s research and development spending, the economic benefit would be $75 million per year.

Not everyone sees military spending as a plus. “The number one driver of the U.S. economy is U.S. military contracts,” Aguerre says. She cites a statistic showing a million dollars of taxpayer money a day goes to fund the American war machine.

EDCO says the drone industry is stifled by current rules and a lack of areas to test the planes. The Boardman Bombing Range (aka the Naval Weapons Systems Training Facility Boardman) is the closest place one can go to test unmanned systems, and they say it’s booked up.

So EDCO suggests that the Federal Aviation Administration allow drone testing in already established Military Operations Areas (MOA). Conveniently, within an hour of Bend lie the Juniper Military Operations areas, three contiguous MOAs. The Juniper MOAs extend roughly east to west from Brothers to Burns, and south from those two towns to between Paisley and Frenchglen, according to EDCO. Hemingway says that within the MOAs, the group has homed in on a spot “on the western side away from highways and airways.”

Less conveniently within the MOA lie proposed wilderness areas, BLM-designated wild lands, wilderness study areas and part of a national wildlife refuge.

It’s also home to sage grouse, a bird species that has been in decline in Oregon. According to the Oregon Natural Desert Association, there is warrant to list the rapidly disappearing sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act, but thanks to politics and a backlog with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the sage grouse lingers on a waiting list with 250 other species.

Matt Little, ONDA’s conservation director, says the group wants there to be public input on determining where the unmanned systems testing area would be. Also of concern is how high the drones would fly and where they will go, he says. ONDA is advocating for the wild areas to remain wild.

If the language from Wyden and fellow Democratic Senator Charles Schumer’s amendment makes it into the final version of the FAA bill and Oregon’s high desert is selected as a drone site, Little is hoping that the National Environmental Policy Act will come into play, though he says the military has some exemptions to this ecological protection.

NEPA, Little says, “was passed to ensure that the environmental impacts of federal actions are reviewed and mitigated or avoided.” He says, “Since this proposal would authorize people to drive across public lands and test new types of aircraft over large tracts of sensitive high desert lands, their impacts must be assessed and alternatives must be developed to avoid those impacts.”

Male sage grouse congregate during the mating season in certain spots, called leks, year after year, display their plumage and strut their stuff to attract a mate. Disturbed lek sites and habitat have been a factor in the decline of the sage grouse, Little says.

In addition to sage grouse, the areas are home to elk, mule deer and antelope. Little says ONDA wants to “prevent any impacts to proposed wilderness areas and certain types of wildlife habitats.”

Humans enjoy the solitude and wildness of those areas as well, and a key to wilderness is keeping it “untrammeled by man,” according to the Wilderness Act. So while people may hike and camp in wilderness areas, things that affect the nature of the area, such as road building, are not allowed.

If drones fly over these areas, Little asks, “what do you do when a drone crashes and you have to retrieve it?”

Hemingway says, “For the most part I think we can avoid the areas that are either proposed wilderness areas or the proposed wilderness study areas.” He says, “If there is a situation where we need to fly over one, we would make sure we flew sufficiently high so that we would make sure not to disturb anyone on the ground, whether it was a person or a critter of some kind.”

In general, most of the drones “will fly between 1,500 and 3,000 feet above the ground,” Hemingway says. “They don’t generally hug the earth. There’s a ratio, the lower they fly, the closer they are going to fly to you.” He says the engines are small and “designed to be quiet; a lot of them are used for surveillance.”

Drones in Congress

Versions of the FAA reauthorization bill have passed in the House and in the Senate. Only the Senate side contained Sen. Wyden’s proposal that would increase the number of testing sites for unmanned aerial vehicles from four to six and included language about diversity of geography, adding to the chances that a proposed testing area in Central Oregon would be included. The two versions of the bill must be reconciled before it can be signed into law, and contentious spending issues thus far have held up the process.

If the legislation passes, it would facilitate what would otherwise be a complicated regulatory process. Nonetheless, Lee and Hemingway say EDCO’s drone testing area proposal could still go forward, even without the bill.

Sen. Jeff Merkley was a cosponsor of Wyden’s amendment. The amendment itself did not make it into S. 223, but the key language about expanding the number of test areas from Wyden and Schumer’s proposal did.

According to a list of 2011 defense appropriations requests submitted by Merkley, the senator asked for $18 million in spending on technologies for unmanned vehicles. Merkley told EW, “I guess the way I see it is this is just the beginning of a conversation about an interesting idea.”

Rhetoric about drones and drone areas from Oregon’s Congressional delegation has centered on the civilian uses of the aircraft, not their military potential or the fact that the drone research is financed by the military.

In terms of drone ethics and worries that drones turn war into a videogame, Merkley says: “The question of utilizing an area to test drones for commercial use doesn’t specifically raise those issues because there’s a whole range of commercial issues.” The  “primary role,” he says, of a drone is “surveillance.” But, he adds, when they are used to attack and destroy it’s the “same issues as with manned aircraft on when to utilize munitions.”

When he introduced the idea of expanding the drone testing areas on the Senate floor, Wyden said, “Growth in the unmanned aerial system sector in the aviation business has been extraordinary in just the last few years. I think it’s well known that the systems are proving critical to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they also have tremendous potential in the civilian sector.”

Wyden’s staff says he was unable to talk to EW directly due to his position on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but his Deputy Chief of Staff, Jennifer Hoelzer, says the issue for Wyden is ensuring the drones are tested in geographically diverse areas so Oregon can find out if they will be useful in this state’s public lands. “Senator Wyden’s legislation doesn’t take a position on the use of drones, it merely recognizes that there are potential uses and asks for their full range of uses to be studied,” Hoelzer says.

What Aguerre of Not 1 More Acre says needs to be studied is the effects of drones and “technology that watches all of us” on people and the environment. The U.S. is “putting public lands in harm’s way of these high tech systems,” she says. What are the ethics, Aguerre asks, of “allowing untested research and development of technology that most people in the U.S. do not even begin to understand the complexities of, much less have signed off on? We have not even begun to deal with the ethics of the technology itself.”

Aguerre says, “Always when people have sacrificed enough at war, usually a negotiated end can be achieved.” Drone warfare, she says, is a “subtle way of making war permanent by not asking: What is war?”

As drone technology draws closer to a Northwest home, it may be that Oregonians will be among the first to find out what happens when soldiers and civilians man spycraft and weapons from a distance that is at once geographic and ethical.