Dawn or Doom: The Rise of Unmanned Aircraft Systems

by Rachel Hippensteel | staff writer

As a part of Purdue’s Dawn or Doom 2 series, Eric Matson, an Associate Professor in Purdue Polytechnic Institute, spoke this Thursday about the emerging technology of unmanned aircraft systems (UAV). Most of us refer to these as drones, and it is common to spot them flying around in this day and age. However, their emergence may come with a price, as Matson was quick to point out. “Are thinking components combined with physical machines the dawn of a bright future or the harbingers of doom for the human race?” he asked.

First, he insists, we must recognize why UAVs are so valued in today’s society. The most common jobs they are given pertain to the three Ds: dirty, dangerous, and dull. Humans would gladly replace workers in mundane or risky positions with a drone. For instance, these drones can be used for a variety of work ranging from delivering package and completing farming tasks, to providing security. They’re also generally cheap, available anywhere, and can be purchased by almost anyone. But do the cons outweigh the pros? “We’re engineering our own obsolescence,” Matson said, referring to the idea that we could lose many jobs and skills from replacing work with drones.

Danger was the key issue that Matson brought up. UAVs can be used to carry explosives and other hazardous materials, leaving the perpetrator far from the scene of the crime. “These can fly 18 pounds of drugs over the border,” Matson added. Most people, in fact, feel fear or paranoia when they see a drone overhead—the intent of a UAV can be completely unknown to onlookers, which makes them even more dangerous. In a place like Ross Ade Stadium, a drone could fly over and a fan wouldn’t see it until it made it directly in front of them. Recently, the White House experienced an event where an intoxicated man flew his drone almost straight to the White House doors, and the federal government quickly worked to find a way to prevent something like this from happening again.

It began when eight US universities were called in by the federal government to come up with a solution: an autonomous system that could eliminate a UAV quickly and efficiently. Purdue was one of the universities tasked with the job, and they were the only university that did not completely give up on it. Matson and his team (including several students here at Purdue) called the task Project Bananas because of its seemingly impossible requirements but by summer had designed a UAV that could carry a monofilament net which would entrap another UAV mid-flight, catching the blades and therefore shutting the system down. In doing this, Purdue was able to enact the first autonomous drone kill ever.

Though Matson emphasized both the advantages and disadvantages of such technology, he made sure to also point out all of the laws regarding UAVS. For starters, you may not legally fly a drone on Purdue’s campus and can be heavily fined if you’re caught doing so. However, in a law that Matson believes should be changed, it is also illegal to shoot down a drone flying overhead, even if it is flying above your own property. This is considered a terrorist act by the government since the drone is specified as an aircraft; you would be doing the law’s equivalent of hijacking an airplane. The polarity between these two laws makes it apparent that discussion on unmanned aircraft systems is not over but will surely increase as more incidents occur in the future.

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