Fire, cooked food, the wheel.
Nanoscale processors, agile sensors, ultra high speed computing, advanced materials, robust wi-fi systems and GPS.
The first string is of items that are obviously as old as humanity. The second includes some of the technologies that define our age and are at the core of the world to come. All of these things are fundamental, transformative technologies that have altered the course of human history.
While it might strike some as an outrageous assertion, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are, in the judgment of many tech forecasters, in the same category as fire, the wheel, and our awesome computing and telecommunications revolution.
Some days ago, I had breakfast with Dr. Jamey Jacob: a professor at OSU/Stillwater in the aerospace/mechanical engineering department. Jacob is one of several faculty members managing and teaching in Oklahoma's frontline unmanned vehicle systems gambit and one of the region's scholars in "drone world," and when we sat down, he was only days away from attending the national UAV/autonomous systems association conference in Washington, D.C.
War and Precision
As almost everybody knows, drones have been used heavily by our government in the Afghan war and extensively as part of our mostly unacknowledged counterterrorism engagement in Pakistan. As a matter of fact, these attacks, contentious as they are, have, according to military/geopolitical strategist like Max Boot and some of his scholar peers, decimated the mainstream Al Qaeda organization, not only in these two arenas, but also in Yemen and Somalia where offshoots of Al Qaeda are operating. Essentially, America's bête noire has been greatly diminished and is no longer the outsized threat that they were six years ago.
A host of observers believes that this outcome is a direct consequence of our accelerated drone campaign and drone-driven surveillance efforts by the U.S. to decapitate Al Qaeda. So has the drone/counterterrorism program been successful? It looks like it has been, with a not-insignificant cost to the U.S.'s moral/soft power.
There's no doubt: the Obama administration has accelerated the use of drones over the course of the last five years. Obama's drone war is a campaign that has made agile use of drones to mitigate American losses while aggressively quashing a still-evolving threat. At the same time, drones have minimized the number of innocent civilians killed or injured in the course of carrying out our military and geopolitical objectives in the so-called War on Terror.
While estimates of drone "collateral" deaths are inherently difficult to produce, they range over the course of the last six years, from 407 to about a 1,000 with nearly 200 children in the mix; according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an "anti-drone" chronicler.
Interestingly, recent months have seen a dramatic slowdown in the number of drone strikes: a policy change consciously initiated by the Obama administration, together with what looks to be a tight, high-level review of drone targeting practices, policy objectives and a reflections on the diplomatic and pan country reputational damage produced by our Drone Wars. This policy review is a good thing -- a very good thing.
Agriculture, Public Safety and Weather
Incredibly, Oklahoma, and the OSU aerospace/mechanical engineering community -- plus a slew of perhaps two dozen small technology and systems firms -- are at the forefront of what could be a great commercial drone development "spike" packed with employment, growth, and, startup company potential for Oklahomans.
Jacob and I talked about several UAV/drone realms, including some close to revolutionary farming and agricultural applications. He spoke about using small drones and exotic sensor/software combs to assist cattle ranchers.
Knowing where cattle are at all times is apparently a big problem with cattle operations. For decades, the only way of tracking this was by getting in a vehicle, roaming around doing counts, and rounding up missing critters.
With the unprecedented, panoramic capacity associated with a small unmanned vehicle, a rancher can keep a more or less continuous track of a herd and, with some of the new, advanced sensing technologies, can actually monitor elements of the health of individual cows and build a record of growth and metabolic changes in parts of the herd. The cattle herding efforts are still in development, but could represent a novel productivity path for ranchers -- in Oklahoma and across the planet.
And with Oklahoman's huge legacy with animal production and veterinary science, this could create a competitive advantage that we might be able to hand off to small startup firms and the ag industry more generally: Jacob's told me he was working with Dr. Corey Moffet of Oklahoma's Noble Foundation and his OSU colleague Dr. J.D. Carlson on this thrust.
On the human/emergency services side of things, Jacobs touched on first-responder and novel public safety applications of drones.
In Prometheus, Ridley Scott's fantastic addition to his Alien franchise, a crew member throws a couple of flying orbs into the vast interior of an alien structure to begin the crew's investigation. In the film, the orbs fly around in an autonomous way, mapping out every corridor, portal and lurid channel of the scary facility. The information is then conveyed to a giant 3D conference room display aboard the crew's mother ship. Jacob told me that he and his colleagues are engaged with state fire officials to explore a similarly-purposed set of small, sensor-packed UAV's that could be used to scope out a burning building. Jacob's used the 1995 Murrah Building tragedy as a for-instance. A small posse of drones, he suggested, could've scoped out the contours of the ravaged federal building immediately after the disaster and might have helped identify survivors, all without sending human firefighters into dangerous, toxic spaces.
Jacob also talked about using UAVs to monitor the genesis, spread, and progression of wildfires, again without sending humans up in aircraft which might be endangered by high velocity winds and the turbulence generated by a wildfire event. Sending a small fleet of drones aloft for extended periods, in the midst of a wildfire, he suggested, could give firefighters the panoramic capacity to forecast the character and the internal dynamics of a large wildfire episode -- something that can't be adequately done at the moment.
Finally, in one of the most fascinating parts of our conversation, Jacob and I talked about a couple of UAV-driven tornado and storm monitoring projects, an ensemble of efforts that Jacob's and OU's Dr. Phillip Chilson are exploring: an advance that might extend the amount of time available to give warnings for people in the vicinity of a tornado: more about this later.
We have pros like Jacob in Oklahoma who are on the bleeding edge of this new landscape. And many of the people and projects in play are on the peaceful-use/commercial side of the drone revolution.
Can we keep our advantage, and will we?
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