Government and the Unmanned-Systems Revolution

From aerial drones to underwater robots, unmanned systems are moving beyond their military roots. They have the potential to transform government services.

Your driverless sedan is traveling down the I-5 in the Unmanned-HOV lane, taking you to your office at the California Environmental Protection Agency. While reviewing the drone video-feed of a pipeline inspection on your tablet, you receive a notification from your other robot, BIOSwimmer, that the Long Beach oil spill clean-up is almost complete. You forward the notice to your virtual assistant software, which incorporates the update into the morning briefing memo for your director. Unmanned systems have made your passion for protecting California's waterways so easy ... it doesn't even feel like work.

This scenario may seem far off, but a confluence of factors, including cheaper and lighter technology as well as increasing regulatory flexibility, are rapidly driving unmanned systems into civilian governmental domains as well as into commercial use.

New applications of unmanned systems, such as the use of aerial drones to track poachers, Google's driverless car project and the BIOSwimmer, a tuna-shaped unmanned system that can dive into harsh underwater environments, illustrate the broad realm of possible applications. The non-military unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) market alone is projected to exceed $5 billion in the coming years. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers estimates that driverless cars will constitute 75 percent of vehicles on the road by 2040. Technological advances and limitless applications of unmanned systems have ignited serious debate in academic, commercial and policy circles about their potential to revolutionize the way we live and work.

Wired magazine's January cover story, "Better than Human," elicited a series of responses about the provocative idea that automation will replace 70 percent of current occupations before the end of the century. Some analysts find the unmanned-systems movement disconcerting, while others see it as inevitable and a boon to productivity. As the application of these tools expands outside of the defense and intelligence realms, local, state and federal agencies have the opportunity to transform their service-delivery models through effectively capitalizing on unmanned technologies.

Some civilian agencies already are leveraging unmanned systems. The U.S. Geological Survey, for example, uses UAVs to survey the 500 million acres of land under the Department of the Interior's jurisdiction, a task that may be too-cost prohibitive to complete by traditional ground or manned observations. At the state and local level, entities as disparate in mission as the Seattle police department and agriculture researchers at Virginia Tech have applied for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certificates of authorization to access national airspace. Between 2009 and 2011, the FAA issued such certificates for more than 750 unmanned aircraft.

Given the initial military applications of many unmanned systems, the current body of knowledge and leading practices for operating them are mostly classified. However, civilian agencies, academia and private users already are working to create codes of conduct and operational norms.

Capitalizing on unmanned systems will likely require many of the same policy and operational changes that accompany the adoption of any new technology. For example, the public sector should consider strategies to manage and synthesize the large volumes of new data that will be collected. Users also will need to identify and put in place the appropriate security frameworks to ensure privacy and reduce risk. Agencies likely will need to adapt their workforce models to include new roles such as avionics technicians, mapping software engineers and UAV operators.

Will the public sector be able to work out these privacy, security and workforce issues and harness this technology to drive cost savings and better serve citizens? These issues will need to be addressed soon, because the unmanned-systems revolution already has arrived.