While the airborne drones flying over Iraq and Afghanistan have been receiving a lot of attention, a small army of robotic vehicles with military pedigrees is quietly reporting for duty in the civilian world: UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles) and UUVs (unmanned underwater vehicles).
UGVs have actually been among us for a long time. One notable example is the robot the New York Police bomb squad used to help defuse a bomb in a parked van in tourist-packed Times Square. And automakers have been relentlessly working to pack more intelligence into passenger vehicles and trucks, including collision-warning systems and lane-departure warnings.
But are there driverless vehicles in our future?
"We’ll have optionally driven cars within 10 years … a car that is smart enough to take over if I ask it to or if it determines it needs to," said Kyle Snyder, director of knowledge resources for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
UGVs (unmanned ground vehicles)
Eventually, Snyder envisions fleets of unmanned pod cars providing on-demand, door-to-door ground transportation in urban areas, along with UGV cargo systems that would send convoys of 18-wheel autonomous cargo transports from coast-to-coast nonstop. He predicts that day is not far off. It’s not the technology that’s holding us back, he said.
"The sensors are almost there, particularly for highway type driving," he said. "Building up the supporting infrastructure is one of the main obstacles."
Other potential commercial applications, especially for UGVs that move on tank-like tracks, include surveillance in remote areas, or firefighting on rough terrain or at night when firefighting aircraft can’t operate.
For the UGV vision to succeed, vehicles need to communicate with each other and with the infrastructure itself so the vehicle knows where all the stoplights are. Insurance companies would have to get on board and governments would have to establish rules of the road and figure out how to incorporate both manned and unmanned vehicles in the same transportation ecosystem.
The federal government has just such a system on its radar. Building the necessary infrastructure is the mission of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (USDOT) IntelliDrive program, a "multimodal initiative that aims to enable safe, interoperable networked wireless communications among vehicles, the infrastructure, and passengers' personal communications devices."
UUVs (unmanned underwater vehicles)
The future Snyder paints is equally bright for unmanned watercraft.
Though UUVs got a brief black eye June 23 when a deep-sea robot bumped into the cap collecting oil from BP’s disaster-plagued oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, forcing a temporary halt in leak containment, they have a long history of serving as our eyes, ears and arms below the surface of the water.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) uses UUVs to monitor scallop beds in the Atlantic Ocean to see if there are contaminants in the area and how the scallop population is faring. UUVs have also been used by several research groups to explore and photograph exotic life and volcanic activity the bottom of the sea.
"We’re going to see more growth there and more autonomy," Snyder said. "They are still largely being remotely operated, but you’ll see more intelligence getting plugged in."
Snyder envisions a fleet of UUVs mapping the ocean floor and our lakes and rivers, much as Google Maps vehicles have mapped our streets. Other applications include underwater exploration and pipeline monitoring.
UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles)
UAVs above us is a trickier proposition, although rice farmers in Japan have been using small unmanned helicopters to spray their rice fields for years. In the U.S., law enforcement agencies, including the Miami/Dade County Police Department, have been experimenting with the use of UAVs for surveillance purposes.
But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which controls the nation’s air space, has been slow to certify unmanned operations.
"It’s not the FAA saying these things aren’t reliable, they aren’t safe, they’re not useful," Snyder said. "It’s the FAA saying let’s make sure they are safe, let’s make sure we have the rules in place to integrate them and let’s make sure we understand the impact of integrating UAVs in the air space."
When that day comes in the not-too-distant future, Snyder believes, the initial applications will be in the public safety arena and agricultural use.
But while driverless cars might transport humans around on the ground one day, Snyder says he can't foresee a day when passenger airplanes fly without pilots.
"I never foresee a passenger aircraft not having a pilot in the cockpit or not having an operator in the cockpit," Snyder said. "Part of it is human nature and part of it is that it’s going to be a long time before we have that level of confidence in the software and in the systems. But what we might see is unpiloted helicopters being used for medical evacuation in remote locations."
'Not in our lifetime'
Commercial pilot Patrick Smith also believes he won't be losing his job to robotic planes anytime soon. "To compare a UAV to a commercial plane is just outrageous," Smith, who is also author of Salon.com’s "Ask the Pilot" column. "It’s the ultimate apples and oranges comparison, at least where we are right now."
For one thing, human are still flying UAVs — it's just that the pilots are now on the ground, Smith said.
"There’s now this conventional wisdom that planes fly themselves and pilots are just there as monitors. The conventional wisdom is wrong," Smith said.
But will it ever happen? "Not in our lifetime," Smith said. "We’re not remotely close to being there."