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Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Essay

Border security continues to become a core policy development priority for the United States because this cuts across various issues faced by the country including illegal immigration, drug trafficking, human trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism. Congressional debates center on two issues, the focus of border security efforts in relation to budget allocation and means of improving border security (Sullivan, 2009) as a preventive measure instead of a reactive process as in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

Border security involves the patrol of the 6,000 miles of land border with Mexico and Canada and 2,000 miles of coastal waters of Florida and Puerto Rico. The task of border patrol is to identify and assess potential threats and respond effectively. However, even with a large workforce of 30,000, border security has jurisdiction over a large and widespread area encompassing land, sea and air space.

(Customs & Border Protection, 2009) Patrolling a large area and simultaneously handling the issues of illegal immigration, drug trafficking, smuggling, and terrorist threats makes border security a daunting task because of the limitations in the vantage point of land and sea mobile personnel. This led to efforts to adopt unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as an integral technology for border patrol. Unmanned aerial vehicles refer to aircrafts without a pilot on board and controlled from the ground.

These are fitted with sensors that transmit data to orbiting satellites that in turn bounce data to receivers on the ground. The transmission of data takes seconds to happen so that the receipt of data is almost instantaneous. UAVs can fly long distances at high altitudes or short distances at lower altitudes depending on the purpose of use. High altitude flights can provide information on large targets such as trucks while low altitude flights provide better information on smaller targets such as humans.

(Valavanis, 2007, p. 533) As a border patrol technology, UAVs fill the limitations of the land and sea vantage points. History and Uses of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Unmanned aerial vehicles have existed for more than a century and continued to evolve with the development of technologies to improve flight control and dynamics as well as imaging and data acquisition and transmission. UAVs developed as a military initiative and it was only in the past few decades that UAV found non-military or civil use.

With its roots in the military, the Department of National Defense defined UAVs as “a powered aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or non-lethal payload” (Valavanis, 2007, p. 533). The definition clarifies the capabilities of UAVs, its possible purposes, and the innovative developments that accumulated over the decades. The idea of unmanned aerial vehicles existed as early as the First World War.

The idea targeted improvements in the discharge or delivery of guided missiles. However, existing technology was unable to facilitate the development of the flight control system needed to have a functioning unmanned aircraft delivering missiles to the enemy’s territory. The gyroscopic devices developed by Elmer Sperry in 1909 became the predecessor of inertia navigation system applied in modern UAVs. At the same time, the Western Electric Company also developed radio control technology for the remote piloting of aircraft.

Radio control together with inertia navigation system paved the way for the development of UAVs. These technologies were adopted by the military in developing a cruising missile but efforts met problems. UAVs were used instead as target drones for anti-aircraft practice and actual warfare countermeasures. This was the first use of UAVs. However, the navy continued research into flight control and navigation initiatives that included the fitting of RCA cameras and radar guidance system to improve control and make drones capable of delivering missiles.

Developments led to the use of UAVs as target drones in World War II. (Zaloga & Palmer, 2008, pp. 4-9) After the Second World War, the UAVs further evolved into tools in espionage during the Cold War. While control and guidance of the drones continued as an area of innovation, greater focus was given to the image capture capability of UAVs for surveillance. During the 1950s, surveillance UAVs were fitted with daylight and infrared cameras, rocket-assisted takeoff, radar tracking, and radio control. The shooting down of a manned aircraft resulting to the capture of pilots renewed development efforts in the 1970s.

Drones became decoys until the Russian radar technology developed to make decoys ineffective. Efforts focused on developing drones with reduced radar signature, increased range, and improved flight control. The new drones were christened as lighting bugs and used in the Vietnam War. (Zaloga & Palmer, 2008, pp. 10-12) After the Cold War, technology innovation on UAVs continued in support for combat operations. The 1980s witnessed key developments including improved satellite communications, compact or miniature technology, and state of the art sensors.

Improved data and imagery and better navigation control led to the use of UAVs for “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and for time critical targeting” (p. 1). The development in UAVs split into technology for small and large UAVs. The size was a consideration because of differences in navigation control and capabilities. In large UAVs, the flight and retrieval control is separable from its data and imaging functions so that it can transmit information via satellite links while on flight while in small UAVs retrieval of the aircraft is necessary before obtaining information.

(Drew et al. , 2005, p. 1) Now, the uses of UAVs are increasing. Traffic control is one use of UAVs because its aerial view provides accurate information on traffic conditions over a particular area. Search and rescue operations also benefit from UAVs providing an initial view of the situation in conditions unsafe for manned aircraft. (Borchardt, 2004, p. 28) Recently, small UAVs were used to gather data and assess the damage caused by Hurricane Wilma in areas inaccessible due to flooding and blocked roads (Murphy et al. , 2008, p. 164).

NASA also developed sensor technology for the monitoring of pollution and measurement of ozone levels using UAVs. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology integrated global positioning technology and video camera control in UAVs for sensing toxic substances and contaminated areas. The Department of Energy also announced the development of radiation sensor for UAVs for use in detecting nuclear accidents. (Bolkcom & Nunez-Neto, 2008, p. 2) Different data processing, imaging and other features evolve depending on the purpose intended for UAVs.

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