Technology and communications experts in public and private sectors alike have already declared that one of the next game-changing, world-altering technologies has landed with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones.

The word “drone” has become a mainstay in our military’s vernacular, as these unmanned surveillance aircrafts have become an important tool in the War On Terror in the last decade. UAVs have been instrumental in aiding ground forces by lending an unparalleled perspective of the battlefield beyond enemy lines, as well as by delivering payloads to targets without risking our soldiers’ presence in the pilot seat.

Whereas the drones being used stateside for commercial and private industry applications pose a far less threatening makeup and agenda, it’s not to say that security-minded tactical capabilities are non-existent and not already actively in use as well. To learn more about the current state of domestic drone usage, I met with expert drone designer and UAV pilot Brian Deatherage of Arizona FPV. He shared some of his experiences working in the emerging drone market and discussed some of the commercial capabilities, current rules and regulations, the most prevalent misconceptions surrounding personal UAV technology, and how such drones are already operating within the realm of personal security and survival.

Personal & Home Protection


UAVs come in all shapes and sizes, and can either be built from ready-to-assemble kits or purchased ready to fly. Ranging from small, Styrofoam construction, single-propeller-driven planes to disc-shaped saucers resembling alien UFOs, drones run the gamut in terms of appearance and features. The models Arizona FPV specialize in, and what appears to be dominating the market currently, are ultra-lightweight, carbon-fiber composite, multi-rotor, remote-controlled helicopters.

Some of these personal drones are able to be flown for up to 45 minutes on a single battery charge and can travel up to 2 miles from the controller, reaching effective surveillance altitudes of approximately 1,000 feet. Because of their small size (approximately 2-3 feet in circumference by 1 foot tall assembled) some of these drones are able to be transported in large backpacks and can be assembled quickly on site for rapid deployment.

Most new-school UAV drones are outfitted with small high-definition cameras that transmit the video image back to the receiving monitor mounted to the controller. Upgrade these modules to heat-detecting FLIR (forward looking infrared) or night-vision cameras and your drone is effective during both day and night. The perspective these drones lend to those in control is truly staggering to see. When the craft is airborne, the pilots have a birds-eye view, or they can even watch the action below by wearing a pair of video goggles that resemble a virtual reality headset.

Custom Surveillance

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Today’s UAVs can be flown manually using a traditonal joystick-style remote controller, or navigated autonomously via a specialized computer program or smartphone app.

UAVs differ from a conventional remote-controlled hobby aircraft in that they can be flown manually using a traditional joystick-style remote controller, or they can be navigated autonomously via a specialized computer program or app, hence the “drone” moniker. These features give you the drop on a potential would-be assailant or trespasser, a valuable asset in any personal security and surveillance-geared system.

Taking it a step further, you can literally put your security guards on autopilot. “Drone operators can simply input the desired flight plan coordinates on a GPS map, kind of like Google Maps, and allow the drones to fly themselves from point to point and back again,” noted Deatherage.

The camera can also be automated to pan, tilt and zoom between locations on the map. This feature is extremely beneficial to security agents in charge of performing routine monitoring and maintenance on large land operations or job sites. For example, multiple stores of valuable equipment in a construction yard, key areas on oil pipelines, or vulnerable perimeter entry points on any large expanse of land can be monitored quickly by a single drone.

“You can program the drones to launch at regular intervals throughout the day, survey specific areas or features on the map, record video and transmit it all back in real-time, or record it to a DVR for logging and review later,” Deatherage noted. The drones can even be programmed to deploy when event-driven triggers, such as seismic sensors, motion detectors and invisible infrared geo-fences are activated by an unidentified presence.

Personal UAVs can also be outfitted with defensive and offensive countermeasures, ready to be deployed at the touch of a button. Deatherage cited a recent demonstration video that went viral online of a multi-rotor drone outfitted with a projectile-based stun gun effortlessly tracking and subduing a simulated “attacker.” Arizona FPV “doesn’t specialize in that aspect of the technology.” But when it comes to drones, applications for personal security and survival are limitless.

Operational Hazards


With all of the thought and consideration that has been put into the ways drones can be used for security and survival applications, an equal amount of time has been invested in keeping the craft itself, as well as the pedestrians and property below, safe during operation. Intricate sensor arrays are mounted throughout the drone’s framework, enabling them to detect the slightest changes in inertia, wind speed, positioning and overall mechanical stability. They can even be programmed with proximity sensors to automatically detect objects in their direct vicinity should they happen to travel too close to them.

When asked about the reliability and safety of such drones, Detherage explained that most advanced UAVs also employ a series of safeguards such as “return to home” or “emergency landing” protocol features that will actively command the drone to return to a pre-plotted landing zone and shut itself down should it travel outside of the controller’s range or detect any mechanical issues, such as a depletion of battery power below a certain level. Models of UAVs like the six-rotor ones that Arizona FPV manufactures, are even able to remain airborne and stable should one of the propellers cease operation for any reason.

Search & Rescue Drones


Drone technology is being used to benefit communities nationwide in the survival arena through the deployment of UAVs in search-and-rescue efforts. Non-profit groups of UAV enthusiasts and hobbyists around the country have taken to lending their aerial surveillance talents and aircraft in the search-and-rescue efforts for missing individuals alongside local law enforcement and other first responders. Because the UAVs are easily deployable and can navigate into areas that full-sized helicopters cannot, they have become an optimal choice for investigating areas such as ravines, canyons, large bodies of water and other difficult terrain.

Firefighters have also found UAVs to present a valuable tool in wildland firefighting missions. Short- and long-range drones can provide real-time GPS data, indicating where developing fires and “hot spots” may lie within the forest below via FLIR cameras. These drones are also able to supply valuable data such as changing wind speed and other fluctuating environmental qualities that can alter the course of a wildfire, all for less than the cost of one full-size helicopter fuel-up in most cases.

Survival Tech


In spite of the technology’s many benefits, the FAA has voiced concern over the increasing use of drones and has prohibited the “commercial” use of drones altogether. A recent ruling by a federal judge, however, has overturned the FAA’s attempts, declaring that no actual law has been put in place regulating the specific UAV aircrafts in question. UAV enthusiasts further argue that the existing laws governing hobby aircraft, such as remote-controlled model airplanes and helicopters capable of reaching the same altitudes as UAVs, already do and should continue to govern the personal UAV crafts.

In discussing the FAA agenda, Deatherage cited another set of safety protocols that are widely used in the UAV industry called “no-fly zone” settings. This setting detects local airfields, military bases or other installations where airspace is restricted and personal aircraft such as UAVs are not permitted to fly. The setting restricts the flight pattern of the UAV to circumnavigate these areas via GPS and keeps them at low, FAA-compliant altitudes.

The classic “hammer” analogy still holds true when evaluating UAVs in society: A well intentioned carpenter can use a hammer to build another man a home, and a malicious man can use that very same hammer to cause great harm to others. With this simple concept in mind, perhaps the advent of UAV tech ought to be examined for what it is at its very core: another tool in humanity’s survival and security toolbox.

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This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE TM Fall 2014 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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