What is a Drone? A Miserable Pile of Secrets.

by Joshua Marxen

Last quarter, the California Review published a story about a hoax staged by UCSD Art Professor Ricardo Dominguez, wherein a UAV had allegedly crashed on campus. The article talked about the issues concerning the use of UAV’s by the government, police departments, and private entities. But one of the most interesting questions – “to what extent is UCSD involved in researching Drone technology?” – was too tough to answer at the time. Since then, we have tried to get closer to answering this question, with limited success.


A quick summary of the results from the last article: Last July, Shawn Musgrave of muckrock.com filed a Sunshine Amendment Request – the Californian equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request – asking that the University of California, San Diego, to disclose any documents and contracts in it’s possession related to the school’s possible research activities involving UAVs. Initially, the University replied that no campus department had purchased Drones for the purposes of security – basically, they dodged the question. Musgrave replied with more specific requests, reiterating that the request was for research activities, not use of drones for security. The University replied it may have relevant documents, and that they would be released by September 25th, but also that as Academic research, the documents may be protected from disclosure by the California Public Records Act. The response date was later moved back to November 1st, but to this date, no documents have been released. No additional statement has been issued by the University, indicating its intent to release or withhold the requested documents. Musgrave has sent thirteen follow-up requests to the University since then, and none have received any response.


Given this unsatisfying response from the University, it seemed like going directly to the source would be a better strategy. Searching through faculty profiles in the Engineering and Computer Science departments, we found three professors who had extensive research and employment backgrounds in UAVs and other autonomous vehicle technologies.


The first two candidates were Erik Viirre and John Kosmatka. Viirre is an adjunct professor at the UCSD Department of Neurosciences who studies neurological disorders related to the perception of balance. Last May, he participated in a Calit2 panel about emerging drone technologies, where he gave a presentation on studies he has done regarding the perception of orientation by pilots of remote-controlled aircraft, including Predator drones used in combat overseas. Kosmatka, on the other hand, is a professor of Structural Engineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering, and does research within the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department. His past employers include drone manufacturers Northrop Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, where he performed research regarding the materials science of the materials used to build unmanned aerial systems. He also used to be the faculty advisor for UCSD’s Student Unmanned Aerial System competition team (SUAS), a.k.a. UCSD AUVSI (more on this later).


Unfortunately, Viirre and Kosmatka did not respond to interview requests, and their faculty profiles don’t say much about their current research. We will continue to pursue interview opportunities with these professors.


We had better luck with professor Ryan Kastner, a professor in the Computer Science department who co-directs the Wireless Embedded Systems Master of Advanced Studies Program. For non-comp-sci majors, an embedded system is any device which has an internal computer and which has components that interact directly with the physical world. In this capacity, he also co-directs the student groups Engineers for Exploration, a student group that builds semi-autonomous vehicles for various organizations outside of UCSD, including the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, Seaworld, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He is also the current faculty advisor for UCSD’s SUAS team.


When we talked to Kastner, he told us that he had not heard of the Sunshine Amendment Request filed for UCSD last July. He had not been contacted by anyone at the University asking him to prepare a summary of his research and other projects regarding unmanned/ autonomous vehicle research. Does this mean the University did no do it’s due diligence in attempting to follow through with the Request? It’s hard to say. Kastner said that in general, professors are insulated from these kinds of requests.


It is also unclear whether the student projects that he helps direct are considered “research” associated with the University. In other words, if the University had responded to the request, would information about these projects be included in the documents? The problems that these students are solving are novel, and require the kind of experimental work worthy of the label “research”. But the student groups act largely independently of the University. Kastner told us that most of their funding comes from the organizations that contract them, various corporate and government sponsors, and private donations. The only thing the University is “supplying” are the student brains, but student participation is of course perfectly voluntary.


The question is, do the results of these student efforts contribute to the development surveillance technologies that this article is interested in? The answer is definitely yes. Take the SUAS competition for instance. The inter-school competition is hosted annually by Autonomous Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an organization historically associated with the US Air Force that advocates for the development of unmanned/ autonomous vehicle technologies for use in defense technologies. The students on the team told us that much of the funding that UCSD’s group receives for the competition comes from AUVSI itself. It’s no secret that the SUAS competition is a way to cultivate interest in such research among students, and to get them to start generating solutions for technical problems of surveillance.


Currently, so called “unmanned” drones used in combat overseas are controlled by a human pilot. While the surveillance capabilities of drones beat those of a helicopter in all ways, they are still constrained by this limitation. The next advent in drone technology will be their automation in conducting patrols. Not coincidentally, this is exactly the problem students have to solve in the SUAS competition. According to the competition rules, the students’ aircraft should be able to autonomously take off, navigate a set of waypoints, and land. As the years have gone on (the competition began in 2002), student groups have become good enough at solving this problem that the competition now includes the implementation of autonomous visual processing. Specifically, as the aircraft navigates the waypoints, it must identify, classify, and determine the orientation of targets (boards with letters painted on them) on the ground. The implications such work has for surveillance technology should be obvious.


The students aren’t unaware of these implications of their participation in these projects. While interviewing student members of Engineers for Exploration, I tried to be careful about asking their opinions on how the technology they work on will be used by the government. But they were the first to volunteer that their sponsors had “ulterior motives”. One person told me that the reason he got involved with these projects was so that he could move some of this money from defense/surveillance technology to scientific and humanitarian applications.


Still, it is important that students who are pursuing a career in researching such technologies be cognizant of the political context in which these technologies are being developed. Over the last few months, AUVSI, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, and many other interested public and private entities have engaged congress in a coordinated lobbying effort to convince the Federal Aviation Administration to establish six test zones in the United States where companies and state departments would be allowed to fly UAVs. Although the FAA has not yet made it’s final decisions regarding the six test sites, San Diego, a hub for drone manufacturing, is all but guaranteed to become one such site. You can bet that the San Diego Sheriff’s Department is going to take advantage of this – there is very strong evidence that, like other police departments around the country, the SD Sheriff’s Department is interested in purchasing drones for use by law-enforcement.


There’s still a lot of work to do. Right here at UCSD, we still don’t really know about all the research that is happening on campus, and efforts to seek out this knowledge have encountered resistance. But the knowledge is distributed among students and faculty, and if we can coordinate that knowledge, we can at least get a better idea of where to start looking. I encourage anyone with such knowledge to contact us, so that we can find out how UCSD is involved in the process of integrating autonomous UAV technology with everyday life.




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