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Hollyn Johnson/Tribune-Herald

Aloha, drones: Hawaiians welcome and fear flying robots

Scientists say island state’s climate is ideal for agricultural and other civilian uses of unmanned aerial vehicles

When Raynald Bédard thinks of the sweeping green slopes of Hawaii’s Big Island, especially its coffee plantations, he believes there is something missing: drones.

The University of Hawaii at Hilo specialist faculty member refers to them as remotely piloted aircraft systems and is convinced that the flying robots — which have, controversially, become a staple of modern armies, notably the United States’ — have a key role to play in Hawaii’s agricultural sector.

The university was recently granted a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certificate of authorization that allows for the operation of drones. Bédard, who is starting a drone testing program, envisions drones flying high above Hawaii’s farms to gather vital crop data, which could then be analyzed and sold to farmers. “It’s just like somebody that cleans your pool or cuts your grass on a monthly basis. I see the same kind of model here,” he said. “I see it as a service.”

He’s already in contact with state agencies eager to use drones to monitor native plants and with farmers to check on crops like bananas and macadamia nuts. Bédard said some of the greatest promise for drones in Hawaii is for small farmers and large biotech companies that grow genetically modified crops.

“[Hawaii] is awesome for testing … The farmers are crying for this technology. They’re primed, they’re ready, they want it. We could keep busy for the next 10 years just here on the island,” he said.

Bédard is not the only one dreaming of drones over Hawaii. Interest is expressed by everyone from surf enthusiasts and real estate agents to scientists, conservation groups and tech-savvy entrepreneurs to politicians eager to attract aerospace dollars. 

The military, which has a history of testing drones in the islands, is eager to see Hawaii experience a new kind of buzz. (According to the most conservative figures from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been at least 449 drone strikes and 2,599 associated deaths in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia through mid-March 2014.)

But not everyone is pleased. While many welcome drones to the islands, others are seeking to ban or limit their use.

[Hawaii] is awesome for testing … The farmers are crying for this technology. They’re primed, they’re ready, they want it. We could keep busy for the next 10 years, just here on the island.

Raynald Bédard

Drone specialist

The geographic isolation, stable weather and highly diverse and extreme island terrain that draw travelers to Hawaii are increasingly attracting drone testers and would-be users of the controversial technology. In December the FAA selected public entities in six states to test unmanned aircraft systems (UASs). Under the direction of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, facilities in Alaska, Hawaii and Oregon have partnered to run the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex, which will conduct drone tests for potential military, commercial and noncommercial applications.

In October, state representatives from Hawaii and Alaska signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize cooperation on a host of aerospace services. Traditionally, military and space research overlap, and future drone testing in both states will almost certainly involve new military drone technology.

Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) research in Hawaii goes back at least to the late 1990s, when NASA aircraft were tested at the Pacific Missile Range Facility (PMRF) on Kauai. The facility has been a testing and training site for at least nine other UAV systems, including Reaper and Predator drones. 

In addition to the PMRF, Wheeler Army Airfield on Oahu and Pohakuloa Training Area on the island of Hawaii — where the RQ-7B Shadow 200, a tactical UAV, is flown for training — are under consideration for more drone testing. In Hawaiian waters, a submarine-launched drone called Switchblade was tested during the 2012 RIMPAC biennial maritime military exercises.

Some are pushing for Hawaii to further embrace military drones. In February, over a dozen Hawaii lawmakers joined representatives of the state’s aerospace industry to form the Hawaii State Legislative Aerospace Caucus. Its goals are to craft legislation, attract more drone testing and training and increase ties with the aerospace industry, including drone manufacturers. The caucus is advised by the Hawaii State Aerospace Advisory Committee, which includes representatives of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, DreamHammer and BAE Systems.

Writing in an op-ed, state Rep. Gene Ward, a caucus co-chair, praised drones for having “numerous applications which can serve to improve our lives in Hawaii and the world as a whole.” 

A safer way to save nature

In a state where endangered plants and invasive species are major problems, the idea of using drones for wilderness management and conservation holds a lot of appeal.

Trae Menard, the Nature Conservancy’s Hawaii director of forest conservation, said the organization, which manages approximately 40,000 acres of land on four islands, is eager to use drones for aerial mapping and monitoring destructive animals and invasive plants.

“Most of the places we work are extremely remote, rugged and difficult to reach … A lot of the time we fly at low elevations around the treetop levels. It’s really about how can we get a drone to do something that would save us a lot of money and potentially save lives,” Menard said.

“Our field teams would be able to carry [a drone] in a backpack and deploy it at the top of a big gulch and fly with the drone looking for feral animals and invasive species without having to climb down into the gulch,” he added.

Not everyone is as eager to see more drones and drone testing in the islands. The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii has expressed concerns about the use of drones and has called for guarantees that drones used by law enforcement conduct no warrantless searches and are never weaponized.

In a written statement, ACLU of Hawaii executive director Vanessa Chong wrote, “There is a significant potential for abuse when unmanned aerial vehicles can be equipped with thermal imaging, microphones, facial recognition software and license plate readers.”

Others groups are worried that enthusiasm for new technology will trump legal safeguards around privacy and safety. Khara Jabola Carolus, president of the Filipino Law Students Association at the University of Hawaii, has helped craft drone-related legislation. She said she isn’t against drone technology itself but is concerned about the growth of UAVs in law enforcement, the military and agriculture.

She is worried about some of the implications of drone use on farms. “Given Hawaii’s unique history as a guinea pig for biotech companies, it’s definitely a concern,” she said. “I think it’s going to be touted as making pesticide use more efficient and more effective … But ‘efficient’ means being able to spray more, faster. I’m concerned what the ramifications … are for the environment.”

Hawaii’s attractions for the drone industry, Jabola Carolus said, are the same ones that drew the military and biotech: isolation, diverse environments and a relatively small population. 

There is a significant potential for abuse when unmanned aerial vehicles can be equipped with thermal imaging, microphones, facial recognition software and license plate readers.

Vanessa Chong

Executive director, ACLU of Hawaii

Brig. Gen. Joseph Kim represents Hawaii’s Department of Defense in a multiagency statewide effort to coordinate the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Complex with the military and private companies. He said that by testing drones over water in restricted airspace, away from populated areas, the military can allay public concerns of safety and privacy.

Educating the public on drones is critical, he said: “We need to get out there and tell the story.” He said more drone testing will not only enhance the state’s strategic importance but also bring new emphasis on science and technology for Hawaii’s schools and create jobs in the aerospace industry.

Kim hopes the public will recognize unmanned systems as “just another tool, another capability, much like a helicopter. These unmanned systems allow flight operations without risking human life. If you can perform a mission and not have to endanger human life … I think that’s a good thing.”

But no matter the ins and outs of the ongoing debate, he believes the future of drones and drone testing in Hawaii is assured. “They’re coming, and they’re here,” Kim said. “They’re proliferating.”

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