Flying robots: From surveillance concerns to cool drone innovations

When it comes to civilian drones, people tend to get a bit rabid on both sides of the pro-drone and anti-drone argument. It’s been a nightmare for the FAA, which is supposed to implement rules for commercial UAVs by 2015, so you’ll probably be surprised to learn who the agency turned to for suggestions . . . Burning Man.

FAA looks to Burning Man for drone rules

“We’re kind of a Petri dish for what’s going to happen out in the 'default world,'” Jim Graham, Burning Man’s director of communications, told Fast Company. “The FAA is looking at certain types of rules for civilian use of drones in the United States and we just happen to be a testing ground for them right now.”

“Rules” may not be something you immediately connect to a temporary community of “70,000 scantily clad revelers” attending a week-long festival like Burning Man. However due to the “proliferation of drones (those zippy little helicopter gizmos) humming around the skies of Black Rock City in recent years,” some UAV guidelines were developed for safety. Those best practices said to follow the Academy of Model Aeronautics National Model Aircraft Safety Code [pdf], such as “All pilots shall avoid flying directly over unprotected people, vessels, vehicles or structures and shall avoid endangerment of life and property of others.”

But, as Fast Company pointed out, there were UAV enthusiasts like “Sweetie” who ignored the rules and “flew his drone over the Man on burn day.” He scoffed when told that he “could have set off the remote detonators,” but he’s no fan of other people's privacy either. “I think that anybody who comes to Burning Man and walks around naked or … whatever silliness they feel they need to do, if they need to protect their privacy, I think that should be on them, not on the rest of us,” he said.

Drones: Privacy, safety and surveillance concerns

Drone privacy, safety and surveillance concerns

Yet blowing off privacy and safety concerns contribute to some of the biggest issues about drones. For starters, people do not want to feel spied upon; as of Feb. 2013, the FAA had issued 1,428 permits to domestic drone operators since 2007 and many of those were to Johnny Law-like agencies presumably for surveillance.

A recent report [pdf] on the Justice Department’s use and support of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) revealed that “from 2004 to May 2013, DOJ law enforcement components” spent “approximately $3.7 million on UAS, with the FBI accounting for over 80% of this amount.” The FBI and ATF have been relying on existing rules that govern manned aircraft surveillance use, but the audit said those rules risked violating privacy rights. “Unlike manned aircraft, UAS can be used in close proximity to a home and, with longer-lasting power systems, may be capable of flying for several hours or even days at a time, raising unique concerns about privacy and the collection of evidence with UAS,” the report states.

Like many of us who find video and photos from recreational drones to be amazing, Amie Stepanovich, director of EPIC’s project on domestic surveillance, thinks some of the drone video footage is “gorgeous.” Yet she is concerned that drones “are helping to usher in a new age of physical surveillance. They provide a platform for some of the most invasive surveillance technologies we've ever seen."

When it comes to UAS safety concerns, innocent bystanders do not want little drones crashing on or near them. For example, quadcopters and other small remote-controlled recreational drones can crash if there is a sudden shift in the wind, or if it was programmed incorrectly. It takes a lot of practice to fly one, so small drone crashes that harm nothing but the drone are frequently chalked up to pilot error. Accidents that harm people do happen though. For example, during a “romantic pre-wedding shoot,” after one successful fly-by, the photographer accidentally rammed his camera-equipped quadcopter into the groom’s head.

In October, a small remote control helicopter drone was flying “300 – 400 feet above Midtown,” recording video of “iconic” Manhattan buildings during evening rush hour when the operator lost control. When it crashed, it narrowly missed a hitting a businessman.

In September, a 19-year-old man was killed after he lost control of his remote-controlled model helicopter while flying it in a Brooklyn park. Police said, “It hit him and the top of his head was sliced off.”  

Like it or not, small drone hobbyists foresee a future “when the skies are filled with small, flying robots -- and drones become as common as smartphones.” Requiring small drone and quadcopter operators to obtain something similar to a driver’s license, a “pre-use certification” showing “a minimum level of competence” has been among safety suggestions.

Flying robot drones for positive uses

The flipside is that small drone technology can be deployed for positive and peaceful uses in society like search and rescue to drop emergency supplies, mapping, crop dusting, stopping wildlife poaching, art, aerial photography and other “drones for good” reasons presented at the recent Drones & Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC).

Pro-drone enthusiast Helen Greiner wishes we would call them “flying robots” that she foresees acting “more intelligently” and having “personal uses. Imagine a flying robot that meets you at the halfway point of a run or hike with cool water. Like a family dog, it might even play catch, watch the house, and show excitement when you return home from work.”

Cool civilian drone innovative

Speaking of flying pet drones, Sergei Lupashin, an aerial robotics postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich, showed off his flying pet robot tethered to a small dog leash at DARC. A camera was mounted on the hovering autonomous quadcopter, which was programmed to maintain a specific angle, and “provided an effect that was a cross between an airborne pet and a steady cam.”

Remember the fake flying taco delivery system, Tacocopter, and PR stunt copycats like Domino’s talking about delivering pizzas with a little drone helicopter? The coolest innovative drone news involves making speedy delivery a reality.

Matternet is working on a network of autonomous quadcopter drones that would run “24/7 like the internet” to deliver goods and healthcare to inaccessible regions. At TEDGlobal 2013, Andreas Raptopoulos gave a demonstration with a brick-sized emergency package attached to a quadcopter before stating, “Imagine if your life depended on this package, somewhere in Africa, or in New York after Sandy.”

In Australia, Flirtey will start delivering textbooks ordered through Zookal; it’s coming to the USA in 2015. TechCrunch reported, “Zookal will use Flirtey to send parcels for free and claims deliveries can be made in as little as two or three minutes, compared to two or three days for traditional shipping methods. Upon arrival at an outdoor delivery destination, Flirtey’s drones hover and lower the parcel through a custom delivery mechanism that is attached to a retractable cord. Real-time GPS tracking of each drone’s location will be available through the Flirtey app for smartphones.”

Although there are plenty of concerns about mission creep and privacy-decimating domestic surveillance, civilian drone video footage and photography tends to be awesome. Drones are simply technology; it’s up to us use them for good and not evil.

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