When I passed through the “unmanned systems” section of the South Hall at CES yesterday, my first reaction was, “Okay, that’s cool.” Watching companies such as DJI demonstrate quadricopters that can swoop, soar and travel -- and enable photographers to shoot stills and videos from heights and angles that were not possible unless you had a company’s budget -- is fascinating, and even a little exhilarating.
There are several levels of users that are being targeted for these new, camera-equipped flying machines. On the consumer end, company called EHang is marketing a drone called the Ghost, touted as easy to use, pre-assembled and usable with such popular camera setups as the GoPro; still being group-funded, it is expected to ship at the end of January to its Indiegogo investors for $599.
The aforementioned DJI is looking at professional photographers as its market base: Products such as the Inspire 1 offer the ability to shoot 4K video and 12-megapixel stills using mobile apps; two people can control it at the same time, one piloting the device and the other shooting the photos. Currently due to ship at the end of January, the Inspire 1 starts at about $3,400 -- not much when you consider what the alternatives for this type of professional-level technology used to cost.
Of course, that isn’t completely what these machines are about. Other companies such as China’s Hawar touts larger products for the purposes of fighting forest fires, bridge safety inspection -- and homeland security.
If you find all this exciting, well sure -- so do I. There is a huge potential for saving lives by using unmanned drones in dangerous situations such as large-scale fires; the quality of photographs and exploration that can be gotten from high-end cameras that can shoot from above in difficult-to-access areas will be fascinating; and being able to take pictures of your own house and friends from above has to be fun.
But the potential for misuse is, of course, also there -- and fairly obvious. When a North Dakota family was arrested three years ago through the use of a drone employed by the Customs and Border Patrol, court cases testing whether a warrant is necessary for drone surveillance starting proliferating. And how would you feel if you suddenly found a neighbor’s drone peeking into your living room window?
Like many technologies, it may take both society and our legal system to catch up with the potential for exploitation -- both positive and negative -- of these new devices. Unmanned systems were only a small part of the CES floor in 2015, but I have the feeling that they we are going to see a lot more of them in the future.