It happens every time! Technology brings changes and advances, most of which benefit us all. Yet a certain percentage of the population are always playing the Luddites or the “World is Ending” tune, just as they did in the past. As examples:
1. It was thought that the human body would suffer great damages if it ever went much over 40 MPH in a train.
2. Cars were lamented because of the damage to the horse trade – all those people would be unemployed.
3. Flying? Forget it.
4. Computers and robots were going to put us all out of work.
I would go on, but hopefully you get the idea! Many people tend to be myopic and follow along with whatever the crowd (news, talking heads, facebook, twitter, etc.) tell them. And, as you may have notice as of late, DRONES are the newest victim of this shortsightedness and mass paranoia. In the hopes of laying out some of the issues, let me try to explain some of the technologies and issues and how the use of drones (autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles) will likely impact the future.
This site is about consumer/hobbyist/semi-pro drones and therefore the military drones (killer drones!) are not within our usually scope. However, even these MAY end up being a positive development. No, I am not advocating the extra judicial killings and the use of drones over sovereign nations which we are not at war with. In fact, those ARE the problems, not the drones or the technology itself. Whether manned or unmanned, countries have no business intruding into the airspace of others in order to follow people around – and, especially, not to shoot missiles at them! That is a act of war and unless we are engaged in one, we should not be doing most of these things.
But, again, it’s not the technology which presents the problem. Virtually every nation on the planet will have UAW (unmanned aerial vehicle) capabilities within a few years and there must be some agreements worked out so that we all don’t invade each other with these devices! After all, what is good for the goose is good for the gander! It’s tempting for the US to use these things while we are the only country with the advanced models – but will we feel the same when others have them and want to use them to spy on us or our allies? I don’t think so.
In the event of REAL wars, declared and legal, drones can probably save a lot of money, time and lives. Much of the cost of modern aircraft is in the systems which support the life and safety of the pilot. Remove those and you have an economy vehicle capable of doing most of the rote (surveillance, etc.) work formerly done by manned aircraft. Some say that the era of the dogfight is over, so it is very unlikely we are going to go up against 100’s of advanced enemy fighters at any time in the near future.
Proper surveillance and intelligence can actually save a lot of lives, as you have less chance of killing innocents. While every life is valuable, there is a big difference between the millions killed in the carpet bombings of Vietnam and Japan and Germany with “dumb” technology and the “collateral damage” of today. As a pacifist, I certainly wish an end to all such fighting – but while we are on the way there, the idea of less damage and innocents killed is certainly a step in the right direction.
Let’s move on to the new wave of paranoia about “Domestic Drones” in the USA. First, let’s talk about what a regular everyday manned aircraft can do. Publicly available data on web sites such as http://www.terraserver.com/ have resolutions to as little as 0.075 meters, or about 3 inches! That means they can tell a tennis ball from a softball. A quiet airplane at 5,000+ feet can hardly be noticed and yet could easily be taking pictures of you sunbathing naked in your yard with a resolution of less than one inch. That means they can pretty much count your fingers and toes….AND, you or I can buy this camera!
Ok, so hopefully we all can understand that there is little stopping ANYONE (not just the government) from spying on us from above – if they want to! In fact, this is being done in order to improve our mapping systems.
Let’s move onto the Domestic Drones issue by first classifying the types of Drones likely to fill our skies and who will be operating them. This will help us understand where the real threats may lie.
Fuel Powered Drones or UAV’s – Two basic types fit this description, the winged drones such as the Predator and the Skyhawk and Rotor powered drones which usually resemble small helicopters. The take-home point regarding these drones is their range and the amount of time they can spend in the sky….often related specifications. Some can fly hundreds of miles and spend many hours in the sky. IMHO, these are the types of drones that we have to think more about when it comes to domestic use for security.
Electric Drones – Again, we have both fixed wing and multirotor, with the small multirotors being the type shown on some of the recent news reports. Using the most current technology, these have a VERY limited range and flight times. Typically, they are within sight of the operator and have a flight time of less than 25 minutes. For this discussion, we can guess at a range of about 2 km or less than a mile. It’s possible for a unit using large wings to go further using gliding, but it’s much harder to use a camera from such a platform if you want to focus on one particular area.
In one sense, you could compare the current Electric Drones to surveillance cameras mounted on roofs, light posts, cell towers and other such objects – they already exist and society has obviously accepted them! One particular difference is that it is not safe to fly ANY of these electric multirotor aircraft over humans – which also would mean it’s not safe to fly them over a LOT of other things, such as cars, highways, skylights, etc. It is currently illegal, in fact, to do so and until failsafe technology is developed, this is likely to be the case. Having a couple electric drones fall out of the sky and injuring innocents would not endear the populace to these machines!
So where are we now?
It’s good that this is hitting the news – it’s even good that people are yelling and screaming about it – better now than after the wrong policies are implemented! As of now, the US has not addressed the issue of domestic drones…frankly, because this technology has just exploded in the last two years! To their credit, the FAA is now in the process of studying the issue and will be updating the rules and guidelines in the future.
I will continue into more detail in a second part of this article – separating out the functions and the machines likely to be used by the various groups in the USA. These include:
1. The Military and FBI (Federal Law Enforcement)
2. Commercial/Utility – Mapping, Utility (power line, pipeline inspection), Agricultural inspection, spraying, etc.
3. Public Safety – Everything from state and local Law Enforcement to EMS and Fire
4. Professional/Prosumer – Filming, Photography, Inspection, Construction
5. Hobbyist and Consumer
That’s a LOT of Drones! Stay tuned for more opining on these and other markets!
While you are waiting for part #2, here is a NYT article which describes some of the law enforcement questions:
And here is just ONE idea of the positive uses of these machines!