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Wireless Drones Overhead... Get Used to Them
drone, aka Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) and Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), has been mainstreamed
in the last few years. Although drones have been around since the end of World War I, in use
for target practice and eventually for reconnaissance, they have evolved from fairly crude platforms
that require intensive human interaction to fully autonomous systems that can be programmed with
a full mission profile then launched, modified for mission changes en route and in situ
if necessary, and finally retrieved and reused. GPS, inertial guidance (gyroscopes), radar, lidar,
and other complex sensors allow the craft to monitor and correct its flight course and attitude.
For many dangerous missions - especially highly dangerous ones - drones have virtually eliminated the need
to have a human pilot in the cockpit. The USAF envisioned decades ago that this would be the case,
and further sees the day when even dogfights (aka air-to-air combat) will be conducted between
drones of opposing militaries. I remember reading futuristic articles on such scenarios in publications
like Popular Science as a teenager back in the 1970s. Today, a
third of all aircraft in the U.S. military's inventory are drones.
longer the exclusive realm of militaries, drones have permeated society in various and sundry
roles for domestic and law enforcement surveillance, for scientific and corporate exploration,
and for hobby pursuits. They have gone from the battlefield to the farm field. Many people are
not comfortable with the thought of pilotless aircraft flying over their persons and property
both from a safety standpoint and from a privacy standpoint, especially when the remote pilots
rely totally on a camera and GPS coordinates to control the aircraft because it is often far
away from the pilot's location. I share the concern for both reasons. Aside from not desiring
to be watched by an electromechanical Orwellian Big Brother (I have no confidence that only
well-intentioned users will be snooping on American citizens in order to keep us safe, and I
have never bought into the argument that if I'm not doing anything wrong then I shouldn't care
if I 'm being watched), I have seen enough radio controlled aircraft (including a few of my
own) experience an unplanned meeting with terra firma to give credibility to the safety hazard
worry caused when masses are hurtling through the air with tiny buzz saws (propellers)
spinning at high rpms. It is only a matter of time before a drone falls out of the sky and
harms or kills someone.
to how GPS (Global Positioning System) gained widespread popularity and adoption during the Desert
Storm era in the early 1990s, airborne drones, aka UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), have become
ubiquitous in society as well as in the military. Model aircraft hobbyists and professional engineering
teams - often one and the same - have advanced the state of the art in all aspects of miniature
aircraft including electric motor and rechargeable battery propulsion; radio control system miniaturization,
range, and reliability; aerodynamics and airframe materials and constructions techniques; sensors
for position, attitude, and surveillance (cameras, sonar, radar, thermal); and autonomous, intelligent
flight. That goes for both fixed wing (conventional airplane) and rotating wing (helicopter and
quad-rotor) aircraft. Even miniature sounding rockets are seeing increased use by private concerns.
With complete systems being built so cheaply in China, the average person with no prior experience
in operating a model aircraft of any type can buy a fully stabilized quadrotor platform complete
with a video camera and a wireless link to allow the operator to send the beast to areas where
it is out of visual sight for true remote piloting. Of course the more skilled you are at operating
the craft, the more success you are likely to have. Weather still plays an important role in that
success since most aircraft available to anyone other than the military are very lightweight and
cannot fly in winds greater than about 15 mph or in heavy precipitation.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been using drones to patrol America's southern border
for many years - just a little longer than private landowners have been using cheaper versions
to monitor Homeland Security's activity along the border. Police departments have begun obtaining
permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local authorities to fly sorties
over crowds during large gatherings, in areas of suspected crime activity, to look for marijuana
fields, and in future mission testing investigations. Reports have surfaced documenting other
governmental agencies using drones to fly over private property for monitoring potential water
runoff violations, herd and crop health, property inventory, and other purposes. The Federal Government
owns and regulates all of the airspace over your head and, technically, the air that you breathe
(unless you're underground or on supplemental oxygen). As this article is being written, the FAA
is integrating UAS (Unmanned
Aircraft Systems) operation into its massive tomes of legalese known as the Federal Aviation Regulations
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) of course is involved in the process since it and many
other infamous three-letter government agencies are the main users of UAV/UAS platforms.
FPV model airplane flying around Brooklyn. As one commenter posted, "That was neat.
I wonder how many federal laws were just broken. Between DHS, the FAA and the FCC I can only
This R/C MQ-9 Reaper is available almost ready to fly. It has a turret-mounted
First-Person-View (FPV) model demonstration.
These days every specialty group has an official organization (or two or three), and so it
is with the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).
According to an article in the January 2013 edition of Air & Space magazine (a Smithsonian
Institution publication) titled "Drones
for Hire," AUVSI's first industry trade show in 1973 drew only a handful of exhibitors. The
2012 show had 572. Once the exclusive realm of government agencies because of their high prices,
RPVs with wireless cameras and remote controls (all operating in the unlicensed 2.4 GHz ISM
band) can now be purchased from hobby outlets for a few
hundred dollars. Long-range surveillance is possible with the aid of controversial First Person
View (FPV) systems where Joe Sixpack can fly his R/C model beyond visual range with the help of
an onboard camera, GPS position reporting, and autopilot features that keep the platform in the
air at a programmable altitude. Commercial systems can cost many thousands
of dollars, but are still
very "affordable" compared to prices just a decade ago.
Just as amateur radio operators
have contributed mightily to the state of the art in radio communications and amateur astronomers
have helped advance the science of planetary, solar and deep space research, so have aircraft
modelers leant their collective knowledge to help design and refine unmanned aerial vehicles.
Every step of the way, the FAA (and recently DHS) has attempted to bring all operations under
the purview of their long and strong arms of control. The
Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA),
America's oldest and most active private organization for aeromodelers, is working with the FAA
to formulate mutually agreeable regulations under which citizens may own and operate radio controlled
(R/C) model aircraft. As you might imagine, the process has been arduous and frustrating. Bureaucrats
who have no idea what model aviation is all about were originally assigned to represent the government's
interest, but over the two or three years since the process began the relationship has gradually
improved and a few agents who are themselves aircraft modelers have become part of the negotiations.
Release of the final law is due in the Spring of 2013. We in the aeromodeling world have our
The situation was bad enough just keeping the government from requiring licensing of all
R/C operators and operations (not out of the woods on that one yet), but lately a plethora of
First-Person-View (FPV) models entering the marketplace through hobby distributors has multiplied
the headache quotient considerably. Videos are appearing on YouTube of people - usually not AMA
members - flying their models into restricted areas like around the Statue of Liberty, over train
stations and museums, through open-structured buildings and landmarks, and even buzzing animals
and humans (some of whom are indistinguishable from animals). Cameras recording the videos are
mounted on the airplane, helicopter, or quadrotor, and to make matters worse, some are flying
under FPV control. The AMA strictly prohibits any member from flying in FPV mode without a
companion by his side that can maintain visual contact with the vehicle to advise and/or
assume control if necessary. AMA officers and lawyers are losing sleep and getting ulcers over this activity.
an age where surveillance cameras are everywhere - on street corners, at road intersections,
in parking lots and stores, outside private homes, on every cellphone and iPad, worn around
people's neck as 'lifecams', on car and truck dashboards, and in uncountable public places
doing service as webcams - it is hard to get too worked up about yet another form of
monitoring. Google Glasses will soon enable the wearer to glean information about everything
around him/her by virtue of a real-time link to Google's massive database. Facial and location
recognition algorithms will tell who the people are you're sitting next to on the subway (one
of which might even be
Sergey Brin), what their backgrounds are, and where they are going. Like a chronic disease
(pick your favorite), it isn't going away, so you just have to get used to it... or, you can
get yourself a pair of these
facial recognition avoidance glasses and get a shotgun for
felling airborne drones.
Here is a video recorded by a camera rubber-banded to the side of my R/C
Taylorcraft airplane. (a clear and present danger to the
myself and anyone around me)
- Kirt Blattenberger
These items are an archive of past Topical Smorgasbord items that have appeared on the RF Cafe homepage. In keeping with the "cafe"
genre, these tidbits of information are truly a smorgasbord of topics. They all pertain to topics that are related to the general engineering
and science theme of RF Cafe. Note: There is also a huge collection of my 'Factoids' (aka 'Kirt's Cogitations') that might interest you as well.