The 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.
No 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.
Similar 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
Aircraft Systems) operation into its massive tomes of legalese known as the Federal Aviation
Regulations (FARs). 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 imagine."
This R/C MQ-9
Reaper is available almost ready to fly. It has a turret-mounted camera.
(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 fingers crossed.
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.
In 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
Posted January 29, 2013
A huge collection of my 'Factoids' can be accessed from my 'Kirt's Cogitations'
table of contents.
Topical Smorgasbord, another manifestation of Factoids,
are be found on these pages: