Drones back into the spotlight with privacy issues hovering overhead

January 13, 2014 |

The Economist again considers the development of drones in the USA in Game of drones.  As I have posted previously drone technology is moving along at an astounding speed with pressure for commercial use. That is currently not permitted but that restriction is probably going to disappear.

It provides:

DEEP in the bowels of the engineering building at Oklahoma State University, Ben Loh flips a switch on a remote control. A rotor starts whirring and a white sphere the size of a large beach ball rises. Mr Loh navigates it around the room, then lands it and rolls it across the floor.

The flying sphere, on which Mr Loh holds four patents, is mainly intended for use in rescue missions: equip it with a camera and a GPS device, fly it through the window of a burning building, then have it roll around hallways seeking survivors and sounding an alarm when it finds one. Mr Loh’s invention may not fit the popular conception of a drone, as it does not rain havoc on terrorists (and others) in the Afghan hinterlands, but more than any fighting machine it represents the future of unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

Commercial use of drones is banned by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), although it makes some exceptions such as for hobbyists’ flights in unpopulated areas where the aircraft stays in sight of a human operator. But the skies are opening up: by the end of December the FAA will select six UAS testing sites from a list of 25 applicants in 24 states (California submitted two). These sites will help the FAA understand how to integrate UAS into American airspace, which Congress has told it to do by September 2015 (some are sceptical that it will hit that mark). In 2014 rules will be published on the use of craft weighing under 25kg, where, says Les Dorr at the FAA, most of the pent-up commercial demand appears to be.

The test-site applicants see the FAA’s plan as a chance to establish a head start in a growing industry. “If you build it, they will come,” says Sean Barr of San Diego’s Regional Economic Development Corporation, a backer of one Californian bid. Several of the cities and states seeking to become FAA test sites are hoping they will turn into America’s predominant “cluster” for civil-drone firms, though in reality the business may end up dispersed, with states like California and Oklahoma, which already host big aerospace industries, sharing much of the benefit.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an industry group, reckons that by 2025 civil drones could boost the domestic economy by as much as $82 billion a year—though such “impact studies” habitually err on the side of optimism. That figure includes tax revenue from sales of drones and their components as well as more than 100,000 direct and indirect jobs created.

There could be 10,000 drones buzzing around America’s skies by 2017, reckons the FAA. “The good stuff you can do is endless,” says Lucien Miller of Innov8tive Designs, a UAS firm in San Diego county. Estate agents and architects can use them for aerial photography. Energy firms will be able to monitor pieces of vital infrastructure, such as pipelines. Amazon recently caused a stir by saying it was looking into delivery-by-drone, releasing a video of a test run. However, the prospect of automated aircraft being allowed to carry heavy parcels along crowded city streets still seems distant.

At first drones’ main civilian uses, AUVSI predicts, will be in agriculture, followed distantly by public safety. Farmers will be able to monitor their land in detail, pinpointing outbreaks of disease and infestation, for example, or checking soil humidity. They will also be able to apply nutrients and pesticides more precisely. Besides Mr Loh’s drones for fire-and-rescue workers, other potential public-safety uses include police tracking of suspects. Ben Kimbro of Tactical Electronics, a technology firm, says they will find uses in various other “dull, dirty and dangerous” public-service jobs.

Lights, action, drones

The sudden emergence of cheap UAS technology has left regulators floundering. For years Hollywood has been lobbying the FAA to get a move on. For now, directors who wish to use drones to film, say, car chases are forced out of the country. Amazon had to shoot its drone video abroad—it will not say where. Many small businesses tether drones to the ground or operate them within line of sight like model aircraft to get around the rules; or they break the rules in the (probably justified) hope that the FAA will not notice. Some grumble that the Europeans are way ahead of the United States. Wales, for example, already has an airfield where civil drones are allowed to operate.

Yet even as the FAA begins to relax its rules, many states and municipalities are tightening theirs. Polls find deep public concern over the privacy implications of drones. Some cities have banned them altogether, albeit probably temporarily. One Colorado town is considering allowing locals to shoot drones from the sky, and may offer rewards for recovering their parts.

The FAA appears to be taking privacy concerns seriously, but it has little experience of such matters. This year 42 states considered bills restricting drone use, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Only eight of them actually passed laws, but more will follow. Most of the new rules limit the use of drones by law-enforcement agencies, typically by ensuring that they obtain warrants before gathering data. Some states, such as Texas and Idaho, restrict private users—a particularly complex area, the ACLU acknowledges, involving conflicting individual rights. Lawsuits will surely fly.

And at the Age Adam Turner reports from CES in Hands on: Parrot MiniDrone at CES 2014 about the new development in drones in the recreational field. The article makes clear that the units are becoming smaller, more robust and easier to operate.  The classic signs of a maturing technology.

It provides:

Parrot’s palm-sized quadrocopter, based on the popular AR.Drone, is one of the hits on this year’s CES show floor.Thanks to the attachable wheels you can actually drive the MiniDrone around on the floor or even drive it up a wall and across the ceiling. 

When the original AR.Drone reached Australia a few years ago it really raised the bar in terms of consumer-grade remote control flying machines. It was certainly a step up from the cheap and nasty USB helicopters in terms of stability and performance, as y ou’d expect from the AR.Drone’s $349 price tag.

I had plenty of fun putting the original AR.Drone through its paces, controlling it from iOS and Android devices. My key complaint was that it’s just too big and unwieldy to fly inside, in your backyard or even in a park full of trees. You really need an open field and even then you have to watch out for cross winds once you get a few metres off the ground.

Since then we’ve seen the AR.Drone 2.0, which I haven’t tested, but it retains the same design and the $349 price tag so it doesn’t really address my fundamental frustrations with the concept. Now at CES 2014 in Las Vegas, Parrot has unveiled a prototype of the tiny MiniDrone which is expected to reach Australia later this year.

The MiniDrone draws on much of the same technology found in its big brother, including cameras and sonar to monitor the ground for improving flight stability. One of the key differences is that the MiniDrone relies on Bluetooth 4.0 rather than Wi-Fi for remote control from an iOS or Android device. This reduces the range to about 15 metres, plus the drop in available bandwidth means you don’t get a live feed from the cameras in the drone. When using the full-sized Drone I found it too hard to watch the screen while I flew, because I needed to keep an eye on the Drone so it didn’t get away from me. This is less of a problem with the Mini, so the lack of the camera feed is disappointing but not a deal-breaker.

This little drone is only 15 centimetres across, roughly a third the width of its big brother. The MiniDrone weighs 50 grams, although you can add thin plastic wheels to the sides which bump the weight up to 70 grams. Originally I thought the wheels were only optional safety guards for the rotors, which seemed like a good idea. But thanks to the attachable wheels you can actually drive the MiniDrone around on the floor or even drive it up a wall and across the ceiling. Parrot also unveiled the new ground-based Jumping Sumo remote control vehicle at CES, which I might look at in detail another day.

The MiniDrone certainly feels more stable than the full-sized AR.Drone I tested, partly because it’s smaller and partly because it’s inherited the improved flight stability features introduced with the AR.Drone 2.0. The MiniDrone is small enough to rest on your palm and you can even gently flick it into the air and engage the rotors. You can control it by tilting your mobile device and driving virtual joysticks on the screen. There’s also a flip button which sees it do a quick 180 forward roll in mid-air.

One of the advantages of the MiniDrone’s compact design is that it’s a lot more robust, especially when you’re using the wheels as crash guards. The full-sized AR Drone is easy to damage if you land roughly on a hard surface and when I tested it a few years ago I managed to snap a plastic cog driving one of the rotors. With the MiniDrone these kinds of components are fully enclosed, so it’s less prone to damage and thus you’re less likely to run into the expense of replacement parts.

Flying time with the MiniDrone is 8 to 10 minutes on a single charge, depending on whether you’ve got the extra weight of the wheels. Thankfully the battery is still removable so you can charge up a few batteries and have them ready to go, although this is less of a hassle if you’ll be using the MiniDrone around the house. If you’re taking a full-sized AR.Drone out to an open field then it’s more important to have extra flight time up your sleeve.

The only real question that hangs over the MiniDrone is pricing. You’d expect it to be cheaper than the $349 full-sized AR Drone 2.0, but I’d really love to see it at less than $200. At this price it’s still an expensive toy, but if you’ve sunk money into a few cheap and nasty USB helicopters you might see the value in upgrading to Parrot’s slick MiniDrone. It’s certainly one to watch out for this year.

The article fairly rhasodises over what is happening in the field.  What it doesn’t do is focus on how the law is being left far behind. Drones highlight the lacuna in privacy protection.  All the wonderment articles doesn’t hide the lack of responsibility of the legislature in properly regulating this evolving technology.

One Response to “Drones back into the spotlight with privacy issues hovering overhead”

  1. droneflyer

    I totally agree that the price of the new Parrot minidrone is prohibitive to many. There are some great Quadcopters coming to the market with features that could hardly be imagined a few years ago. Hubsan will be soon releasing the 109S and their X4 micro quadcopter range takes some beating they are almost indestructable and are a quality inexpensive way to get accustomed to Drone flying. I expect the DJI innovations range to dominate the entry level aerial photography space for a number of years, others are already playing catch up. I wouldn’t pay more than $150 for a hobby type model and would expect a far longer flying time for anything costing more.

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