Drones linked to VR headsets

October 3, 2015 |

The development of drone technology moves apace.  Now drones are being operated by and tied to virtual reality goggles worn by the operator as reported by Slate in A Drone Linked to a VR Headset Lets You Explore the Sky, Almost for Real Interestingly the article highlights one of the drone’s features as permitting the user to map out a flight plan, something that has been possible for a while but not commonly available, while another system swaps batteries itself when one runs of out power.  That is a huge development as battery life is a key constraint on the use of hobbyist and commercial drones.  Of course all of these developments with legislatures standing by frozen by indecision.  This may be good in allowing innovation but it remains a failure of policy in ensuring there are adequate privacy protections and the establishment of rules in the use of drones vis a vis other flying craft.

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The Indiegogo campaign for the new FLYBi autonomous drone system touts plenty of cool features, but the clear winner is its first-person virtual reality goggles. For those of us who wish we could fly—everybody raise your hand—this could be the closest we get while still staying on the ground.

FLYBi’s 12-megapixel camera streams 1080-pixel high-definition video to a pair of HD LCDs in its VR goggles. The goggles track your head movements, so when you look up, down, or to the side for a different view, the drone gets you what you want to see. Eyes in the sky, indeed.

Then there’s the FLYBi system’s Helideck. FLYBi lifts off from the Helideck and comes back to land when you’re ready, or, when it runs out of power, it will automatically swap batteries by itself. The Helideck keeps three batteries on hand and it recharges them continuously when it’s plugged in. (It also has USB ports for charging other things, like the phone you use for controlling FLYBi.) The Helideck folds up to serve as a hard-shell carrying case for FLYBi.

FLYBi flies autonomously, without joysticks, guided by an app running on your phone. Pilots create its flight plan by picking the desired destination on a map, and then setting waypoints where they’d like FLYBi to pause and hover for an extended view. If FLYBi encounters any obstacles, it just navigates around them. When the mission’s accomplished, the drone returns to the Helideck.


In 2010 the FAA predicted that there would be 15,000 in operation by 2020.  Now it believes (fears) that one million drones could be sold in this upcoming Northern Christmas season according to FAA Fears That 1 Million Drones Could Be Sold This Holiday Season.  That

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You’re probably getting a drone for Christmas this year, whether you want one or not. Aviation Week reports that, at a recent industry summit, Rich Swayze of the Federal Aviation Administration said that the agency expects up to 1 million unmanned aerial vehicles to be sold during this year’s holiday season. Swayze’s prediction, if true, is simultaneously great and terrible news for the drone industry. It’s great news because, hooray, money! It’s terrible news because some of these drones will be gifted to kids, and idiots, and others who know and care little for safety and decorum. Many drones, though not all of them, are equipped with cameras, and you can easily imagine a million novice pilots, hopped up on Christmas cookies and eggnog, launching their drones to take an uninvited peek at what lies under their neighbors’ trees; you can easily imagine the neighborhood shouting matches that might ensue.

A good chunk of the American public already finds drones very, very annoying, thanks to the reckless behavior exhibited by some amateur drone pilots. Though the FAA counsels drone hobbyists to respect ground-dwellers’ privacy and maintain visual contact with their devices, there is no good way to enforce these standards, and thus they are easily violated by recreational flyers who either don’t know or don’t care about FAA best practices. Heedless hobbyists have made news this year for flying drones near airports, stadiums, wildfires, and hospitals, in blatant disregard for safety protocols and common sense. This blithe behavior has prompted physical violence, angry gunplay, a passel of state and local anti-drone ordinances, and the fear that the actions of some of these early adopters might sabotage the emerging drone industry.

If a million new drones take to the air this winter, how many of them will be used inappropriately? It’s hard to say. As I’ve written before, my sense is that the vast majority of drones are used responsibly and that the few clowns who make the news aren’t representative of the whole. But impressions are sometimes more important than statistics, and it’ll take only a few “Local man flies drone into manger scene, decapitates Baby Jesus” headlines to seriously sour the public on the UAV sector and encourage legislators to pass reactionary laws and policies that might inhibit drone innovation.

What to do? In the absence of comprehensive FAA regulations or other laws that might mandate good behavior, the government is exploring other methods of preempting this potential menace. Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, in Aviation Week, called for dronemakers to avert the “irresponsible use of toys” and incorporate geofencing technology that would automatically prevent drones from flying near sensitive areas. But geofencing is no panacea, and, anyway, it’s unlikely that manufacturers will voluntarily heed this call between now and December. Aviation Week also notes that the FAA plans to meet with Walmart “to educate salespeople selling small UAVs on how to inform consumers about operating UAVs safely”: a well-intentioned idea that seems to grossly overestimate Walmart’s commitment to salesmanship and customer service.

In the end, I think, the responsibility lies with you, the harried gift-giver, to think before you buy. Much as you wouldn’t give your alcoholic Uncle Frank a handle of Cutty Sark for Christmas, you shouldn’t buy a drone for someone who you suspect might use it imprudently, like children, or people with “I Can’t Drive 55” tattoos. Consider which of the people on your shopping list are or are not cut out for drone ownership, and do what you can to ensure that you’re giving a reliable machine to a reliable person. Research drones online before you buy them so that you can better differentiate the high-quality models from the buggy ones with flyaway problems. And if you can’t decide whether to give someone a drone or a massage hat from Brookstone, take my advice, and go with the massage hat. No one has ever been arrested for reckless use of a massage hat.

As the article makes clear in the unregulated skies occupied by drones there buzz the irresponsible.  That includes privacy invasive behaviour as well as injury with drones falling from the sky as reported in Drone Crash Injures 11-Month-Old Baby During Princess Bride Screening which provides:

On Sept. 12, an errant DJI Inspire 1 drone dropped from the skies and crashed to the ground during a public screening of The Princess Bride in Pasadena, California. The ensuing debris hit an 11-month-old girl in the head, and though the child escaped serious injury, the outcome could have been far worse. The incident was but the latest in a series of well-publicized drone crashes, and the Federal Aviation Administration, with good reason, is starting to become “concerned with the growing number of reports about unsafe [drone] operations,” an FAA representative told ArsTechnica. While my sense is that the vast majority of drones are used safely and responsibly, whenever one isn’t, the incident seems to make the news—and that’s a big problem. Drones will never transform the American economy in the way that industry boosters predict as long as they’re primarily known for falling from the sky and hitting infants on the head.

The FAA has announced that it will investigate the Pasadena incident. But I can already predict what its investigation will probably find. When a drone veers off course and fails midflight, operator error is often to blame. The FAA does not require hobbyists to obtain a pilot’s license or take a safety class before launching a drone. This regulatory lacuna means that many novice flyers are content to learn by doing, which is alarming if what you’re doing is operating a tiny helicopter that could fall and hit you on the head. Take this Gizmodo post from last year, which features a video of a man realizing that his drone’s battery is about to die midflight and frantically trying to save it before it falls into a lake. Most drone systems go out of their way to notify the user when their batteries are running low—but all the notifications in the world are useless if the user isn’t paying attention. Sometimes the user error isn’t as obvious as ignoring a flashing “Low Battery” signal. Drones are delicate instruments, and neglecting to keep them clean and well-maintained can increase the risk of component failure.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that many drone hobbyists are blissfully unaware of basic flight safety protocols or of their drones’ operational limitations. For example: The commercial drones used by hobbyists aren’t like military drones, whose operators can be halfway around the world from the drone itself. The website for the DJI Inspire 1 drone says that the device’s remote controller has a range of 2 kilometers, assuming unobstructed outdoor operations. What this means is that it’s very important to keep your drone within your field of vision at all times; when a drone goes out of sight, it might also go out of range. A city cop told the Pasadena Star-News that the drone operator in the Princess Bride incident lost visual contact with his DJI Inspire 1 drone and that the drone subsequently lost its signal.

But the blame doesn’t always redound to operator error. The lawyer for the high school science teacher accused of sending a drone careening into a U.S. Open tennis match earlier this month has claimed that his client’s drone “went haywire,” and he might well be telling the truth. Drone-enthusiast forums are filled with stories of random flyaways, with the devices crashing or disappearing through no apparent fault of the operator, and users speculate on problems ranging from software/firmware failures to GPS glitches. “My bebop flew away itself already 2 times for two weeks,” one sad poster wrote of his Parrot Bebop drone in March 2015. “Unfortunately i realize i will lose bebop soon it’s just a matter of time.”

If the FAA really wants to minimize unsafe drone operations, it needs to devise a framework for accountability that involves dronemakers and operators alike. Just as a drone hobbyist should be penalized for reckless flying, manufacturers must be discouraged from marketing devices that tend to go haywire. As the agency considers this issue, it shouldn’t limit its solutions to punitive measures, either—but whatever it does, it needs to act pretty soon.

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