Wednesday, 5 August 2015

On droning

Your correspondent + aerial shot of house, both taken by drone
There's been a surge in concern about drones. Stories about drones spying on people, about them having the potential to bomb you, shoot you or deliver you a package. As with most media hysteria, there's an element of truth, but only an element. As ever, it all comes down to the responsibility of the pilot / driver, just like horses, cars, boats and any other vehicles that require 'handling' to prevent grievous injury or death.

Radio-controlled (RC) aircraft have been around for decades, even in the consumer/hobbyist arena, and, yes, even with cameras. So why the fuss now?

Because it's easy

In days of yore, you'd have to visit a hobby shop, know what you're buying, build the kit, test it and take it down to the nearest field for a spin. With any luck you'd learn to fly it without too many crashes. Then you might spend the same amount as you spent on the plane fitting a camera that would beam fuzzy video down to a recorder (VCR or camcorder). You might even have a screen or goggles to view the footage while you're flying.

Then smart phones happened. Nearly every smart phone has a gyroscope, a compass and a GPS chip in it. It also has a lithium-polymer battery to keep it running all day. With billions of smart phones now on the planet these technologies have become amazingly cheap - hobbyist cheap. Put that kit in a RC aircraft and you have gyroscopically stabilised flight, location awareness and sufficient power to weight ratio to keep a 1kg aircraft in the air for 20 minutes. Slap a GoPro camera on the bottom and you have an easy to fly drone that collects video or photo footage.

It wasn't long before the likes of Parrot and DJI started packaging these for the consumer market, and making them smart phone app compatible. So anyone with a smart phone and a thousand bucks could buy and fly one.

Because of the military... and media

Roughly at the same time as smart phones arrived, military drones became the mainstream weapon of choice for delivering ordinance to targets in Afghanistan and Iraq. The idea of flying robots fighting wars was as appealing to scaremongering journalists as it was to scifi fans. The fact that these drones were piloted by people, many of whom suffered as much post-traumatic stress as personnel on the ground, was rarely reported. Robots, like Roomba and self-driving cars were on the way.

The Reality

A DJI drone costs about $1000. This is not a have-a-go sum, it's for serious hobbyists or professionals. Like a photographer who buys a DSLR, rather than a small point & shoot camera. Similarly, there is a learning curve too. So this is not like buying a new TV - it requires investment of time as well as money.

The flight time for a typical consumer drone is 20 minutes. Range is 1-2km (roughly a mile). It can carry maybe 1lb, although pro hex- or octocopters can go up to 5lb. The heavier the payload, the shorter the flight time. Does that describe something that could deliver packages to you? Me neither.

Some of these drones support basic autonomy: you can pre-program a route and it will fly it. However, they lack the sensors to detect obstacles, so you'd have to ensure that the route is clear. Many of them have GPS restrictions built-in (eg. avoiding airports) as well as range restrictions: so if it goes out of range of your controller, it automatically flies back to you.

Could you use them to fly over to your neighbour's bedroom window and spy on them? Possibly, but they are neither silent nor invisible, so you'd still be better off with a good vantage point and a decent zoom lens, like an old-school pervert.

Could you fly a drone into an aircraft while it is taking off or landing, or deliver a small bomb remotely? Yes, but you could arguably do that with any RC aircraft, and nobody has since they were invented. None of the new technology I have mentioned would make it easier. Carbombs do not justify banning cars.

Any of the evil uses described by the media could be accomplished (arguably more effectively) without a drone. But flying robots make good copy.


Perhaps the importance of a new technology is the degree to which its capabilities are exaggerated. As well as producing arresting photo- and cinematography, drones are being used for great scientific endeavours: like the archaeologist in Peru who is 3D mapping thousands of ancient ruins that are at risk.

There's no doubt that, like any vehicle, drone use should be licensed, but let's address the facts about the capabilities and not the hysteria.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Earth: powered by the sun

Living on a warm, sunny island it's easy to imagine the benefits of solar energy. The perpetual, oppressive heat, the perennial use of sunglasses and the constant fight against the prolific jungle that passes for gardening in these parts are all reminders of the incredible power of the sun.

But what about colder latitudes? And how efficient is it? I hear that it's not very efficient.

I watched Elon Musk's announcement of Tesla's Power Wall because somebody on Twitter said it was the 'best keynote in the last 10 years'. As a presenter, Musk is no Steve Jobs, but the content was astonishing. One infographic really caught my eye: the square mileage of solar panels required to power the entire USA. After Googling around I found a global version:-
All our energy needs could be met by filling in those tiny squares. Of course it's not as easy as that, but when you consider the astounding feats of engineering we are capable of, like a set of man-made islands made to look like the globe, and you couple that with the impact of fossil fuels on the real globe, the fact that the solution amounts to pixel sized squares on a global map seems absurd.
But the real kicker is that the actual deployment can be much more flexible: rooftops of solar cells. And those marvellous Tesla Power Wall batteries.

In Bermuda there's only one road that has water mains. Nearly all domestic water comes from rainwater stored under houses. That's the legacy of the distinctive white lime roofs: primitive filtration. So there's no water bill. Imagine if it was the same for electricity. Whatever you think of the actual product, the Power Wall, as a concept, is an evocative proposal that will disrupt the utility industry.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

The quantified self & smart watches

There's a lot of chatter in Tech Land about smart watches, mostly fuelled by the impending launch of the Apple Watch. It will either be another iPhone, disrupting multiple industries at once (for the iPhone it was mobile phones, music players, cameras and palm PCs), or it will join the increasing array of 'smart' watches that adorn geeky and/or healthy wrists only. In an age when hardly anyone under 30 bothers to wear a watch, except as a fashion item, this is quite audacious. They have to justify a watch's existence as a supplement to a more powerful device: your phone. From a brand built on making our tech lives simpler, this teeters dangerously on the brink of "just because it's trendy and we want you to buy more of our stuff".

To get it right they need to offer
a) features that my phone and a simple watch cannot offer, like subtle notifications (tap on the wrist), glance-able info and extra sensors.
b) a battery life that is convenient to regular use. If I have to plug it in every single night, it had better be worth wearing every single day.

From what I've seen so far, I think they're focusing too much on the former and not enough on the latter. They are probably hoping that the former will overwhelm the latter: that the watch and its developer ecosystem will offer such a plethora of features that users won't care about having to plug their watch in every night.

The current smart watch market is
a) people with some interest in 'the quantified self': keeping stats about how many steps they walk, their heart rate, how long they sleep, meals they eat etc.;
b) info-addicts who need to be notified about the slightest twitch in their infosphere, be it a facebook 'like', a google '+1', a retweet or an incoming email.

The trouble is that these are extreme users. Most of us can't be bothered, and therefore won't bother to purchase or at least recharge, if we purchase or are gifted one. Most of us find our phones and tablets to be distracting enough - our little hard-to-control habit that may or may not be good for us. Will Apple try to convince the rest of us that we want yet another gadget to make our lives simpler? Or are they simply following the other gadget heavyweights to plug that gap in their ecosystem?

There are many players in this space, mostly from the 'quantified self' angle. Fitness trackers abound, I guess because if you make a habit of running/gyming every other day then you don't mind the extra habit of recharging your tracker. Some of these use your phone's sensors, in tandem with their own, to provide glance-able stats to your wrist; some are standalone. The former have battery lives of months, whereas the latter last hours. They are all specialist, though: you wouldn't wear them unless you were doing fitness stuff.

The one to watch, for my money, is Pebble. Their watches last at least a week (screen based on e-ink, same as a basic Kindle), and they work equally well with iOS and Android. They are currently Kickstarter-backed, but I bet the likes of Citizen and Casio are watching them closely. A solar-powered Pebble is my current speculative ideal.