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.

Conclusion

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.