Austin American-Statesman Omar L. Gallaga column [Austin American-Statesman]
(Austin American-Statesman (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Nov. 04--What image jumps to mind when you hear the word "drones?"
At one time, you might have thought of "office drones" or conjured an image of your mind of vast, unfeeling robot armies.
In more recent years, drones have become associated with aerial strikes and surveillance overseas, the subject of headlines about the military, spies and death from above.
But drones are also emerging from the shadows as practical devices that, like it or not, are poised to become part of our lives by the end of the decade, when the FAA estimates as many as 10,000 of them could be sharing U.S. airspace.
Should we be afraid?
Let's start by talking about what a drone is: a drone is pretty much any flying machine without a person in it; they're also known by the term "unmanned aerial vehicles," or UAVs. That includes fairly large, sophisticated and expensive military drones. But it also is a term for tiny hovering copters flown by hobbyists or used in industries including real estate, marketing and even agriculture. A $60 remote-control "Quadro" helicopter from Radio Shack made for kids 8 and older is, by definition, a drone.
This is what a drone is not: a plane, helicopter or any flying contraption carrying a person in it.
Many, many people are coming to realize how a small aircraft that can hover in the air for a good amount of time could be very, very useful in a lot of ways. But a Texas law that went into effect in September and a federal law requiring the FAA to make rules for drones by 2015 are calling into question who'll be able to use drones and for what.
Irrational desire at first flight
It's very sunny and the sky is ridiculously clear on a late October afternoon. We're standing at the edge of Auditorium Shores, and Colin Guinn, the athletic-looking CEO of DJI Innovations, has brought a sturdy case that looks like one a musician might carry.
DJI Innovations, based in Austin, is the North American arm of Hong Kong-based DJI, which makes several different flying gadgets with names such as "Spreading Wings S800 EVO" and the "Phantom."
Guinn opens the case to reveal the Phantom 2 Vision, a new version of a small four-rotor craft that includes a high-definition video camera and a powered Wi-Fi router that can transfer photos or a live video feed from the air to a smartphone from 300 meters away.
The Phantom powers up, buzzing like bees. Guinn, holding a controller, pilots the thing into the air. Nearby, dog owners, moms with toddlers and joggers pause to stare as it flies up, up, up until it can barely be seen.
On a smartphone mounted on the controller, Guinn shows a video image of what the drone can see. He can control the camera's view from the phone. The Phantom flies far up over Lady Bird Lake, giving us the bird's eye view of downtown Austin buildings. Guinn stops using the controller, and as he speaks, the aircraft just stays way up there, hovering perfectly still in place, droning. If the controller and the craft lose track of each other, the GPS technology in the drone helps return it back to the spot where it took off. As it comes down, neatly and perfectly, I think suddenly, "I want one. Right now."
I'm not into planes. I'm not into R/C cars or helicopters. I don't even know what I'd use a device like this for, but it's hard not to desire a trip to the sky that seems so easy, so lovely, so full of possibilities. One that you could use to document and share the view from the sky, instantly available, right to your phone, as long as you know what you're doing and don't crash the thing.
I ask some people how they would use a drone or multiple drones. The answers range from practical ("Pick up and drop off packages around town" to eliminate errand runs) to whimsical ("Fly my wet laundry around and dry it at top speed").
Two other parents I know have the same unwise idea I do: using drones to follow our daughters out when they eventually start dating. Other ideas including scouting ahead of your car to spot and avoid traffic, seeking out archaeological sites, finding lost pets or assisting the visually impaired by warning them of obstacles ahead.
This requires a leap of imagination: drones will likely come in all shapes and sizes, some as tiny as insects, and instead of costing hundreds or thousands of dollars, many might eventually become practically disposable in price.
Guinn's company already is discounting its older version of the Phantom, which doesn't include a camera, to $479, while the new one with all the visual bells and whistles is $1,199. Guinn, who has a background in aerial photography, can rattle off a list of dozens of ways drones can be used that don't involve spying or doing harm to people.
"In agriculture, you can find hot spots in crops to see where they need more water or where they can use less pesticide," Guinn says. "You could do power line and transmission line inspection work," which could cut down on injuries or deaths caused by aircraft accidents. "Things that it's ludicrous we would be letting humans do."
Insurance agents could do a hail damage flyover after a storm. Rescue workers could do a quick inspection of an area in a search-and-rescue or after a natural disaster.
Laws and risks
But for people who aren't using drones commercially, there's been worry that HB 912, the law enacted in September, might put a chill on the market. The law bans using drones by citizens for surveillance. You can't hover a drone over your neighbor's house in hope they'll go for a swim that you'll capture on camera, for instance.
But Guinn, whose company worked with lawmakers on some of the language of the law, says that the key in it is the word "intent." Someone who thinks they were spied on would have to prove that the drone user intended to do surveillance in order for a fine to be levied.
"We think that makes a lot of sense," Guinn said. "We don't want people using these things to spy on people."
But privacy concerns and bad publicity over drone strikes might not be the only obstacles to UAVs going mainstream. In an article for Scientific American, Kyle Wesson, a doctoral candidate in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Texas, and Todd Humphreys, a UT assistant professor, suggest that drones could be dangerous in a few important ways.
GPS signals that drones rely upon could be cut off or hijacked via "spoofing" or "jamming." Someone could take control of an innocent person's drone using those techniques to spy or to crash and cause damage. Drones also could be involved in accidental collisions with other drones or other kinds of aircraft.
Wesson says he's not proposing drones should be banned but says there's a patchwork of laws coming along that haven't resolved how privacy and security issues will be addressed in any consistent way. And many laws passed now might be trumped by federal mandates in 2015.
"These are tough questions. The economics are very compelling. People want to use them. They're going to move forward," Wesson said. "The question is what the regulatory landscape will look like when people are using them."
Will a drone help you find your lost dog? Will a drone make the wine you drink better after vineyards have used them to better manage their grapes from the sky? It's possible. It's even likely. But there's lots to work out before reality catches up with the desire to be up in the air.
Find technology news, reviews and a video by Ricardo B. Brazziell of a drone in action at Omar L. Gallaga's blog, Digital Savant, at austin360.com/digitalsavant.
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