Civilian unmanned aerial vehicles

For about US$2,000, you can get a pretty ridiculous camera-equipped UAV, which can be controlled by radio at a range of up to 15km. People fly them using live video streaming to goggles.

One group of people using these drones has made some impressive videos of places like New York City and the Matterhorn. Their work is pretty audacious, both in terms of how they flirt with the destruction of their drones by flying close to obstacles and because of how they flirt with trouble with the authorities by flying low in major urban centres.

These drones may have been part of the inspiration for the drone-related plot points in William Gibson’s latest novel, Zero History.

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Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

20 thoughts on “Civilian unmanned aerial vehicles”

  1. Contrast the above with the expense of military drones:

    THE future of air power is likely to be unmanned. It may also be surprisingly small. Reapers and Predators grab the headlines, but these big, high-profile drones are already outnumbered by small and cheap but capable craft.

    One good example is the RQ-11B Raven, made by AeroVironment of Monrovia, California, and widely used by America’s armed forces. It looks like a model aircraft. When disassembled it fits into a backpack. Launching it is just a matter of snapping the parts together and throwing it into the air, whence it is carried aloft by an electric propeller. It weighs just two kilograms. That means the American army’s entire annual purchase of almost 1,300 Ravens is lighter than a single fully armed Reaper. Pilots might dismiss Ravens as radio-controlled toys, but they are popular with soldiers and more are being rushed to Afghanistan.

    As electronics get ever smaller, small drones get more capable. At the moment, Ravens cost around $56,000 each, and economies of scale should bring this down. By contrast, machines like the Predator cost at least $5m, and another $5,000 an hour to fly. That is how the Pentagon can afford to buy so many Ravens, compared with just a few dozen Predators and Reapers each year. From the army’s point of view, small is definitely beautiful.

    I wonder how much more capable the Ravens are than these civilian drones, and how much of the cost of the military drones is just profit for arms companies.

  2. I think the Ravens may bring big-artillery back into theatres of war. I believe that after WW2 cruise missiles replaced the desire to build bigger and bigger artillery, largely because targeting long range shelling requires very difficult recon, and cruise missiles can use the targetting systems of air to ground missiles. But, if they can just fly one of these into the field to track the target coordinates, the fact that a big-bertha shell is so much cheaper than a cruise missile could become very tempting. Especially if America realizes it has to begin practicing its imperialism is a more cost-effective way.

  3. Low-cost unmanned aircraft are an interest of mine, so much so that I sometimes wonder if I could make a business of it. I think an potential niche to fill would be one in the $2000 – $5000 range.

    Digital cameras of good quality are fairly cheap and GPS is extremely cost effective for navigation.

    Of course, laws are the tricky part as you mention. But wouldn’t it be amazing to program a little airplane perhaps slightly larger the size of a typical radio controlled unit to go to a coordinate, photograph and return?

  4. Sea Shepherd uses drone to hunt whalers

    Anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd has used a drone to find the Japanese whaling fleet 1,000 miles north of the Southern Ocean whale sanctuary.

    The crew onboard the Steve Irwin deployed the drone to successfully locate and photograph the whaling factory boat.

    Jeff Hansen from Sea Shepherd says now that the ship’s position is known, the next step is to move in.

    “Right now we’ve deployed a drone which has gone up and taken aerial surveillance which has located the factory vessel, but we’ve also picked up three harpoon ships on our tail and security vessels but that’s not going to deter us in our mission,” he said.

  5. Difference engine
    Unblinking eyes in the sky

    Technology and society: Drone aircraft are no longer restricted to military use. They are being built and used by hobbyists, activists and estate agents, among others. What are the implications for safety and privacy?

    Safety is not the only concern associated with the greater use of civilian drones, however. There is also the question of privacy. In America, at least, neither the constitution nor common law prohibits the police, the media or anyone else from operating surveillance drones. As the law stands, citizens do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place. That includes parts of their own backyards that are visible from a public vantage point, including the sky. The Supreme Court has been very clear on the matter. The American Civil Liberties Union, a campaign group, says drones raise “very serious privacy issues” and are pushing America “willy-nilly toward an era of aerial surveillance without any steps to protect the traditional privacy that Americans have always enjoyed and expected.”

  6. Drone Photos Lead to Indictment For Texas Polluters

    In January of this year, we posted news of a major pollution site in Texas that was the subject of some anonymous amateur sleuths with drones, who used their UAVs to document the release of a “river of blood” (pig blood, that is) into the Trinity River as it flows through Dallas. Now, garymortimer writes, that documentation has resulted in legal action in the form of an indictment from a Dallas grand jury.

  7. Technology Quarterly: Q1 2013
    Monitor
    Flights of fancy
    Unmanned gliders: Powered drones are old hat. The latest robot aircraft are wafted around by the air itself, allowing them to stay aloft far longer

  8. The tools are improving and getting cheaper. Serge Wich, professor of primate biology at Liverpool’s John Moores University, has been using drones to calculate orang-utan densities in the Indonesian rainforest. Orang-utans make a nest every day—“quite comfortable ones, with a blanket woven from branches”, explains Mr Wich—so orang-utan populations can be guessed from nest numbers. “We were slogging through the rainforest thinking how nice it would be to have a camera fly over it to monitor nest frequency,” he says. But he assumed it would be too expensive—until he found an American website, diydrones, which enabled him to make one for $700. A bunch of conservation organisations has set up ConservationDrones.org to share information about this handy tool; Research Drones, a Swiss company, makes drones specifically for environmental and research purposes. “It’s our hope that an unmanned aerial vehicle will become like a pair of binoculars,” says Mr Wich.

    http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21585100-contrary-popular-belief-economic-growth-may-be-good-biodiversity-long-view

  9. Amazon Prime Air: drone-based 30 minute delivery

    Jeff Bezos took to 60 Minutes to announce Prime Air, a drone-based 30-minute delivery system for densely populated areas that comes with its own video design-fiction illustrating how it might work. The vision is an exciting one, but the designfic elides some important questions like the regulatory framework under which thousands (millions?) of drones might share the sky as businesses compete to do airborne delivery; whether that framework would be sufficient to actually maintain public safety (hello midair drone collision over a busy highway with attendant plummeting shrapnel into the path of speeding cars!); and what the energy and carbon footprint of drones would be, especially with comparison to conventional delivery logistics.

  10. ONCE, and not so long ago, the armed forces had all the best toys. America’s information-technology industry was powered by military budgets, and consumer electronics fed on the scraps. Now, the roles are being reversed. And there are few better illustrations of that reversal than an unmanned aircraft called Razor. Raven, the American armed forces’ workhorse small drone (it has a wingspan of 1.3 metres and is used for reconnaissance) is built using conventional techniques by AeroVironment, a Californian firm, and is controlled by bespoke software. It costs $76,000 a pop. Razor, an experimental vehicle designed by the MITRE Corporation (a not-for-profit organisation that manages government research programmes) and the University of Virginia, is turned out to order by 3D printers and is controlled by an Android smart phone loaded with freely available apps. It costs $2,000.

  11. Zephyr (named after the Greek god of the west wind) is actually an unmanned, ultralight, solar-powered, propeller-driven aircraft. But it is designed, just as some satellites are, to hover indefinitely over the same part of the world. With a 23-metre wingspan and a weight of only 50kg, it is fragile and must remain above the ravages of the weather and the jet stream both by day and by night. It therefore flies at an altitude of around 21km (70,000 feet) during daylight hours, and then glides slowly down to around 15km when the sun is unavailable to keep it aloft.

    Its solar cells, which are mounted on its wings, produce 1kW for every 1kg of panel. That power is fed into lithium-sulphur rechargeable batteries which can store 350 watt-hours per kilogram. (For comparison, the lithium-polymer batteries in iPhones store around 200 watt-hours per kilogram.) The result is a plane that can, potentially, stay aloft for months—though its longest test-run so far is a fortnight.

    http://www.economist.com/news/science-and-technology/21614095-cheap-alternative-satellites-starting-take-west-wind-blows

  12. The FAA has granted CNN a waiver that allows it to fly its Vantage Robotics Snap drone over open-air crowds of people at altitudes of up to 150 feet. “This is a new precedent in this kind of waiver: Previous exemptions allowed flight of drones over people in closed set operations (like for filmmaking purposes) and only when tethered, with a max height of 21 feet,” reports TechCrunch. From the report:

    “The new waiver granted to CNN, as secured through its legal counsel Hogan Lovells, allows for flight of the Vantage UAV (which is quite small and light) above crowds regardless of population density. It was a big win for the firm and the company because it represents a change in perspective on the issue for the FAA, which previously viewed all requests for exceptions from a “worst-case scenario” point of view. Now, however, the FAA has accepted CNN’s “reasonableness Approach,” which takes into account not just the potential results of a crashed drone, but also the safe operating history of the company doing the flying, their built-in safety procedures, and the features included on the drone model itself that are designed to mitigate the results of any negative issues.”

  13. Researchers at Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Israel have built a proof-of-concept system for counter-surveillance against spy drones that demonstrates a clever, if not exactly simple, way to determine whether a certain person or object is under aerial surveillance. They first generate a recognizable pattern on whatever subject­ — a window, say — someone might want to guard from potential surveillance. Then they remotely intercept a drone’s radio signals to look for that pattern in the streaming video the drone sends back to its operator. If they spot it, they can determine that the drone is looking at their subject.

  14. Most existing drones do, however, need to be flown by an experienced operator. Indeed, the law often requires this. Drones also need technical support and maintenance. And the people operating them would be well advised to have an understanding of the legal and safety implications of what they are up to. Hence the appeal of the “drone-in-a-box”. This is a term being applied to the offerings of several firms that aspire to sell the advantages of drones without the associated worries.

    The box in question is a base station that houses the drone, recharges it and transfers the data it has collected to the customer. The drone may fly autonomously, according to a preprogrammed schedule, find its way automatically to a point it is ordered to visit, or be piloted remotely by an operative of the company that supplies the system, from a control centre anywhere on the planet.

    In Israel, Airobotics has already gone through a similar process: Optimus drones are now able to fly unsupervised. In both countries the authorities are being sensibly cautious, but the data suggest that automatic flights of the Optimus variety are safer than piloted ones, particularly during take-off and landing, when most accidents happen. Whether this also applies to remote piloting remains to be seen. But GreenSight seems confident it will. Justin McClellan, the firm’s chief marketing officer, hopes the strictures on observers will change next year—indeed, he expects a general relaxation of the rules, not just for GreenSight, but also for its competitors.

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