The Buzz of the Drones: Is 2014 the year robots take to the skies?
10 January 2014

by tmartin on January 10, 2014

IT’S A BIRD. IT’S A PLANE. IT’S THE KICKOFF trend story of 2014! That’s right – we’re talking drones here.

Not drones as in mindless, emotionless beings or dull monotonous tones, nay, neither of those. We’re talking about the sexy drones, the ones that are sizzling hot and giving us the first juicy tech story of this young 2014.

Of course, we’re referring to those devices that the ever-trend-ready Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tags with catchy name Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or UAS’s (http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=14153). In other words, unmanned flying devices.

Drone styles cover a lot of territory – from tiny flying spiders-with-equally-tiny-cameras to Boeing 737-sized vehicles that carry military and industrial payloads. The image and emotions the term “drone” conjures probably depends a lot on your political and gadget leanings.

One on hand, we’ve got the scary harbinger of death /evil representative of governments-out-of-control version.

In April, opponents to US military drone use began a campaign to raise awareness of the UAS-delivered death and destruction. The evil drone image spiked in the news over last summer, when a Pakistani government report alleged that US military drones killed 94 children between 2006 and 2009. In November, activists descended on Washington DC and held a “die-in” as part of an anti-drone protest.

On the other hand, gadget-heads and techie types think of them as wicked cool.

A TED presentation on “athletic machines” early in 2013 showed the geeky awesomeness of remote controlled flying devices. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=w2itwFJCgFQ)

That wicked cool image spiked in the news in early December when Jeff Bezos showed CBS News’ 60 Minutes his company’s secret research project – Amazon Prime Air with its bright yellow “Octo-copter” delivery drones that promise near-instant gratification: taking you from the click of an order button to a delivery at the door in 30 minutes.

This week, a YouTube video of “Dancing Drones” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&list=UU6gTNEiFyqlUwzoaH9L-ivg&v=Jdqzzxwcf_8) has been going viral, while the gadget-loving drones appear front and center at the year’s biggest gadget show of them all, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

At CES, Parrot (http://www.parrot.com/usa/) showed off it’s mini drone and jumping drones. Competitor DJI (http://www.dji.com) wowed people with its video-enabled Phantom and higher end professional photography Innovation drone series.

One company has even managed to combine the dual trends of wearables and drones; Vergence Labs (http://vergencelabs.com) showed smart glasses with a drone-controlling app.

TechCrunch’s CES featured start-up, Pocket Drones, saw its Kickstarter campaign quickly soar past its funding goal, as investors tickled by the idea of personal flying robot committed dollars to the nascent firm.

Drone use has been rapidly accelerating both domestically and globally. In the US, the FAA first authorized unmanned aircraft use in 1990. In Europe, companies like Austria’s Schiebel Aircraft (http://schiebel.net) have targeted oil & gas, utilities, mining, shipping, and agriculture; the firm is one of several hundred European companies developing commercial drone applications.

Louisiana State University (LSU) runs a drones-in-agriculture program, using the devices to monitor crops for disease, insects, and growth. Billionaire winemaker Bernard Magrez has announced his operations will deploy vineyard drones across his properties in Bordeaux for “precision viticulture.”

Wired Magazine (http://www.wired.com/business/2014/01/delivery-drones-already-exist/) points out that the US Marines have flown more than 1300 delivery missions over the past 18 months, using Lockheed Martin KMAX unmanned cargo helicopters, which at 5,000 pounds or so are decidedly not the cute little drones buzzing around CES.

Drone use by big game hunters has triggered a while wave of controversy. Some hunters have been tracking prey with the remote flying devices, rather than in a more traditional woodsy way, leading to cries of unfairness and lack of sportsmanship. At the same time, PETA activists have been using drones to record videos of hunters. Today, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission will be taking up the question of implementing a flat out drone ban.

Drone use in law enforcement has boomed so much that earlier this week the New Jersey Assembly (http://www.northjersey.com/news/politics/Bill_regulating_law_enforcement_drone_use_in_NJ_clears_the_Assembly.html#sthash.thxIpCeh.dpuf) gave the nod to a bill regulating how police, firefighters and others can use drones.

Which brings up another drone fear: Invasion of privacy. Spying. Surveillance. The image of a drone gliding by unnoticed, recording images for a police state, a commercial pitch, or for the titillation of nosy neighbors sends chills up the spine of privacy advocates – and many others.

Last March tech-loving Scientific American wrote a strong editorial about privacy (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=spy-drones-come-us-we-must-protect-privacy) saying bluntly:

    “Drones also pose an immense threat to privacy. “The proliferation of small, inexpensive aerial vehicles with video downlinks will dramatically alter the cost-benefit ratio of surveillance…

    The privacy threat does not just come from law enforcement, either. Paparazzi and private detectives will find drones just as easy to use as the cops. Your neighbor is not allowed go into your yard without your permission—will he be able to keep a drone hovering just above it?”

With just a dollop of imagination, it becomes pretty easy to picture the air above us as crazy as the Southeast Expressway, with drones of all types zipping this way and that, creating air-jams and who-knows-what-else. The FAA shared this nightmare – albeit on a much larger and more commercial scale.

“Safety is the FAA’s top mission,” it says in a preamble to its newest drone management efforts.

On December 30, after 10 months of reviewing proposals from 24 states, the FAA chose six test and research operators whose efforts will help develop drone deployment rules.

“These test sites will give us valuable information about how best to ensure the safe introduction of this advanced technology into our nation’s skies,” said US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in the announcement.

Here in the northeast, promoters are doing the happy feet dance because New York’s Griffiss International Airport (http://www.ocgov.net/airport) was selected to develop and test evaluation and verification processes for drones. Among its partners is Joint Base Cape Cod (http://jointbasecapecod.org). Translation: the Cape becomes a test site for the effort, potentially bringing jobs and dollars to Massachusetts as well.

I know we’re only a couple weeks into the year, but I can’t help wondering … Will 2014 be known as the year of the drone? The year robots took to the air?

The technology – from multi-ton craft to nano-buzzing-bots – tickles so many human fantasies it’s hard to image it going back into the bag.

UASs let us fly, they give us eyes and ears that extend far beyond our natural range, they give us power without leaving the comfort of our chair, they are the toy we dreamed of playing with as 10-year-olds turned into an adult reality. And, oh yeah, they’re going to make some people a lot of money.

But defining the boundaries … that may be the real story. Only 2014 will tell. Happy New Year! Happy Drone Year!

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