Do-It-Yourself Drones: New Civilian Uses for Unmanned Aircraft
Advanced aerial drones have transformed battlefields abroad and law enforcement at home. Now unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming powerful tools for civilians. A new federal law clears the way for expanded commercial applications, including photography, agriculture and environmental monitoring. Activists are using drones to film police tactics at Occupy protests and document corporate pollution. But the explosion of unmanned aerial systems also raises safety and privacy concerns. We explore the promise and potential dangers of DIY drones.
John McGraw talks about new regulations from the Obama administration concerning unmanned aerial drones and U.S. airspace:
The Friendly Skies are Getting Crowded
Historically, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) (aka "drones") have primarily supported U.S. military and intelligence activities abroad. But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) projects that 30,000 drones could be operating domestically by 2020.
Last week President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, commonly known as the FAA Reauthorization Act. The law clears a major barrier to commercial drones, ordering the FAA to develop regulations for testing and licensing civilian drones by 2015. Investors believe the commercial market – adapting drones for photography, mapping or advertising uses—could someday be worth billions of dollars.
Law enforcement agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Protection already use drones to monitor the border and conduct counter-narcotics surveillance, operating modified versions of high-tech, expensive drones used on battlefields. Privacy advocates worry that the rapid domestic expansion of UAS technologies in commercial fields will increase surveillance and further erode the expectation of privacy. The FAA has also raised concerns about safety and licensing.
Most attention in the domestic drone debate has focused on relatively expensive UAS systems, adapted from defense technology. But a diverse group of tinkerers, activists and small-business owners are using light-weight, inexpensive drone systems to capture stunning aerial images and video.
This drone technology is also creating space for a new kind of citizen journalism: drone journalism.
Rivers of Blood & Occupy Protests
Last month, government agencies launched a criminal investigation against a Texas meat-packing plant, after an amateur drone pilot captured images that appeared to document illegal pollution. The unidentified drone pilot noticed red spots in the water, now believed to be pigs' blood illegally dumped into the river:
Aerial drones are also being used to document political demonstrations. Occupy Wall Street protesters have used an “Occucopter” to monitor police tactics. Pro-democracy activists in Russia and Poland have also used drones to create arresting images and videos of street protests:
Off-the-Shelf and DIY Drones
Retailers already sell relatively sophisticated aerial drones off-the-shelf. For example, the Parrot AR.Drone Quadrocopter -- a drone controlled by smartphones—retails for less than $300.
Backyard tinkerers and makers are also building their own drones, using open source platforms, and sharing tips and videos on sites like DIYDrones.com. One of the most popular drones is the ArduCopter Quad, "multirotor amateur UAV development platform and is meant for DIY people"
A number of European companies have developed sophisticated UAV platforms in a higher price range. A Polish company called RoboKopter captured the above images of street protests in Warsaw. A Belgian company called Gatewing designed the X100 aerial drone for sophisticated photomapping purposes:
Current FAA rules have limited the adoption of these sophisticated UAV systems within the United States. Without a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), unmanned vehicles can only be operated below 400 feet and within eyesight of the operator. Industry analysts predict that a new licensing regime will create a vibrant new marketplace for these systems.