As seen by this image I call Enchanting Mounds, a bird's eye view can be quite spectacular! Personal drone use has seen an incredible escalation of interest over the last decade. Thousands of new drones make their maiden flights each day, and the number of active pilots of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) is increasing at a drastic rate.
The Flying Camera
You will notice that I will interchange between UAS and drones when describing these "flying robots." One could say that drone use started with pigeon cam in 1908. John Neubronner, a pharmacist, used pigeons to send and receive medicines and messages. Really, I'm not making this up. Neubronner grew curious about the movement and habits of his pigeons when they were away from home, and being an avid photographer, he saw how his hobby might be useful in answering some of his questions. He began devising his own miniature camera that could be attached to pigeons via a harness. What he ended up with was a light wooden camera and pneumatic timer that engaged the shutter at set intervals. To read more about this fascinating story, click this hyperlink, pigeon cam. In more recent times, drones have been most often associated with the military, where they were used initially for anti-aircraft target practice, intelligence gathering and then, more controversially, as weapons platforms. To differentiate between military use and civil use it still is common to use UAS for non-military activities. That said, those lines are blurred quite a bit now. Drones are now also used in a wide range of civilian roles ranging from search and rescue, surveillance, traffic monitoring, weather monitoring and firefighting, to personal drones and business drone photography, as well as videography, agriculture and even delivery service. Yea, I suspect some day soon some your pizza and the appropriate craft beer will be delivered by a drone. Virginia Polytechnic Institute has already began a test to make food deliveries, starting with burritos produced at a local Chipotle restaurant. Yes, they have their priorities right! Amazon is also in full test mode to capture the "instant" delivery business.
Besides the commercial possibilities, flying robots are currently used in ways that are quite beneficial. Did you know drones have been instrumental in restoring power to hurricane stricken Puerto Rico? Not only are they efficient in surveying vast acres of challenging terrain; they also help utility crews string new power lines. Cool eh? The Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service have already been using UASs to survey wild land fires. Drones offer a great opportunity to assess information close to fires that can provide situational awareness to the on-scene firefighters. This information-gathering capability can help keep firefighters and other responders from unnecessary danger. Being a wild land firefighter in a past life, I can attest to how important good information is on a fire.
I think it's safe to say drones will continue to be a part of many aspects of our lives as swarms of artificial intelligence buzz around in the skies above. I could continue to point out the many upsides to using drones, but I would be remiss not to mention the downsides; specifically for recreational use and some commercial use. For background I have to mentioned the some regulatory aspects of drone use that may be a surprise to many of you. First off, any drones (0.5 lbs to 55 lbs) in the United States are considered aircraft by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Consequently, drone operation is a regulated activity with specific operating requirements. I won't get into every requirement or in detail, but some include: flying below 400 ft; not flying in restricted airspace (near airports, over stadiums, over the White House, etc.); and flying within visual site. All drones between 0.5 and 55 lbs also require FAA registration. Part of that registration is giving your drone a name. And since my drone is precious to me, I named it Mandy. I scored some points from my girlfriend on that decision. Ok, one more important regulatory requirement to mention, all commercial drone activities require a Remote Pilot Certificate. That certificate involves taking a knowledge test that encompasses all aspects of flying an aircraft in the United States. And, yes, you have to study, really study, for that test or fail you will.
With this basic regulatory background, the problems arise when folks who operate drones treat them as just toys or are just plain stupid. Yea, I understand that; they are fun to fly. However, from the FAA standpoint, they are quite capable of flying into dangerous situations. A really bad day is when a drone is sucked into a jet engine or crashes into a group of people. That may even hurt more than an icicle heading your head! Rogue drone operators are rapidly becoming a national nuisance, invading sensitive airspace and private property. In the last year or so, drones have smuggled drugs into an Ohio prison, smashed against a Cincinnati skyscraper, impeded efforts to fight wildfires in California and nearly collided with three airliners over New York City. The Department of Homeland Security said it had recorded more than 500 incidents since 2012 in which rogue drones hovered over “sensitive sites and critical installations,” such as military bases and nuclear plants. One can find bad players involved in many recreational activities, but drones are capable of creating serious incidents or even national security breaches. Most new drone models are aimed at novice fliers who are often “blissfully unaware” of aviation safety practices. Based on the escalating concern over drone use, the FAA has created new rules this past October which clarified and added new rules for recreational drone users. Although the FAA lacks the authority to license recreational drones, it does have the power to impose civil fines on anyone who recklessly interferes with air traffic or endangers people on the ground. Yet the agency has levied fines in only a handful of cases, saying it does not have the staff to investigate most complaints. However, do we always have to just be "blissfully ignorant" of rules and regulations? I hope your take away from the long narrative is that drones are not toys and are regulated. Let's have fun with drones and follow the rules.
Ok, I've gone on long enough, but what about ethical issues or privacy concerns? And, of course, it's not all negative. As I briefly mentioned in this article, there are many advantages to robots in the air. In Part 2 of "The Flying Camera," I'll continue to discuss the many advantages and more issues of drone use.
What is your opinion on drones? Worthy technology or just another nuisance?