Looking around for a sale this Black Friday? Or still looking for a parking space? The ads are full of mini-helicopters, and some empty cars… just like the Afghani skies, and test courses in Silicon Valley respectively. It’s not Black Drone-day, it’s now drone-era.
Lost in all the handwaving and whining about “drones” (or UAVs, UCAVs, or what have you*) is one simple fact: geeks know they’ve been here all along, ever since we called them “R/C planes” (or cars or helicopters or what have you). How do I know? Full disclosure: I’m not just a geek, I did some consulting on a “drone” project, though it was general work and would apply to a manned plane.
These are shelves in a hobby shop. Like most such shops in the developed US, you can pick up an R/C plane for 200-400 bucks. Some people have that in their pocket right now. Some lucky kid in your town has such a plane, and maybe a bunch of kids.
Alongside this shelf is a shelf with R/C-specific cameras. Not that that matters, since many of these planes (and some bigger R/C helicopters) can lift standardized cameras, like a GoPro (easily!) or a mirrorless (including pro-quality video). Alongside that shelf are the R/C components, if a kit doesn’t do it for you. A skilled person can buy components, and build a pretty huge plane that can carry cameras or whatever else can be fairly miniaturized via integrated circuits. This includes some applications you or I haven’t even considered yet. Right now, you may be thinking “sure, but those aren’t deadly missiles.” A missile is simply a smaller, faster R/C vehicle, assuming you even need a separate one. One could simply put a metal nose on their plane, and call that the “missile.” And I was looking to get into model rocketry as a kid, too.
The implications are staggering, and not just for the warmonger. With pro-quality video the size of one hand, say bye-bye to news choppers. I lived by a highway once or twice, and tried to get desensitized to the traffic copters. (You never do, really.) This also means movies will be more “cinematic,” with even indie pictures able to afford big, sweeping landscape shots. Just rent some geek’s UAV, instead of hiring a chopper and a pro film crew to fit inside.
On a more serious note, multiple companies are trying to begin UAV delivery of urgent mail, and even small parcels. A tiny helicopter will beat (road) traffic, approach your front steps, and release a delivery module. Bada bing. Consider “Cyber Monday,” the first business day after Thanksgiving when all the e-commerce shops mail out all your orders. UPS, FedEx, and even the Postal Service are raking it in as collaborators in the e-commerce chain. The amount of money involved in rapid delivery (including high-priority business supplies) is more than the person on the street has in their minds. This business will soon bypass the streets, and your heads. (And yes, that means fewer jobs for bike messengers, moto couriers, truck drivers, and chopper flight crews… but more jobs for aerospace engineers and electrical/computer/RF geeks.) Overall, Congress has mandated that the FAA figure out a way to safely integrate unmanned traffic into our National Airspace by 2015. Day’s a’comin’.
“Sure, but…” you’re thinking. “This doesn’t settle the weaponized drone question.” Of course it doesn’t. You can kill someone with a car, just like you can deliver food to the hungry with a car. That means cars get regulated- not banned. The fact that you can kill someone with a “drone” just puts them in the same category as cars, guns, motorcycles, heavy machinery, commercial airliners, strong pharmaceuticals, toxic chemicals and explosives, et cetera et cetera et cetera. One hobbyist died when he got hacked up by his own R/C helicopter; he was hardly the first serious injury, just like “real” helicopters. Also note that the tables turn quite rapidly. The Turkish protesters in Taksim Square had at least one little UAV, to monitor police/military threats. Again, no different from a million other modern technologies.
And modern they are. The ability to hurtle down the road at a consistent 20+ mph (faster than a bicycle at some distance, and a horse for longer) made motorcycles a game-changer (later followed by slower 4-wheelers). They were both started by hobbyists, as were model rockets. We certainly didn’t ban those, did we?
* People on the street use “drone,” people in the business use “UAV” (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). Politically-correct people use “UCAV” (UnCrewed Aerial Vehicle), because if the pilot’s a woman that’s not the same. Unfortunately that’s the same as UCAV (Uninhabited Combat Aerial Vehicle), a UAV that’s armed. Now some say screw it, they’re all UAS (whatever, systems).