Drone on the Range

March 2015

Let's say you're a rock climber, you're half way up a 100-foot cliff, and you want to take a selfie to impress everyone back home. But what's the selfie going to show? Your face with some rock in the background. Wouldn't it be nice if you could take a selfie from, say, 30 feet away, so that those you wish to impress can see you mounted high up on the cliff's face.

What you need is Nixie, the selfie-taking wrist drone. It's a quadcopter drone you wear on your wrist and send aloft with a flick. It takes photos or a video and then returns to you, boomerang style. You catch it and put it back on your wrist. Exactly what you need, right? Nixie is still in prototype stage, but wowed the audience at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Or maybe you're an archaeologist in Peru, wanting to survey a vast expanse of remote uninhabited areas knowing that ancient civilizations lie buried someplace. Options in the past were to hike a barren landscape for days and then cover only a small portion, or to go the very expensive route of hiring a private plane. Today, though, archaeologists are using drones at a fraction of the cost of a plane to fly over and survey the thousands of ancient ruins there.

Unfortunately, most of what we hear about drones are the aircraft circling in places like rural Pakistan, watching for terrorists and occasionally unleashing missiles. But drones are fast becoming yet another platform — a general-purpose tool like the personal computer or smartphone — that can be used in virtually an infinite number of ways.

Drones are being used in Hollywood to film aerial scenes. Consider the scene in the movie Expendables 3, with Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, where there's gunfire, a train speeding down the tracks, and a helicopter swooping in. Instead of using a second helicopter to shoot this scene from above, a hovering drone took all the footage for the sequence.

Interested? There are hundreds of drones available for purchase. For $63 you can get the UDI U818A 2.4GHz 4 CH 6 Axis Gyro RC Quadcopter with Camera RTF Mode 2. The rechargeable battery can keep the device aloft for 7–9 minutes, with a range of up to 30 meters. Just enough to spy on your neighbor.

Eye, there's the rub. Actually, just one of them. This month the Federal Aviation Agency is expected to come out with new guidelines for the use of drones, given their proliferation. One of the big concerns is drones crashing into airplanes. Currently rules say they can't go above 400 feet or fly within the vicinity of airports.

Plus, there was that little incident in January when a drone crash-landed on the White House lawn. Not to worry. No terrorist was involved. Instead, it was the work of a government employee who had been drinking and who lost control of his drone at 3 a.m. when he was flying it out his window.

Currently there are no restrictions on the use of drones by hobbyists other than the rules mentioned above. However, the government has disallowed commercial use, though has given permission to Hollywood to use them in filming.

But there are so many ways in which they could be effectively used that business and industry are clamoring for authorization. Farmers want to use drones to monitor their crops. Police want to use them for search-and-rescue operations, for taking photos of crime and accident scenes, for tracking tactical situations, and for assessing fire scenes.

Facebook is planning to use drones as sky-based wireless Internet providers, bringing Facebook to remote corners of the world. Seriously. Drones are already being used for DHL to deliver drugs and medical supplies to a remote island off the north coast of Germany. Similarly, in Bhutan drones are being used to deliver medical supplies to clinics high up in the Himalayas. Amazon and Google are testing drones for delivery.

Oil companies want to use them to inspect pipelines. Drug traffickers have already attempted to use a drone to smuggle methamphetamine across the U.S. border. The DEA, FBI, and Homeland Security all have drones available when needed.

You get the idea.

Me? Of course I could use a drone. On a lovely summer evening what better way to quickly find out if there's a tennis court available? Or on a cold, snowy winter day to find which parking lot on campus has space available? Seriously.

This Month's Hot Tips

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© 2015 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen