Drones

I published this piece in the Irish Times on April 27th last

Norma Jean Dougherty worked in a factory near Van Nuys airport in Los Angeles, which manufactured the first mass-produced radio controlled aircraft models for use by the US Army and Navy. About 15,000 were produced during the second World War, primarily for target practice. Ms Dougherty was picked out by an army photographer sent to collect pictures to show the commitment of women in the war effort. She was subsequently invited to a screen test, and changed her name to Marilyn Monroe.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (or UAVs) have evolved in the seventy years since into one of the most potent armaments with the US, Israeli and several other armed forces. We have learnt of real time surveillance feeds using high resolution video, then subsequent surprise missile attacks targeting specific individuals and small groups, but not infrequently causing the death of entire families, groups and bystanders.

The level of automation in military UAVs is becoming sophisticated, and matches the capabilities of elite military pilots: UAVs have taken off and landed on aircraft carriers; been refuelled in-flight; and conducted stealth low altitude missions. The public came to understand the potency of automated cruise missiles over manned flight during the 2003 US-led Iraq invasion, when Tomahawk missiles guided themselves to pre-configured targets. Today, some military UAVs can operate almost completely autonomously, cruising around to opportunistically identify and destroy categories of targets without human intervention in the real time decision.

Military use of high technology frequently subsequently leads to civilian application: the computer itself, the internet, semiconductor chips, and GPS navigation are amongst many examples. UAVs, now called drones in civilian application, are a new market rich for innovation, venture capital investment, and disruptive change. Quadcopters – having four small propellers mounted at points of a square – are stable in flight even under moderate turbulent wind conditions, can hover, and can be preconfigured to flight paths using GPS navigation. They can carry a high definition video camera, providing a real time feed from the camera back to a smart phone or tablet, and can automatically fly themselves back home if they lose contact. Quadcopters, and variations, provide a foundation for multiple commercial opportunities.

It was not that long ago that many of us were concerned by the sudden proliferation of CCTV cameras at our street corners, and the implications for our personal privacy. Today, CCTV cameras are largely accepted by the public because of the deterrence such surveillance gives over crime, including attacks on individuals. Similarly, while we might today be annoyed and alarmed to see a quadcopter drone hovering over a street, one can envisage how this might change in just a few years time. Gardai and police forces worldwide could enhance their protection of the public and property by continuous, automated, and near-silent surveillance. Detecting petty crime in housing estates, following fleeing criminals, and night time surveillance using infra-red cameras are becoming feasible at large scale by using relatively low cost drones – certainly at a larger scale and at a much lower cost than a few police helicopters.

Drones are already in common use for agriculture in particular in both Japan and New Zealand. Precision agriculture provides crop seeding, spraying, and monitoring at relatively low operating cost, with low wastage and contamination. Drones can map individual trees across entire forests, identifying the optimal locations and timing for harvest and – critically – early detection of forest fire outbreaks. Heavy lift drones are naturally being developed for fire fighting.

DHL in Germany has been using drones for automated regular parcel delivery service to some North Sea islands since last autumn. One can envisage drones being similarly used around the Irish coastline to offshore communities. Amazon, Google and others are known to be developing delivery services by drone for widespread use.

The current generation of drones struggle in high wind conditions, such as frequently occur in Irish weather. Some quadcopter prototypes have overcome this by studying the detailed flight behaviour of moths and other insects. NASA is now using drones for hurricane and tornado research. These innovations, and others including collision avoidance, in drone avionics will doubtless be incorporated into commercial drones in the near future.

Smart phones have led to the “selfie” phenomena of self portraits with interesting backgrounds. The “selfie stick” – a pole on which a smart phone can be attached – is a becoming a common sight amongst tourists. But selfies are now uncool amongst the technology cognoscenti – much better is a “dronie”, a self photograph or video clip taken by drone. An enterprising New Zealand company already offers skiers dronies of them skiing amongst the wonderful scenery. One can envisage similar opportunities for commercial photographers and studios for leisure activities and tourism here in Ireland.

Real time video from a mobile high resolution camera controllable in three dimensions, and real time video projection onto surfaces including buildings, brings fun to the public and interesting opportunities for the entertainment industry. Hollywood gets to meet the citizen. Although not necessarily discussing innovation at the time, Marilyn Monroe did astutely comment: “If I had observed all the rules, I’ld never have got anywhere.”

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About chrisjhorn

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