Sunday, March 24, 2013

Drones at Home

A handful of seriously cool domestic applications

Last Wednesday (20 March) the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on possible privacy abuse--pertaining to drones, of course. Targeted killings overseas have made drones controversial and often suspect among average Americans and the impending reality of extensive drone use at home raises understandable suspicion. The concerns shouldn't be understated. Use of drones in the US is practical; they're "cheap, able and ubiquitous," and, as far as the greater public is concerned, likely to be snooping on you in the near future.   I don't mean to belittle any concerns related to drones and privacy issues, because those concerns are legitimate, well founded, and--in my opinion--wholly appropriate. Any new technology demands policy keep pace--and at the moment, legislation seems to be inadequate. 

That's an issue for another blog post. Here, I want to outline some of the seriously awesome things that drones could potentially do--and things that they're already doing--all of which have little to nothing to do with privacy concerns or targeted killings.

To be fair, I realize that Drone Journalism easily translates into a little UAV hovering directly outside the Kardashians' bathroom window. Again, privacy concerns. But paparazzi aside, drones have some interesting applications for the field of journalism. A few universities have picked up on this as well. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln offers a course in Drone Journalism, and the University of Missouri offers a similar program. Below is a video showing one of UNL's test flights. 

Both the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Missouri register their UAVs with the FAA and are following their strict guidelines. Most news stories developed using this application are, understandably, about the environment and conservation. But the potential of using drones to report on traffic and to provide bird's eye views of natural disasters and crime scenes is well understood and anticipated. One can easily appreciate how this application would effortlessly extend to disaster relief. Drones could easily go into places too dangerous for rescue workers, and efficiently search for survivors across large swathes of territory. 

Also, just imagine how drones could be used to photograph non-arena sporting events, such as extreme sports. Instead of attaching a camera to clothing, an athlete could have a drone companion--providing up close and personal footage of the athlete's performance. 

Infrastructure monitoring 
The United States has a lot of roads and a lot of bridges, you may have noticed.  These roads and bridges require a fair amount of upkeep and monitoring to stay safe for public use. Consider this, there are roughly 4 million miles of roadway in the United States, that's something like 500x the diameter of earth. Who's watching all these roads? Who's making sure they stay in working order? 

The easy answer for the future? Drones. Drones are cheap, cheaper than sending out actual human beings to squint at a stretch of blacktop. Drones would monitor highways and other forms of infrastructure (dams, bridges, etc.), survey land with laser mapping technologies, and automatically alert officials to things like traffic jams and accidents. In fact, the Georgia Department of Transportation recently received a grant from the Federal Highway Administration to do just that. 

Environmental research, conservation, and compliance 
The US Geological Survey (USGS) was been testing Raven A, a frankly adorable (and US Army decommissioned) 3 foot long drone, equipped with a camera to see if it can be repurposed to conduct aerial counts of an endangered species: the sandhill crane--a species that is notoriously skittish. Here's a video of the Raven A in action:


The wildlife perspective easily extends to hunting applications. Take the story from the end of this New York Times article, for example:  a Cy Brown of Bunkie, La., began hunting feral pigs nocturnally by outfitting a basic model airplane with a heat-sensing camera. The plane, dubbed Dehogaflier, was piloted around his brother's rice farm (where the pigs were gorging themselves on the crop) feeding live images of the pigs to Cy on the ground. A friend with a shotgun took care of the rest--no sloughing through the muck in search of the errant pigs for hours necessary. Handy.  The other side of the coin, poaching, are also easily addressed. Use of drones would make it much easier for US Fish and Wildlife and even game wardens to pick up on and shut down illegal hunting. 

Use of drones would also assist the efforts of environmental law enforcement officials. Suddenly, midnight dumpings and other nefarious activities would be much harder to get away with. Also, the great news? Using a drone to monitor suspect companies is cheaper and more effective than sending a representative to do an on site inspection.

Atmospheric research
NASA is, of course, completely comfortable and experienced using drones. And now they're sending a drone into the stratosphere to probe ozone loss.

NASA Global Hawk, Credit: J. Zavaleta/NASA

The flights were scheduled to start in January of 2013, and they're only the first of a multiyear campaign to study how changes in water vapor in the stratosphere can impact global climate. The Airborne Tropical Tropopause Experiment (ATTREX) relies on a Global Hawk drone (pictured)--a type of aircraft also used by the U.S. Navy and the Air Force. NASA anticipates that  ATTREX will provide "unprecedented measurements of the tropical tropopause." Which, in its own way, is pretty cool.

There are, of course, more applications--such as drones securing the border and drones being used in provide aid and support during natural disasters. I've tried to provide some possible uses that aren't quite as obvious.  Simply put, there's more to drones than blowing up terrorists and spying on American citizens. Drones have some pretty impressive civilian applications that will only serve to improve our quality of living. Legitimate concerns kept in mind, drones are worth getting excited about.  

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