Friday, April 5, 2013

Everyday life in the City of Drones

In the category of What Could Possibly Go Wrong we find this item from Reuters:  U.S. authorities grapple with regulating the use of unarmed drones in U.S. skies as they are already flying.  Rapidly evolving drone technology is reshaping disaster response, crime scene reconstruction, crisis management and tactical operations.   

So that should be good.   

But coupled with this from staff at Business Insider:  [I] “tried to fly a drone and failed miserably,” questions arise.

Admittedly, these were not the highly trained police, first responders and expert personnel one might expect to be at the controls of such hi-tech machinery.  Nevertheless, a couple of young techies were goofing around, er, testing their skills in the offices of the magazine.  They posted a 65-second video showing 11 full-on crashes of their PTAP F-0700 AR.Drone – purchased online for $45.95.   

It’s the newest craze.  And therein lies the problem:  Soon everyone will be flying a drone.  Or at least looking up at one! 

The kids at Business Insider were toying with an apparatus that looks like an oversized water bug.  You know, the insect that lives spread-eagled on the surface of a pond, scooting around with amazing agility.  The F-0700 is an expanded, airborne, polypropylene version of that.  Look for one soon in the skies above you. 

Under these kids’ control, it wobbled chest high, thumped into walls, crashed into doorjambs and repeatedly capsized onto the floor.  You’d think with their video game trained thumbs, they’d do better than that. 

They said flying it was “ridiculously hard.” 

I can so relate. 

I wasn’t very good at it either.  Flying drones.   

Oh yeah.  I was a drone pilot myself, back in the day.  I worked undercover in JC Penny’s seasonal toy department as an SA.  Okay, Sales Associate.  I was working retail, all right?  I was only 16 years old, after all! 

Anyway, the must-have item in the toy department that year was the radio-controlled helicopter.  I flew that little sucker up and down the aisles, all the way through housewares and straight into men’s underwear (the department!).   

That’s where I got into trouble.  Concentrating on my flight pattern, I’d left the toy department unattended.  Some mom reported me!  Merry Christmas. 

But the point is that the drone led me around the store.  I didn’t so much control it as follow it.   

And this is why now, with the explosion of this really cheap, cool, and highly functional technology, the Federal Aviation Administration must determine who gets to fly these unmanned aircraft in America, and where they get to go.   

Uh oh. 

While the Feds assure us that for more than five decades they have a “proven track record of introducing new technology and aircraft safely into the National Airspace System (NAS)…” 

And that they’re now working on the safe integration of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) into that self-same NAS.  

Accordingly, “Federal, state and local government entities must obtain an FAA Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) before flying UAS in the NAS.” 

Yep.  You’ve gotta have an FAA COA to fly your UAS in the NAS; or, in spite of your best intentions just to have some fun, you could wind up in men’s underwear.  Just sayin’.

And who believes that that alphabet goulash will have any bearing on the rest of us amateur aviators?  You may have noticed there is an ongoing negotiation between what the law dictates and what people actually do.  Just think speed limits.  

Even though the use of drones for commercial purposes is outlawed, and hobbyists are forbidden from flying drones above 400 feet or in densely populated areas, rogue drone operators have posted already aerial videos of New York and San Francisco.  And, a commercial airline pilot has reported that a drone flying at an altitude of 1,700 feet came within 200 feet of the airliner!

It’s unenforceable.  A typical American free for all.  A quick Google and anyone with $450 can buy a sophisticated drone with a wireless mini cam and a 5-foot wingspan, like the ones used by the Air Force for medium-altitude long-endurance reconnaissance and surveillance. 

The same site offers costumes, props and magic tricks!

I’m thinking scavenger hunt!  Who’s up for a drone party?!!