Did you ever watch the movie October Sky? It stars the “Rocket Boys,” a group of four students from Coalwood, West Virginia in 1957 that win the national science fair with their rocket project. The real “Rocket Boys” consisted of six students including Homer Hickham who later became an engineer and worked for NASA.
The rockets they created were made of metal and they would not be something that could be used today because various laws and safety concerns. Model rocketry is still alive and well though using paper and cardboard and prepackaged rocket motors from companies like Estes Rockets. The tiny 1/4A3-3T engines work with smaller rockets while the large Pro Series can launch larger rockets like the Leviathan (Fig. 1).
Laws and rules have been put in place to limit when, where and what kind of rockets can be used by hobbyists. I grew up with these rockets and remember building multistage rockets with cameras as payloads. These days the payloads can be even more sophisticated.
This brings me to drones. A number of technologies are bringing the same kinds of issues that were addressed with model rockets to drones. The idea behind drones is not new but drones these days are much different than those of even a decade ago. They are now faster, smarter and more readily available.
RC (remote control) aircraft have been in hobbyist hands for a very long time. Small gas engines give that buzz we related to small flying planes. These still exist but now those aircraft may be carrying cameras and other sensors that could be using telemetry to deliver information to a base station in real time. These aircraft may also have advanced autopilots that allow the aircraft to be autonomous.
These noisy planes have been joined by numerous electric motor aircraft that are almost silent compared to their gas driven cousins. Flight time may be more restrictive the flexibility electric engines offer means the aircraft can operate indoors or in close quarters with obstacles that would prevent planes from operating.
The other issue with the new crop of drones is that semiautonomous and autonomous operation is possible. Anyone who has flown a more conventional RC vehicle will attest to the challenge of driving without crashing. Flying a drone by remote control is not easy but it is much easier than before since the drone is doing a lot of the work for you.
Obstacle recognition and more advanced planning within the flight control systems will make the job of driving a vehicle easier. These technologies already exist but their weight and cost tend to be high limiting them to higher end platforms.
The challenge with laws to govern drones compared to those that govern rockets is that they must address more than just safety issues. Keeping model rockets away from other aircraft tends to limited by location and altitude. Regular aircraft do not fly low except when landing and taking off at an airport. Launching rockets near an airport is a definite no-no. Likewise, what a rocket can view is limited by where it will be flown.
On the other hand, drones of one type or another can fly just about anywhere from down an air vent to around high tension, electrical wires. Aerovironment’s Nano Hummingbird (Fig. 2) and the Parallax ELEV-8 (see How Multicore Chip Flies A Quadcopter) are just a couple of small aircraft that could navigate in close quarters.
There are reasons for being in all these places. High tension, electrical wires need to be checked on occasion and it would be much safer to use a drone than a manned aircraft. Drones have proven invaluable for search and rescue work, assisting firemen and police work. Platforms like the Draganfly Innovations Draganflyer X6 (see UAVs Conquer The Skies) are designed specifically for these applications.
The Oregon and Indiana are just two states that are working on laws in this area. The challenge will be to balance the hopes and fears of constituents with the realities of the technologies that are emerging. Some may remember the movie Blue Thunder starring Roy Scheider. The helicopter in the movie is not a drone but the issues the movie takes about privacy and abuse are.
Laws could severely cripple everything from hobbyist to commercial efforts to bring drones of all types to the masses. Products like Parrot’s AR Drone(Fig. 3) are already available. The battery operated AR Drone can be controlled using a smartphone or tablet app with video feedback from on-board cameras.
The AR Drone could be used for play, research or nefarious uses. What is legal, moral and practical is still up for discussion. An across the board ban is unwise and impractical but clear rules are needed so toys do not turn into tragedies and emergency equipment does not get relegated to the closet.
I recently wrote an article about how robots are operating in closer quarters with people (see Robotics Moves To The Mainstream). UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or drones also fall into this category and the changes in sensors and control systems is affecting all kinds of robots. UAVs are in a special category because of the space that they operate in.
Privacy and safety concerns should not be overlooked but laws need to be fair and balanced. The rules may also need to change over time as the technology changes. This can run in both directions. For example, Sparkfun has an annual robot competition that includes UAVs (see Soldering And Beer—What A Mix!). They originally allowed quadcopters and helicopters but recently banned them for safety reasons. It seems that four spinning blades are rather hazardous. This may change over time but for now the UAVs in the competition are restricted to airplanes.
This new technology offers many benefits. High flying, killer drones with rockets or invasive cameras are what the news tracks these days and they too must be addressed. Hopefully the laws that come out to address these domestic drones will still allow commercial and hobbyist applications to exist and thrive.