Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Aerial Drones Part V: More UAV Pro's and Con's

Nearly everyday now someone is either excited about the use of drones for the overall betterment of mankind or feverishly demands their condemnation. There doesn't appear to be many people living in the middle ground.

It's been a year now since I've made my feelings about these beasties public and what I've read, seen and heard in the last 12 months has not altered my stance one bit. More than a few people in Freeburg at MFA 280 agree with me.

Oh sure, like many children of the 1970s, I was fascinated with the aviation industry. I remember like it was just yesterday dreaming about becoming an Air Force pilot, flying an F-16, breaking the sound barrier in the process. (That dream, like an over-filled party balloon, popped quite tragically when, in the middle '60s, an optometrist declared that I needed glasses.) I was determined to keep the dream alive, figuratively at least, by begging relatives to buy model airplane kits for me. Ah, the wonderful fragrance of airplane glue ... those tiny glass bottles of model paint ... agonizing over the best placement of those pesky little decals that first had to be dipped in water. Even though I did receive some pleasure from slapping together models of Mustangs, Ferraris and Corvettes (there was even a fairly-large model of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle!), the greatest pleasure, and the toughest challenges, were represented by assembling everything from WWI Spitfires to the super-sonic fighter aircraft of the Vietnam era.

In high school, I knew someone who knew someone who had one of those gas-powered model airplanes. No, it wasn't a remote control plane; it was tethered to two long pieces of thin nylon. So basically, once airborne, it would only fly in a big oval. But even to this day I can still remember seeing that plane smoke, smelling the expensive fuel and, of course, hearing the mosquito-resembling sound of that little engine. I'm sure I wondered while watching that plane go round-n-round how and when someone would invent a way to allow planes like that to fly tether-free.

Remote-controlled planes ... as well as helicopters ... have been around since the late '80s. Not long after going main-stream, the technology of adding cameras to these RC vehicles opened the sport up to something much-more interesting: aerial surveillance. As the science behind these "toys" has become more and more sophisticated (and the cost of the vehicles rising exponentially), all kinds of people have taken an interest in them.

Which brings us to the present.      

This October, the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference will convene in New York City. According to the conferences' webpage: "DARC is a multidisciplinary conference about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and drones—with an emphasis on civilian applications. Attendees will take part in a far-ranging exploration of these technologies and see firsthand the latest advancements in aerial robotics. In addition to looking at the cultural impact, legal challenges, and business potential, we’ll also examine specific applications for drones including: agriculture, policing, wildlife conservation, weather, mapping, logistics, and more."

Even though my attitude towards UAVs as our federal government is currently utilizing them has not changed, I would love to be part of this conference. And why is that? As with most things in life, there is a need for someone to stand up for the other side of the issue.

Along the lines of communicating a more-negative attitude towards aerial drones, this "slice of life" news story hit the Intrawebz a few days ago: "A small Colorado town is considering whether to issue hunting licenses that would offer residents a bounty for shooting down unnamed drones operated by the U.S. government. Deer Trail resident Phillip Steel told KMGH that he had already collected enough signatures to put his proposed measure on the ballot. 'We do not want drones in town,' Steel explained. 'They fly in town, they get shot down.'"

Symbolic gesture or not, there is a hard-to-ignore vein of truth (thin as it may be) to this proposal. Many Americans simply do not want their privacy to be invaded.

Some Americans who work within the news industry are beginning to take a closer look at the use of UAVs: "I will admit I am skeptical about reporters using a drone — technically known as an unmanned aerial vehicle. But journalists have started to study the use of drones, particularly for coverage in isolated places such as the coastline after an event such as Hurricane Sandy, when roads and other means of access are blocked. Moreover, drones, which are far less expensive than helicopters, can get close to the scene of the action."

Shoddy journalism has often been associated with the infringement of personal liberty and privacy. And I have to agree with the writer of this op-ed piece when he says: "I ... cringe at the combination of drones and paparazzi creating some serious havoc."

An important application of UAVs, to some residents of America's Southwest, is the patrolling of the country's border with Mexico. There's even a fairly-active poll located at debate.org related to this very issue.

I like what one person posted: "As Technology Advances, So Must Our Security Measures! The drones should not be equipped with any weapons, or possess any sort of damage-causing features. But, to spot illegal immigrants trying to get into the country, drones should absolutely be utilized, and their findings should be immediately reported to on-foot border patrol who can seize the offenders and deport them back to where they came from."

It sounds so simple, doesn't it? The technology is there ... the funds are readily-available ... but US Customs agents' hands are frustratingly tied by the current administration. 

Would I change my attitude towards the use of UAVs if they were being used effectively to stem to flow of illegals crossing over into Texas, etc.? Maybe ... 

What's that quaint saying? "God made everything that has life. And the rest is made in China"?

It appears that the United Arab Emirates is crafting UAVs that are attracting China's northern neighbors: "The Russian military is planning to purchase aerial drones in the United Arab Emirates, a defense industry source said Wednesday (July 17 2013). 'We are talking about at least two United 40 Block 5 models developed by the company ADCOM Systems,' the source, who preferred to remain anonymous, told RIA Novosti."

I wonder ... how many expat Chinese are working in that UAE factory?

Now here's a great idea for a webpage! That is ... if you don't mind finding out just how pervasively aerial drones are being utilized around the world!

"GOT A DRONE? Share your best aerial pictures and let's build a world map of our Earth with a bird's eye view. All DJI Phantom, AR.Drone owners an others welcome and sign up to upload your first picture!"

It must be said that this particular collection of photographs is being cached somewhere other than the US of A. Therefore, the irony that must be associated with webpages like this is simultaneously humorous and pathetic.

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