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A Drone At Last August 6, 2014

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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Drones, or Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs), or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), have been around for a long time. Arguably, any remote controlled aircraft is a drone, even if it is a hobbyist device.

But the last few years have brought increasing attention and interest to drones. They became popular in military applications, where unmanned surveillance and tactical attack vehicles have largely replaced their manned counterparts. From a practical standpoint, this has improved time on station without sacrificing the goals of the mission. And the cost savings are enormous. Rather than a tactical fighter that can cost a hundred million dollars to build and support, the equivalent cost of the drone is likely no more than a few million (and usually less).

Just as important, the military drone “pilots” are usually senior enlisted personnel on the ground rather than highly trained officers in the cockpit, monitoring a preprogrammed flight path and using joysticks distant from the actual craft, in many cases from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Others are controlled regionally, but still usually hundreds of miles from the actual craft.

More recently, we’ve seen drones applied to civilian uses, first for police purposes in finding fugitives. Other agencies and private companies are attempting to enlist drones for traffic spotting, finding lost hikers, tracking livestock, and a myriad of other purposes. I was at the Simulia user conference earlier this year, where a team of young engineers demonstrated an unmanned “quadcopter” built largely on a 3D printer, designed to deliver emergency medical supplies to remote locations.

At the same time, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has largely prohibited the civilian use of drones, based on its mandate to manage US airspace use. There is good rationale for this prohibition, as inexperienced drone operators may let their craft wander into the flight paths of manned aircraft, with predictably disastrous results.

Yet it won’t hold water in the long run (or perhaps even in the shorter run, given the intransience of the bureaucracy in developing guidelines). Whether or not Amazon actually follows through on its vision of delivering packages via drone, there are simply too many compelling reasons to use drones under many circumstances. At least one US Federal Court has ruled that small commercial drones are not under the regulatory purview of the FAA.

Right now, the FAA has identified the dividing line between a model aircraft and a small drone as more one of intent, rather than of technology. If it is used for commercial purposes, it’s a drone. If it’s used purely for recreational purposes, it’s a model aircraft.

That’s stupid, but that’s a bureaucracy for you. The drone revolution will happen, and it is likely that the FAA will be dragged kicking and screaming into the present.

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