Our Spring 2013 project dealt with drones and I also spoke about drones at an FITC spotlight on hardware event on June 8, 2013, so I thought that it would be appropriate to share some of my experiences and thoughts about drones.
The term drone covers a wide array of devices, but overall represents an unmanned vehicle. The specific focus of our group and of my talk at FITC spotlight was about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) which are a subset of drones that can fly. More specifcally, my first hand experience with drones has been with several different models of quadcopters.
To me, the drones that are currently available are the new RC Car. The most popular to the general public is called the AR.Drone 2.0 and is sold as a toy. This is the first drone that I purchased when CTT decided to enter the world of flight. I was quite excited, but also skeptical when I went to spend $300 on something that I didn’t know much about, but I did it anyways because it seemed to have the potential to be awesome.
My first impression of flying a quad-copter was that it was quite scary. I was outside but in a closed off yard, using an iPad to control this thing that was floating about 3 feet off the ground and was completely freaked out not knowing where this thing was going and what it was going to do. Over time I got much more comfortable ( a little too comfortable based on how many buildings I have crashed into ), and started enjoying letting other people fly it for the first time and freak out just as much as I did.
After a month, we had 4 drones in our group and a couple others around us had picked them up to see what they could do with them. By this stage we had already updated the library to control the drone with turntables and done some fun stuff with it so I decided to pick up a different one to compare. Prior to investing (and it is investing, these things aren’t cheap) I did quite a bit of research about UAVs and learned a lot about what has been done with them in the past, what is being done with them now and formed some of my own thoughts about what would make them useful in the future.
For me, the thought of UAVs and Drones was instantly associated with military bombers and spy planes. That was the first use of a drone, I believe it was a balloon with dynamite over Vienna or something, and that was the continued use through the world wars and continuing through today where they are used more and more for military purposes.
What I didn’t know was that the price was now low enough and the technology accessible enough for other people to find uses for them. In my searches, I came across everything from Police spying on people to farmers that were able to monitor crops much more efficiently, to mesh cellular networks spanning huge areas.
A lot of controversy exists with the use of drones by anyone, they have access to go places that were built without the expectation that a person would ever be able to access. Things like spying through a 10th floor window using a drone with a camera on it is entirely possible both by police and anyone else. I mentioned a lot in my talk that drones scare me now in a completely different way, their ability to do things and access things that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible creates a world of evil possibilities just as much as it does a world of great possibilities.
Domestic spying (voyeurism), weaponizing and drug smuggling are a couple of the first things that come to my mind when I think what bad things can be done with drones. I really hope that these don’t become a primary use because I would hate to see all the potential go away because of a couple naughty people.
There is a serious issue with using the amazing potential of fast, flying machines and that is the battery life. The AR.Drones come with a battery that lasts about 15 minutes when flying, I have a BitCraze.se Crazyflie that lasts about 7 minutes (though it is a REALLY FUN 7 minutes), I purchased a batter for the drone that extends the flight times to about 25 minutes, but if you want to do anything real world with these drones you need more longevity than that.
A couple things that I would love to see would be courier services that could quickly do inner-city transport of small packages, emergency services where timely things like organ transplants can race across a city and avoid all traffic, it would also be fun to have mapping done using the drones. There are a ton of possibilities with the technology that is available today and I look forward to see where things are headed.