Tracking: Drones At Home

Drones are coming to American airspace. Whether used in agribusiness to monitor farms, by landscape architects to design properties, by law enforcement, or by hobbyists, UAVs are everywhere. Here, a look at the latest developments in this growing industry.

9:05 a.m., 07/07/13

Customs and Border Protection's Sideline In Predator Drone Rentals

Are you a government agency that needs unmanned aircraft for domestic surveillance purposes? Customs & Border Protection (CBP), a division of the Homeland Security Department, has a drone for you. CBP, which operates a fleet of 10 unarmed Predator drones, is aggressively lending out their UAVs to other government agencies.

An investigation conducted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation obtained three years of flight logs for CBP's drone fleet. The drones, which can be used far inland from the actual Canadian and Mexican borders, have been used for anything and everything.

Here's what the EFF's Jennifer Lynch had to say:

While CBP blacked out important information about dates, geographic location of flights, and, in most cases, agency names, these logs do provide some insights into the agency’s drone program. For example, we’ve learned that CBP conducted drone surveillance for law enforcement agencies ranging from the FBI, ICE, the US Marshals, and the Coast Guard to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the North Dakota Army National Guard, and the Texas Department of Public Safety. These missions ranged from specific drug-related investigations, searches for missing persons, border crossings and fishing violations to general "surveillance imagery" and "aerial reconnaissance" of a given location.

CBP also flew its drones for non-law enforcement agencies and missions. The logs show that CBP conducted extensive "electro-optical, thermal infrared imagery and Synthetic Aperture Radar" surveillance of levees along the Mississippi River and river valleys across several states, along with surveillance of the massive Deep Water Horizon oil spill and other natural resources for the US Geological Survey, FEMA, the Bureau of Land Management, the US Forest Service, the Department of Natural Resources, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The New York Times Somini Sengupta notes, internal Homeland Security audits have sharply criticized CBP for a lack of resources to maintain the Predators and poor program coordination.

[Image: Customs and Borders Protection]

1:45 p.m., 07/02/13

Meet Mr. Potato Drone

Big money is being invested in bringing UAVs into the toolkit of American agribusiness. Potential uses for the tech are being tested out on the West Coast, where Oregon State University and Boeing are partnering to use drones to monitor potato farms:

Two drones leased from Boeing Co. are outfitted with small infrared cameras that can detect unhealthy plants sooner than growers might otherwise, said Phil Hamm, director of the Oregon State extension center at Hermiston. Healthy plants reflect the light more strongly, he said.

"When plants aren't happy, they look different, but not necessarily different to our eyes," he said. "We want to recognize plants that aren't happy before there's a reduction in yield."

The drones that OSU are testing can fly over a 125-acre crop circle in approximately 15 minutes, greatly reducing manpower costs for large farms.

12:30 p.m., 07/02/13

Paparazzo Launches UAV To Photograph Mandela's Hospital Room

Paparazzi drones are officially here, and their first on-record use was photographing Nelson Mandela's hospital. Reuters reports that filmmaker F.C. Hamman was detained for flying a small UAV over the Pretoria hospital which is treating Mandela; Hamman claims he was only taking photographs of the large crowd assembled outside and was not trying to photograph the ailing statesman's hospital room:

From a security point of view, they are concerned. They are inspecting our equipment to make sure it didn't violate any security regulations," Hamman told Reuters, adding police had not pressed any charges for the moment.

"We didn't realize we were breaking any laws," he said.

Hamman said he had intended to offer to media organizations the aerial shots of intense activity around the hospital, where crowds of jostling journalists have mingled with well-wishers paying tribute to South Africa's former president.

"We were careful not to fly over the hospital," he said.

South African police confiscated Hamman's UAV under existing laws. Small, camera-equipped quadrocopters are frequently used for legal and illegal aerial photography. They are able to hover in any nearby fixed physical location they have GPS coordinates for, which has spurred fears that paparazzos in coming years will station them outside celebrities' windows.

Neal Ungerleider

[Image: London School of Economics

12:00 p.m., 06/27/13

Donercopter Brings Kebabs To Your Front Door

Hot on the heels of the Burrito Bomber—the drone which delivers burritos—a team of German hobbyists in the city of Freiburg have created the Donercopter. The customized quadrocopters bring baskets filled with sandwiches, drinks, and sides to a customer's backyard. Der Spiegel took a short video of it in motion.

Doner kebabs are gyro-like sandwiches brought to Germany by Turkish migrants that have become the country's national fast food. As seen in the video linked to above, it might be more reliable to have a delivery person bring kebabs via bike or car.

3:45 p.m., 06/25/13

America's Illegal For-Profit Drone Black Market

The FAA has made it clear in conversations with Fast Company and in many, many public statements: The use of UAVs in for-profit enterprises like agriculture and architecture is strictly prohibited in the United States. With that said, plenty of companies are secretly (and illegally) using drones for work purposes.

According to TechNewsDaily's Tom Spring, companies are advertising drone-related services all over the country.

"Drones for hire are used on Hollywood film sets (to get that overhead shot cheaply), to create promotional videos for real estate and to help farmers crop dust and keep a bird's-eye view on livestock.

'SkyShutter RCA Helicams can fly almost anywhere,' advertizes New York-based SkyShutter on its website. Los Angeles-based Vortex Aerial lists dozens of clients on its website, including the NFL, Indiana University and the La Quinta-California–based SilverRock Golf resort that used the company to create 'tee-off flyovers.'"

3:30 p.m., 06/25/13

This Drone Goes Underground. Literally.

Researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute have created one of the world's first self-burying robots. The Bimodal Self-Burying Robot can, as the creators put it, be "air-dropped to a location close to a target, bury itself to be hidden, perform video surveillance, and send that video back to an operator."

We imagine the oil industry, as well as geologists, are full of ideas for potential uses for this drone. With that said, the promotional video is kind of amazing:

The Carnegie Mellon team's creation was first displayed at a German conference earlier this month.

1:30 p.m., 06/24/13

Meet The Burrito-Delivering Drone

Last year, there was a lot of talk of a "Tacocopter"—a quadrocopter developed as a conceptual project in California which delivered tacos to hungry customers. While the Tacocopter was (mostly) a prank, it now has a very real twin. The Burrito Bomber is a hand-launched drone, created by two engineers at Yelp as a leisure project, that delivers burritos to customers via GPS.

"You have a little parachute that kind of hides up here [under the plane] [...] and when the burrito releases, the parachute gets pulled out and allows for the burrito to drop to the ground a little more safely," creator Yoni de Beule told CNN.

8:50 a.m., 06/20/2013

Why Surveyors And Civil Engineers Will Want Drones

At the massive Paris Air Show, civilian and military aircraft buyers got together to check out the latest in cutting-edge aviation technology. Reuters visited the air show to investigate the burgeoning civil drone market, and found one firm named MAVinci from Germany that caters towards surveyors and civil engineers:

MAVinci, based in Leimen near Heidelberg, makes UAVs with a wingspan of 1.6 metres (5.3 feet) that take aerial images for land surveys conducted for infrastructure projects, mines or applications in the building industry.

"The market holds huge potential, and we can't even make as many systems as our customers would like to buy," Claussen said.

Aviation and aerospace industry research firm Teal Group has estimated that annual spending on UAVs around the world will almost double to $11.4 billion by 2022.

11:50 a.m., 06/19/2013

FBI Uses Drones Domestically... On A Limited Basis

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller told a Senate hearing that the FBI uses drones domestically, but on a limited basis. Via the Wall Street Journal's Devlin Barrett:

Asked about drones at a Senate hearing, FBI director Robert Mueller said the agency uses them "in a very, very minimal way, very seldom."

Federal agencies have been using drones for years to monitor the northern and southern borders of the U.S., and those drones have occasionally been deployed to help domestic law-enforcement agencies like the FBI.

It's important to note that Mueller is referring to unarmed drones—the use of armed unmanned aircraft in the United States would be a poor ideea for the FBI for all sorts of reasons. But searching for missing persons? Finding marijuana fields? Conducting aerial surveillance? The FBI UAV possibilities are wide, wide open.

2:30 p.m., 06/05/2013

Thought-Controlled Drones

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have unveiled experimental thought-controlled drones. Using a brain-computer interface and wearing a skullcap with electrodes attached, participants in a study were able to control a small quadrocopter UAV using their brain waves. The results of the study were published this week in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

Participants turned away from the drone and visualized using their left or right arms, or putting their hands together—without actually moving their bodies. The electrical signals generated by the brain during the visualization exercise were turned into commands to the quadrocopter, and the UAV successfully turned right, turned left, raised altitude, and banked toward the ground.

Lead author Bin He said the study "shows that for the first time, humans are able to control the flight of flying robots using just their thoughts sensed from a noninvasive skull cap—We envision that they'll use this technology to control wheelchairs, artificial limbs or other devices [...] We were the first to use both functional MRI and EEG imaging to map where in the brain neurons are activated when you imagine movements, so now we know where the signals will come from."

The study, which holds the potential to revolutionize thought-controlled computing technology for the disabled, also comes with a YouTube video attached.

10:30 a.m., 06/05/2013

There's Always Money In Drone Startups

Last month, Google Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz made a $10.7 million bet on commercial UAVs. The two venture capital giants invested in Airware, a California-based firm which manufactures a standardized operating system for unmanned aircraft.

Airware's Linux-based product markets for $4,000 to $7,000 and, as MIT Technology Review's Jessica Leber puts it, "is meant to make it easy to manufacture drones that could easily be customized by customers or third-party developers who want to build apps or integrate new kinds of sensors."

Leber also highlights another American UAV software startup. Drone Deploy markets drone logistics software. Using Drone Deploy, commercial entities and law enforcement can manage flight times, GPS location, mission plans, and other essential data points from a single dashboard.

12:45 p.m., 05/30/2013

My Pet Drone

There's one thing UAV enthusiasts, such as the DIYDrones community, love about their vehicles: Drones are dirt cheap. Because small unmanned vehicles cost as little as $500 to purchase, they lend themselves to all sorts of experimentation. Sameer Parekh, a former Wall Street quant-turned-drone entrepreneur, runs open-source robotics firm Falkor Systems. Falkor's new pet AR.drone prototypes are designed to follow a person from a distance using artificial intelligence algorithms that track a pattern on their clothing. In essence, it's a pet drone that follows right behind you.

Dave Mosher and Popular Science just ran this fascinating video short on Parekh and Falkor:

While Parekh says he plans to monetize the pet drones by selling them to athletes, who will be able to have the drones autonomously track them, the technology has a ton of potential for small businesses. UAV-robot hybrids could use these to interact with senior citizens and factories could put quality assurance cameras in the air, just to name two possibilities.

12:45 p.m., 05/29/2013

Drones For Agriculture

Robert Blair, an Idaho farmer who uses UAVs to monitor his 1500-acre Three Canyon Farms' array of cows, wheat, peas, barley, and other crops, claims he is the first American farmer to have integrated drones into his work routine. Take Part's Steve Holt just ran a fascinating interview with Blair that focuses on how UAVs are used in agriculture. An excerpt:

Blair, who started flying his homemade UAV on the farm in 2006, says a common misconception is that drones will replace farmers. A drone, he says, is merely another piece of technology that allows a farmer to reduce costs and be more efficient. "UAVs can’t do anything on their own," he says. "They are gathering data for me to make management decisions."

Although Blair does not use UAVs to spray pesticide—the aircraft weighs too little to effectively spray cops—he does use unmanned aircraft to monitor fields. By taking aerial photographs and video, the farm's operating costs are effectively reduced.

9:45 a.m., 05/28/2013

Anti-Graffiti Drones

Deutsche Bahn, Germany's national railroad system, will start tests of anti-graffiti surveillance drones later this year. Small unmanned aircraft equipped with infrared cameras will be deployed around railway depots at night, the BBC reports. Each drone will cost Deutsche Bahn up to 60,000 Euros—a staggering sum, given that consumer drones with conventional cameras can be purchased for as little as $500.

As of yet, it's unknown what model of UAV the Deutsche Bahn will be deploying... and how long the battery life will be. Consumer-oriented drones generally only offer 10-30 minutes of flight time before their battery runs out. If Deutsche Bahn plans only to unleash the drones to keep tabs on graffiti artists, the experiment might be cost effective. However, routine UAV surveillance during evening hours could easily become a financial drain for the railway.

12:40 p.m., 05/24/2013

Parrot Shows Off Drone Videography

Parrot, whose smartphone-controlled Ar.Drone 2.0 is one of the best-known consumer quadrocopters, wants consumers to know its UAVs are robust. Over the last month, Parrot rolled out a series of films showing off its Ar.Drone 2.0 performing beautifully in extreme heat and extreme cold.

Here, the Ar.Drone 2.0 flying around an explosion:

Another video features the Ar.Drone 2.0 on an Arctic expedition:

The not-too-subtle message for consumers here is that they should use their own Ar.Drone 2.0s for nature videography. Earlier this year, Parrot added a camera feature to the Ar.Drone 2.0.

12:30 p.m., 05/24/2013

How A Mexican High School Student Became CEO Of DIY Drones

Former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson famously left his old job to work full-time on his company, 3D Robotics—a firm dedicated to the latest in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and robotics technologies. Anderson's cofounder and president when he started the company a few years back? Jordi Munoz, a then 19-year-old Mexican UAV enthusiast who connected with Anderson through his DIY Drones community.

X Prize founder and Singularity University cofounder Peter H. Diamandis just told the fascinating story of Munoz's UAV career trajectory over on Google+:

"If I had used the traditional construct for hiring when looking for someone to be co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics," Chris Anderson told me, "I probably would have gone to Stanford or MIT to look for people who had on their résumés the words 'drone' or maybe 'company' or possibly 'college degree,' maybe even 'graduate degree.' Instead, I ended up with a teenage high school student from Mexico. Now, it turns out that this teen, Jordi Muñoz, was the perfect person for the job. This job didn't require a PhD-quality drone engineer. The job involved creating an open-source robotics company in an unexplored space using low-cost resources and built on community participation. The people who went to MIT and Stanford are probably genius, but they probably didn't know all those things."

Today Jordi is a 26-year-old high school graduate living in San Diego, serving as CEO of a multimillion-dollar company. How he was hired, and the success of his role as CEO, reinforces the notion that the community brings the right person to the company. The community also brings a network of people who want to work for the company during their spare time, evening and weekends. These individuals aren't motivated by the money; instead, they are doing it out of interest for the product being developed. These are people Chris could never afford to pay.

Because UAV development is relatively low-cash and inexpensive quadrocopters and octocopters can easily be retooled for industrial uses, the barriers towards entering the industry are low. Furthermore, the newness of UAVs means that novelty is at a premium: An entrepreneur in the right place at the right time can stand to make a ton of money with the right idea... that is, once the FAA approves commercial drones in American airspace.

[Image: Flickr user quadrocopter]

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