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The Era of Flying Robots Is Upon Us, and It’s Going to Be Very Cool (or Utterly Terrifying)

Dave Anderson has been running whale-watching tours out of Dana Point Harbor, in Southern California, for a good 20 years. Last fall, he noticed something unusual about a pair of humpback whales: A mother and her calf were swimming side by side on their annual migration to mainland Mexico, and Anderson could see, for the first time, that the older whale was essentially steering and protecting her baby with an extended left pectoral flipper.

“I’ve seen them swim as pairs together many times,” Anderson explained to me on a sunny afternoon in January, aboard his 62-foot, 49-passenger catamaran, the Lily. “From this new angle, though, I could see that the mother’s right flipper was tucked in and out of use. It was like the extended left flipper’s only job was to hold the baby’s hand.” This was new information, and it would have been impossible to ascertain from the deck of his boat. “But with this technology I’m now able to see these animals in an entirely new way—without bothering them or getting too close.”

The technology that Anderson—he goes by Captain Dave—raved about was a drone. He owns a battery-operated, remote-controlled aerial vehicle called the DJI Phantom 2, which weighs just over two pounds and costs about $1,000. It’s among the most popular of the “hobbyist” drones being used today, and for good reason. The Phantom 2 comes with a built-in, high-resolution HD camera that swivels, tilts, and soaks up vibration, gathering rich, crisp imagery as the drone rotates and turns and zips across the lowest points of the sky.

Captain Dave’s drone footage of whales, and of the hitherto little-known phenomenon of the dolphin stampede, has entertained millions of eyeballs online. Gathered from a few dozen feet above the Pacific, it gives a new perspective on the movements and habits of some of the ocean’s most majestic creatures—humpbacks, gray whales, blue whales, sperm whales, orcas, bottle-nosed dolphins, and common dolphins, many of which have a greater presence in Southern California’s coastal waters than in any other place on Earth.

What’s even more exciting about drone technology than the voyeurism, Captain Dave said as he steered the Lily in search of showboating marine mammals, is its ability to assist in saving these animals’ lives. Each year, by most counts, as many as 300,000 cetaceans are killed after being caught in industrial fishing nets, which can stretch as wide as a mile and a half. Some watchdog groups say the worldwide kill rate for dolphins is as high as 1,000 per day. The mammals’ fins get tangled in the nets—not just those in use but abandoned, discarded, or sunken nets too—hindering their ability to swim and breach the surface to exhale and gather fresh oxygen. As a seaman who helps disentangle the victims of ghost fishing, as it’s known, Captain Dave, like his counterparts in other oceans, believes that drones can play a vital role in the safe rescue of these species.

“When an animal is entangled, you usually have only one chance to approach it,” he said. “On the second approach, they often get spooked and are prone to get stressed and swim away, which makes them harder to help.” With a drone, Captain Dave can take a stealthy first look and assess what needs to be done. That way, when he moves his team in with the boat, the whale will stay calm as they fasten ropes to the fishing nets and slowly drag the gear off the creature’s massive body, which can weigh 50 tons.

Captain Dave took me to the bridge of the Lily, where he slipped a fresh battery into his Phantom 2 as a gray whale breached about 100 yards away. He fired up the drone: Using a dual-joystick control pad, he brought it to an eye-level hover. Its four blades created a downwash of air that could be felt even on the open ocean, and the little craft buzzed like a swarm of angry cartoon bees. As Anderson sent the vehicle high above the water, the Lily’s passengers crowded onto the bow, shifting their gaze from the floating, 50-foot-long mammalian wonder that had appeared before them to the frenetic mechanical one above. “It’s changed the way I look at whales,” said Captain Dave. “I only wish its uses weren’t so restricted.”

What Captain Dave really meant is that he wishes he could fly his drone for commercial or official scientific research purposes, rather than for his own amusement or the 10 million hits on YouTube. That would enable him to gather footage to sell to media organizations, as a means of financing his rescue operations. It would also allow him to use his drone to observe sea life on behalf of nonprofit research groups or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for which he already provides other research services. But right now, Captain Dave—and countless wildlife conservationists, field biologists, and the like—can’t legally do either of those things. Federal Aviation Administration standards state that apart from a few dozen researchers and for-profit companies with hard-won permits, the only people who can fly drones are hobbyists such as kids or model airplane geeks, for whom the “voluntary operating standards” were written in the first place. Recreational users, says the agency, “are strongly encouraged to follow safety guidelines,” which include flying only in the daytime, keeping their drones below 400 feet and within eyesight, and steering clear of crowds, stadiums, and airports. Drones weighing more than 55 pounds are also a no-no.

Plenty of would-be drone-trepreneurs have been quietly using the technology in defiance of the law, taking wedding photos or surveying crops on private land. Others are redefining the meaning of the word “recreational.” DJI, for example, flew a drone at the Golden Globe Awards in January and gave the footage to event producers; the company got plenty of free publicity from the stunt but didn’t break any laws because it didn’t charge anything.

On orders from Congress, the FAA is supposed to issue new rules for drones by autumn. In February, we got a glimpse of what these regulations might look like when the agency released its recommendations, which are now up for public comment. Dan Gettinger, a codirector of Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, told me the recommendations are “the framework” for what will be a more thorough law of the sky. “The walls and rooms and floor plan are yet to be established,” he said.

If the recommendations stick, they’ll allow people and organizations with research interests in drones, like Captain Dave, as well as companies and individuals with for-profit uses in mind, to use the technology as long as they abide by essentially the same rules that apply to hobbyists today. Their drones would also be barred from flying “over people, except those directly involved with the flight,” and required to avoid “manned” aircraft. (In some scenarios, air traffic control would grant permission to certain entities, such as film crews, researchers, or real estate developers, to fly in restricted airspace.) While these non-recreational drone users wouldn’t have to get a pilot’s license, as many of them feared, they would need FAA certification and would need to renew it every two years. Hobbyists would be expected to continue following the current standards.

For Captain Dave, the new rules would be fine. He flies low, within his line of sight, and away from airports and people. But conservationists, researchers, and other not-for-profit users wouldn’t get to put drones to the uses they’ve been dreaming about—things that were unthinkable until just a few years ago. After all, how do you keep your drone within sight when tracking a wolf or a mountain lion? Isn’t the whole point of drones that they can go places people can’t?

Would-be drone professionals were unsatisfied with the FAA proposal. Commercial operators—farmers, Realtors, filmmakers, delivery services such as Amazon—are champing at the bit to explore and exploit drones’ many potential uses. Before the ink was dry on the FAA’s press release, Amazon’s V.P. of global public policy, Paul Misener, issued a statement that set a new bar for grumpiness in PR: “The FAA needs to begin and expeditiously complete the formal process to address the needs of our business, and ultimately our customers,” he wrote. (Read: Loosen up, or you won’t reap the benefits of the tax dollars we will generate.) Then, on Thursday, the FAA did loosen up, granting the online retailer permission, with restrictions, to test drones for commercial use over rural, private land in its home state of Washington. Also initially disappointed (and thus far unable to get the FAA to cry uncle) was Washington, D.C., lobbyist Holland & Knight, which is “in discussions” with educational organizations and real estate groups that want it to influence policy with respect to drones. “We would like to see the FAA move away from line-of-sight and daytime-only rules to other equally safe measures that let the operator remain in control,” Chuck Tobin, a partner at the firm, told me. “We don't want a cumbersome bureaucratic process to get clearance.”

On the face of it, the FAA proposal seems like a reasonable first step: Hobbyists get free rein, but businesses need to be certified.

Really, though, this makes little sense. If the draft is approved, a parent filming his kid’s Little League game with a drone won’t need to show he has the first clue what he’s doing, but a photographer shooting that game for the community newspaper, or an ornithologist following a gaggle of geese migrating overhead, will need certification—even though they’re using the same technology, in the same airspace, and putting everyone below at the same level of risk.

Those risks, despite what Tobin may say, are real. While there’s at least one drone in development that can protect people it crashes into from its rotors, it’s not intended for consumer use. The DJI Phantom and competitors such as the Parrot Bebop weigh little, but they can do a lot of damage if they fail—or their operators botch a flight—at, say, 300 feet. Like the proverbial penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building, a two-pound device that plummets from that height can shatter the windshield of a speeding vehicle, spreading mayhem. It can also split your noggin in two or fillet your face with its rotors.

Drones. It’s not the preferred term among those who champion their use. Shorthand for “unmanned aerial vehicle,” the word conjures images of pilotless, undetectable planes flown by sinister, pasty-faced military men dropping bombs on Pashtun villages from a high-clearance site deep in the Nevada desert. Collateral damage under Pres. George W. Bush’s drone program amounted to 332 civilians killed, nearly half of them children. Under Pres. Barack Obama, more than 900 civilians, including 200 children, have been killed in Pakistan alone, according to the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

It’s no wonder, then, that the December 2014 Drone Expo in Los Angeles was interrupted by protesters intent on disgracing keynote speaker Austin Blue, an aeronautical entrepreneur whose family’s business, General Atomics, makes the military’s infamous Predator drone. Pushing their way into the Memorial Sports Arena, the protesters chanted, “Austin Blue, shame on you, how many deaths have been caused by you?”

Armchair warfare, however, has blurred the bigger picture, causing many to shudder when there’s reason to feel hopeful for what drone technology can do. As Captain Dave knows, UAVs can and will be a force for good. Deploying a $15,000 UAV equipped with a camera and infrared software, farmers could, under the FAA’s draft regulations, survey their crops in record time, discovering disease earlier and more cheaply while minimizing noxious fumes from tractors and planes. For a fraction of the cost of a helicopter or a small plane, missing persons units and search and rescue workers could use drones to look for abducted children or stranded hikers. Police could survey crime and accident scenes, zeroing in on angles and details they might never have seen before. They could chase fleeing suspects, reducing dangerous police pursuits that have become fixtures of local TV news, or determine whether a suspect was armed, reducing the chances of shootings of or by officers.

The altruistic uses seem endless, and they make a pretty good argument for making restrictions looser than the FAA is recommending. Iain Kerr of Ocean Alliance is using a drone—he has a research permit—to collect whale mucus. “We fly a waterproof drone over a whale’s blowhole,” he explained, “and the snot sticks to a surgical sponge.” Oblivious of, or at least unbothered by, the noise, the whale is less likely to produce stress hormones that make it difficult for researchers to get an accurate read on the metals and toxins they’re trying to measure. In Kenya and in South Africa, drones have entered the fight against wildlife poaching, with some remarkable success. Closer to home, Mexican officials are working on a drone program to monitor illegal porpoise fishing in the Gulf of California. Drones can even be used to plant trees, which suck up our carbon emissions, 24 times faster than humans can.

Matthew Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska, thinks drones could be good for journalism too. “The aerial shot of news footage is all but gone,” he said. For just a few grand, though, news-gathering agencies equipped with drones could get airborne again. Waite talked about civilian drone footage, aired on CNN, of the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan and recent BBC News footage taken of the Auschwitz concentration camps. A drone can take off from and fly to places even the most nimble helicopters can’t, offering fresh perspective. “I’ve seen pictures of Auschwitz a million times, and I always knew it was big,” Waite said. “But to see it at eye level, and then from an increasingly higher aerial view, was just stunning. Drones are the new tool for telling stories.” The big news organizations agree: Holland & Knight is also working with The New York Times, The Associated Press, and several other outlets under the auspices of the News Media Coalition to help make regulations work in their favor.

Perhaps most inspiring is a drone project under way at a start-up called Matternet, which hopes to create a network of drone hubs—essentially tiny airports—strategically placed in regions around the globe where poverty is rife, roads are nonexistent or unusable, and people are in need of medicine. “Imagine you're in a maternity ward in Mali and have a newborn in urgent need of medication,” said the company’s founder, Andreas Raptopoulos, in a 2013 TED Talk. “What would you do today? Well, you’d place a request via mobile phone, and someone would get the request immediately. The medication may take days to arrive, though, because of bad roads. That’s the part that's broken.” According to Raptopoulos, drone delivery would be cheap. Fifty stations hosting 150 UAVs in the tiny country of Lesotho, he said, would cost “just under $1 million. Compare that to infrastructure—the cost of putting in roads.” Others have had similar ideas.

By Raptopoulos’ estimate, a package weighing 4.5 pounds can travel six miles in 15 minutes at a cost of just 24 cents per flight. “Imagine if your life depended on this package somewhere in Africa,” he said, “or in New York City after [Hurricane] Sandy.” Raptopoulos didn’t state it outright, but the subtext was clear: With extreme weather events on the rise, even the U.S. will experience infrastructure outages, and drones will be one way to get around or, in this case, above them. That is, if the FAA will allow it. 

This is the part where the skeptics call B.S. For every public service a drone might provide, they say, there’s a risky, less important, or outright dangerous use for UAVs, and these will soon make up a brave new nightmare in which drones run roughshod over our Fourth Amendment rights and whatever vestiges of privacy we still cling to, however naively. Each would be an argument for tightening current restrictions, even clamping down on “hobbyists.” The danger, though, is that by cracking down on some people’s or organizations’ freedom to use drones, we become the very police state we’re trying to prevent.

Take law enforcement. Equipped with drones, it would have to resist temptations to push the boundaries of warrantless search, as Compton, California's police department recently did in spying on unwitting civilians until it was busted by the Center for Investigative Reporting. With militarized municipal police drawing the raised eyebrow of everyone from Occupy types to President Obama, now doesn’t seem like a great time to give cops an Orwellian new toy.

Meanwhile, using drones for delivery sounds great when you feel like a bánh mì and are too baked to get off the couch but not so charming at other times. Imagine walking outside to the propeller whine of a dozen package-laden drones. Now, imagine one of those drones is owned by Google, whose facial recognition software enables the company to track your every move and sell your GPS coordinates to advertisers, which can IM you. (“I see you scratching your head. How about a coupon for some Selsun Blue?”) The paparazzi, no doubt, would be quick to add drones to their smut-collecting arsenals, using the devices to hover above the patio of the Sunset Tower Hotel while Lindsay Lohan was falling off the wagon. Using drones, management could peep on labor, thieves could stake out buildings, and dictators could spy on dissidents. Even the FAA, in its proposal, admits, “[Privacy] issues are beyond the scope of this rule making.” Existing Peeping Tom statutes will likely apply to drones—you’re not allowed to look through people’s windows, regardless of whether it’s with a telescope or the naked eye, so there’s no reason to believe this won’t apply to UAVs, legal experts say—but the FAA’s attitude was seen as disturbingly blasé by groups like EPIC, a Washington, D.C.–based privacy advocacy organization. It petitioned the agency, stating, “Drones are designed to undertake constant, persistent surveillance to a degree that former methods of surveillance were unable to achieve.… The increased used of drones poses an ongoing threat to every person within the United States.” (Although in Washington state, at least, law enforcement needs a warrant to collect evidence by drone.)

It doesn’t just take dubious intentions to misuse a drone. Flying one is not that simple. Captain Dave has lost three in the ocean, once owing to manufacturer defect and twice because he made simple mistakes. In February, a drunk, off-duty federal employee crashed his buddy’s DJI Phantom onto the White House lawn, and in January a drone ferrying meth from Mexico toward the U.S. crashed in a supermarket parking lot in the middle of the day.

Drone proponents often say that technology is too good to let fiascoes like the White House landing happen on a regular basis. They cite the “come home” functions with which many UAVs, including the DJI Phantom 2, are equipped; if you lose sight of the drone or find yourself unable to pilot it for whatever reason, just flip a switch and the vehicle returns, loyal as a Labrador. Even the cheaper UAVs will soon enable you to see on your iPhone or tablet what the drone is seeing from the air, and an autopilot feature will fly the craft to whatever GPS coordinates you give it. Advocates also note the “low-battery” technology; as the supply of juice dwindles, the device lands itself.

But say you fly your little ship to the far side of a skyscraper and can neither see it nor orient yourself in the drone’s-eye view on your iPad. You could switch to “come home” mode, but the craft is not going to retrace its flight; it’ll go up about 60 feet, then take the shortest route to its GPS point of origin without considering whatever obstacles may lie in its path. Colliding with the building, its rotors will break, causing it to plummet to the sidewalk, where most pedestrians aren’t wearing helmets. (Amazon and others are developing technology that would enable drones to sense objects in their path and steer around them, but it’s still costly, and less than completely reliable.) Likewise, if the battery suddenly drains—the DJI’s only lasts 20 minutes, and that’s considered a long life in the industry—your UAV will seek solid ground. That’s great if it touches down softly in a wheat field or splashes into a lake but not ideal if it descends, propellers spinning, into a playground of oblivious toddlers, who probably aren’t wearing protective eyewear. And let’s not forget the real possibility of large-scale disasters. Late last year, a Washington Post inquiry found that since June 2014, “commercial airlines, private pilots and air-traffic controllers have alerted the FAA to 25 episodes in which small drones came within a few seconds or a few feet of crashing into much larger aircraft.” Many of these incidents were at altitudes of several thousand feet and involved drones much larger than the Phantom. Not that size matters: A bunch of fleshy, feathery geese were enough to disable a jet, causing the near tragedy turned “miracle on the Hudson.” Next time might not be so miraculous.

All this would seem an argument for tighter rules, as they apply to hobbyists, than the FAA is proposing. An incompetent researcher will lose her grant if she starts a forest fire with a drone, and a careless Amazon delivery pilot will lose his job if he crashes into a building (and his company will get its pants sued off). Hobbyists, though, have little to lose from their own incompetence, carelessness, or stupidity.

So how likely are such scenarios? I decided to find out for myself.

I went with a DJI Phantom 2, like Captain Dave’s and the one the drunk guy crashed near the White House. I figured I’d fly the drone for a few weeks, see what I could get away with and how people reacted, and maybe even use it to make the world a better place. If there was a bad L.A. freeway snarl, I’d hop out of the car, put my Phantom in the air, capture an image, then send it to the local TV station. Maybe I’d help a neighbor find a lost dog. To see how much law enforcement truly knew about FAA regulations, I’d fly my UAV outside LAPD headquarters. Heck, I thought, maybe I’ll head over to the Church of Scientology’s Celebrity Centre to see if my drone can get a glimpse of which red-carpet walkers are conducting weird rituals inside.

Standing outside my house, I fiddled with the joystick pad and got the four rotors turning. Godlike, I moved my finger a millimeter, and the thing was flying; it was satisfying and spooky to make something airborne in a manner that felt one notch away from sheer will. When I took my finger off the joystick, the drone hovered like an obedient hummingbird. Even though it was only five feet above the sidewalk and wouldn’t do more than hang there without my say-so, the experience was a bit nerve-racking. However tiny, four propellers spinning near your face pose real risks. I took it slowly. Rotate left. Rotate right. Up a little, down some. Forward a bit, back a smidge. Then I spazzed out and crashed it into a bushel of bunchgrass in my front yard, creating a storm of plant shrapnel.

I figured I should maybe get a lesson. A DJI rep named Michael Shabun, whom I’d met at the L.A. Drone Expo, agreed to help. We met at a park near his Hollywood office, where he walked me through everything from screwing on the rotors to launching and landing. Other than the moment when I almost crashed into a flagpole at 100 feet, I soon felt I could fly comfortably on my own, provided I did so in open space. When I mentioned my plan—LAPD, citizen traffic reports, spying on the city’s largest cult, next to a busy freeway—Shabun flashed me a look of polite disbelief, which confirmed for me the stupidity of the idea. “I really don’t recommend doing that,” he said. “It can take a while to get proficient.”

At another park that weekend, I put the Phantom through some paces, even flying it above a field, where a group of teens was playing soccer. It was fascinating. As the drone took off, my wife, our dog, and I all came into view. (If you think seeing yourself on a convenience-store surveillance camera screen is weird, wait till you try this.) I felt confident, so I sent it skyward, watching on my iPhone as the DJI app ticked off altitude—220 feet, 300 feet, 350, 360, 390!—and everything on the ground, myself included, became an indecipherable blip. My drone was now halfway across the park, a quarter mile away—it was programmed with “geo-fencing” technology to stop at a mile—and just inches below the FAA’s legal limit.

Then I remembered the family near the parking lot holding a birthday party for a one-year-old. The Phantom wasn’t too near them, but I decided to play it safe and bring the aircraft home. I got it back above the soccer field without incident, but I was too far away to distinguish the taillights from the nose lights. My iPhone’s screen was no help; because of the uniform color of the field and the surrounding trees, I couldn’t tell which direction I was flying. I thought my UAV was facing the right way, but when I pulled the joystick toward me the screechy little vessel zipped in the opposite direction, missed the baseball scoreboard by a foot, and got hung up in a eucalyptus tree, whacking its leaves while a passing speed walker shook her head in disapproval. No real damage was done—just two snapped propellers. But that was all the flying I needed to know that I couldn’t justify myself or anyone else putting a small machine 40 stories above ground, in public, without hours of standardized training and decent sense-and-avoid software.

Amateurs like me, the White House dunce, and whoever thought it would be a good idea to launch a UAV near a commercial airport are but a few reasons the FAA is taking its time with regulations, proposing the baby steps it announced in February and letting the public weigh in. We should all be grateful for that. It’s easy to pooh-pooh those darned government bureaucrats and their red tape, but their considerations are more complicated than aspiring commercial drone pilots or anti-drone-warfare activists might have you believe.

But why, a farmer might ask, can’t I fly a drone over my own field, where there’s no one to harm? Because it could get caught in the propeller of your neighboring farmer’s Cessna (piloted by someone who invested time and money in getting a license). Or it could snag a high wire and start a blaze that torches her crop and costs taxpayers a bundle to extinguish.

But helicopters take aerial shots all the time, says the frustrated filmmaker, so why can’t I fly my drone that high? Because it might smack the building and fall on the crowd of extras you’ve hired to stand beneath it—that’s why. Never mind that the family in 17F doesn’t want to be in your movie.

Waite thinks the proposed regulations are a reasonable first move. “People say, ‘Oh, we're going to fly over football games and protests.’ And I say, ‘No, you're not, because that’s very dangerous.’ I want to use them as much as anyone, but if we're going to allow these devices to fly around and use public airways for profit, then we have to expect a certain level of safety.”

In other words, FAA would rather be on the safe side, even if it makes them look like the bad guys, than create a space for misuse and have to answer for it later. And is that so terrible? As inspiring as it is to imagine flying a package of medicine to a storm-ravaged city, capturing footage of biblical disasters, or getting a kale Caesar delivered to your doorstep, we need to ask ourselves if we want to live in a world where drones, all of them equipped with a camera (and in some cases, facial recognition technology), are constantly zipping past our windows and above our backyards.

Maybe the answer to the question of how society should manage the coming onslaught of flying robots will surface during the FAA’s current comment period. Perhaps it will become clear piece by piece after the proposed rules become official and enthusiasts like Captain Dave and hypothetical Little League dad test their limits. Whatever the case, the current guidelines, and the FAA’s proposal for new ones, are far from thorough.

One thing the agency could do is prioritize regulation of consumer drones like my Phantom.

Given that anyone with a $1,000 credit limit can fly a machine over humans, perhaps such operators should be required to demonstrate they have a clue what they’re doing. When sense-and-avoid becomes dependable, and inexpensive enough to be a feature on consumer drones, the government could insist that all UAVs all be so equipped, the way it does now with air bags in cars.

The proposed rules for the commercial use of drones seem sensible, for now. As technologies improve, businesses could lobby to loosen line-of-sight and daytime-only restrictions, or the FAA could open a window that accepts applications from the private sector to be exempted from those rules. There’s no harm—other than a slower profit stream—in making companies earn the privilege of filling our skies with flying robots. For liability reasons, they’ll be motivated to proceed with caution. Amazon, for its part, is reportedly working with the federal government on an air traffic control system for drones.

As for wildlife researchers like Kerr and conservationists like Anderson, one could argue that they should be provided exemptions, as they tend to operate in remote areas and circumstances where risks are lower and more tolerable.

Most important, of course, are the rules governing drone use by first responders. Time is of the essence when searching for a missing kid, trying to uncover a person trapped beneath a collapsed building, or scouting out a hostage situation. If anyone should be entitled to ramp up drone use, it’s the people who are out there saving lives. But that shouldn’t mean a license to use drones for surveillance without a warrant.

Matternet’s Raptopoulos envisions drones as an antidote to urban congestion, “a new layer that sits between the road and the Internet…truly a modern solution to a very old problem, [with a] very small ecological footprint, operating in the background just like the Internet.” That makes for a moving, if not convincing, TED Talk, until you remember that the “background” is the airspace all around us, and the “solution” is outside our windows and just above us, nearly capable of getting inside our heads, and certainly able to land on them.

Original article from TakePart