Drones: shiny happy cloudy future

Staffers surprisingly unable to turn this week's chat into a bleak dystopia

In Breakroom, WeBreakTech staffers chat about the last couple of weeks in tech. What’s new? What’s broken? What are we working on? What makes us want to hurl things into traffic? Sarcasm, salty language, and strong opinions abound.


Josh.Folland: I propose we complain about the implications of drones this week. Drones with cameras and advertising drones hassling drivers.

Trevor.Pott:  I think you should start, Josh, as you are familiar with some of the regulations around this for personal and commercial use in Canada.

Josh.Folland: Re: the second article, where Uber has drones advertising. I had joked on social media that if this ever happened to me, I’d get a big fisherman net or train up an eagle and get me a free drone.

However, this won’t happen in Canada – at least not without companies like Uber throwing money at lobbying efforts to change the laws. Here, it’s illegal to fly a drone over a crowded area or even in the field behind your house without getting the proper requisitions from Transport Canada. Which means filling out like a 20-page proposal, from what I’ve seen.

Katherine.Gorham: I’m grateful for that. The idea of advertising drones makes me grumpy.

Josh.Folland: The law isn’t really going to care if you fly a drone in the field by your house, but your neighbors might. The law does care if you fly a drone over an army base or airport.

Trevor.Pott:  I’d prefer no drones near me, unless they’re delivering me things.

Josh.Folland: Even that will require much lobbying. As it stands now, the legislation emphatically does not allow for it. Last I heard they were trying to carve out an altitude zone to enable it but I don’t know if it got anywhere.

Katherine.Gorham: There was that article about British airplanes having a lot of close encounters with civilian drones. Does this mean drones are the new geese?

I’m also wondering if some countries allow countermeasures against irritating civilian drones – or it this wishful thinking?

Josh.Folland: I know Holland is training eagles to sic ’em.

Trevor.Pott:  I think that if we’re going to talk about drones and airports we need to be a little clear about a few things.  The first being that your tiny $1000 quadcopter is not going to take down an airliner.  A flock of geese will.

That said, however, there are lots of people flying more substantial drones around airports.  These can and will cause crashes that take lives. A little quadcopter with a GoPro on it isn’t a threat to aviation.  Privacy, yes, but not aviation.  But to be able to stay in the air for any real length of time, drones need to be much, much bigger.  And then they could become a threat, if misused.

Penguin B UAV

Some drones are fairly large. The Penguin B UAV, shown here, is often used by research organizations.*

Josh.Folland: Your $1000 quadcopter COULD take down an airliner if it hits it right in the crit point. Lithium battery vs turbine engine = not good.

Trevor.Pott:  I don’t think a Phantom is going to take out an airliner, if it pwns it in the rotor.  There has been some research into this. That said, you don’t have to get much bigger than a Phantom before you really can do serious damage.

Katherine.Gorham: Apparently the concern about drones versus airliners is the cockpit windows.

Trevor.Pott: As soon as you’re no longer a battery and some cheap plastic, but a metal drone with serious lift or loitering capability, you’re a potential threat. I think it’s a critical difference, because it gives us a point to legislate around. Are you a threat to transportation and/or infrastructure, or a just a privacy nuisance?

Josh.Folland: I dunno about that – the extant legislation already precludes that. You *will not* get permission to fly a drone around an airport.

Trevor.Pott:  The legislation here does. You’ll note that a lot of the complaints are from the US and the UK…and they are also going against laws in those countries already.

Josh.Folland: The US has similar rules from what I understand, although I’m unclear on specifics. A big part of it though is lack of consequences. If I’m parked in a parking lot and you don’t have a device to jam my signal, I’m gonna haul ass with my drone away long before you can catch me. Unless you sic something as smart as an eagle on it.

Trevor.Pott:  While I agree you’re not going to get the right to fly near airports, there are plenty of choppers that overfly cities.  And who has what rights to fly over traffic?  Over residential areas?  Office towers?

The urban canyons of New York city are essentially wind tunnels.  What happens when a substantial drone is blown into a building, and falls on someone?  Or into traffic?

Josh.Folland: That’s exactly why the legislation exists, but the problem is on-paper rules don’t stop anyone from actually spinning up their drone and sending them in the air.

As I’ve been told, it’s very hard to get approved to fly your drone around something like downtown. That’s reserved  exclusively for news and emergency services.

Trevor.Pott:  Laws don’t prevent me from taking a shotgun into the middle of the city and shooting a bunch of shells in the air either.  They provide remedies for those hurt/offended/scared/etc if I do so.  That’s the best we can really hope for.

Josh.Folland: Exactly.

Trevor.Pott:  There will always be disturbed individuals doing such things. But it’s the commercial scale operations that – like so many other legal concerns – have the ability to impact most people. Uber and it’s flying adcopters. Or Amazon’s delivery drones.

Josh.Folland: Indeed. But by the same token, there’s always the potential for them to be a force for good. For example, drones delivering defibrillators in a fraction of the time an ambulance can reach anyone.

Or burritos. It makes me wish I knew more about how the laws surrounding automobiles came to be. At one point they were novelty items. But someone at some point carved out an exception for “EMERGENCY SERVICES = GET OUT OF THE WAY IN TRAFFIC.” I think there will be some parallels in the legislation surrounding drones.

Trevor.Pott:  I’m not saying drones are inherently bad.  I guess I am wondering about two things: what would a desired legislative approach look like, and can we address some of this using technology and voluntary adherence to standards by drone manufacturers?

Katherine.Gorham: There’s already a voluntary standard in the US. I think it’s for drone operators, though.

Josh.Folland: License plates for your drone! You get a ticket if you drive in the wrong place. You should get a ticket if you fly in the wrong place too.

Where the wrong place is is another topic entirely, one that’s a little more difficult to solve what with the whole 3-dimensional aspect of it. Not to mention some form of distinction  between autonomous and hobby drones.

Katherine.Gorham: Well, and what the drone is doing is important, too.

Delivering packages? Cool.

Recreational flying? Cool.

Pointing a camera in my bedroom window? Not cool.

Advertising at me while I’m trying to operate a motor vehicle? Not cool.

Shooting a short film? Fine, but the usual regulations about getting people’s consent to shoot footage of them should apply.

Josh.Folland: Discerning between all of the above isn’t easy. If I’m 150 ft up, you can’t tell if my camera is zoomed at your window or if it’s trying to get a sweet panning shot of the area for my movie. But the consent thing is a fair point.

Trevor.Pott:  Here’s an idea:  registering drones with a central registry.  Having to put your stickers on with a UID, etc…  Require a license for any drone equipped with a telephoto lens capable of spying on people from a distance beyond the range at which the drone can be heard.  And if privacy violations are discovered, then perhaps a demerit-style affair, where you can be banned from using a drone for months/years/forever?

Katherine.Gorham: Should you have to file some sort of mini flight plan thing for your drone? State where you are flying and for what purpose?

Josh.Folland: You already have to fill out a flight plan for any flying vehicle. Which is frankly excessive, and why most people don’t do it.

Katherine.Gorham: Could we have drone-positive spaces as a way around that? Like a dog-off-leash area. Go to X park to recreationally fly your drone?

Trevor.Pott:  Why can’t we automate the flight plan thing? Where you map it out using software and the software says “this bit isn’t allowed”?  Don’t we have good enough maps/tech/etc/ to do that? Or even to keep the drones within bounds?

Katherine.Gorham: Seems like we should. Locational tech is advancing, and it isn’t just reliant on GPS.

Josh.Folland:  You could have altitude zones – say hobby drones only go up ~200ft, commercial delivery drones hang between 201-300ft and emergency services are 301-500ft. Hard-code the flight controller to inhibit you from flying out of that zone. If you want an exception for some reason, then you have to go to the relevant authorities. No different than if you’d want a street closed to shoot a movie, for example.

These things can take off and land perfectly vertically, so when you have to transition between zones it’s simply a matter of scanning the space below/above to make sure you’re not gonna crash into anything. And the scanning the surrounding area for incoming drones.

Trevor.Pott:  So we need a…drone cloud? With all the rules, and registrations and flight plans etc?

Josh.Folland: In the long term, yeah.

Katherine.Gorham: I realize it’s more complicated for aviation, but does this mean we will we evolve toward drone “roads?” You don’t have to file a flight plan to drive your car on a designated road.

Trevor.Pott: Roads have very easy to understand physical and visible barriers.  The sky does not. So we need digital barriers for the sky.

Josh.Folland: That’s where software comes in, yeah.

Trevor.Pott:  We need a drone cloud to create invisible cyber-lanes for our drones! #hashtags #buzzwords

Josh.Folland: There’s money to be made there.

Trevor.Pott:  I think we have a startup idea!

Josh.Folland: People have been flying drones with headsets communicating to gimbaled cameras for years now. You just need to augment them a little to make it show the cyber barrier!

Trevor.Pott: Finally, a use for Hololens?

Josh.Folland: Nah. Hololens is too expensive for this. You can get FPV goggles for your drone for ~$100-$250 TODAY. You would just have to add some features. The tech the cognitive services guys are working on at Microsoft could certainly do the job.

Trevor.Pott:  It really, really could.

Josh.Folland: And – universal standards built into flight controllers for all drones. Your drone WILL NOT LET YOU fly out of the designated area unless you break the law and h4x it.At which point, law enforcement points their tech camera at your drone and sees your shiny license sticker and tickets you.

Trevor.Pott:  So our solution is a cloud of rules and some AR. With relevant legislative exceptions for academia, emergency services, etc. Think about the good drones could do as part of 911.

Josh.Folland: Defib anywhere in the city in 5 minutes or less.

Katherine.Gorham: Cameras to assist bomb disposal. Search and rescue.

Trevor.Pott:  Poison control could send a drone with meds, and doctors could watch you take it, speak to you in real time.




Trevor.Pott:  Using Intel’s “manage hundreds of drones at once” tech, all civilian drones in a city could be ordered to park during an AMBER Alert, while the S&R drones went looking. There are plenty of really great uses for this technology, but it can’t be the wild west.  We need a way to coordinate our usage of drones – civilian, commercial and government – so that we can all share the limited airspace in a safe and privacy-friendly fashion.

Josh.Folland: That’s great in theory, but I have questions about security. If a hacker can pwn your drone, so can a terrorist to make all drones simultaneously crash into people.

Trevor.Pott:  I don’t believe that’s true, Josh. Drones can have specific behaviors hard-coded into untouchable firmware. For example: if the drone is instructed to do certain things (say, turn off, or continue flying past battery expiry) then the firmware takes over and immediately safely lands the drone.

That way a hacked drone could be flown around, but not used to crash into things, run out past battery life, etc.  The emergency overrides would kick in, land the drone, and trigger a locator beacon.

Josh.Folland: I still have visions of someone finding an exploit to make them all drop out of the sky, but you’re absolutely right. Sufficient security-oriented engineering can defeat this. I officially cannot turn this into a death-filled dystopia. We did it!

Trevor.Pott: Time for grog.


Note: The Penguin B UAV pictured above is shown merely as an example of a large, commercially-available UAV. As far as we know, this model has not been involved in any incidents of misuse near airports. Rather, it is frequently used for research and education – yet more positive uses for drone technology.

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