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Drones over US soil: the calm before the swarm

An explosion of advanced flying vehicles is about to hit the skies, but regulation lags way behind technology

It was a muggy spring morning in South Texas almost one year ago when Gene Robinson arrived at the swampy waters near Sam Houston Lake Estates. All that week the area had been a hive of activity, as authorities searched along the banks, diving underwater with scuba gear, and flying overhead in helicopters. 150 search-and-rescue personnel aided by 40 dogs had criss-crossed the thick forest around the lake on foot, ATVs, and horseback. Texas Rangers stood guard with rifles, protecting search parties from alligators, feral hogs, and large predatory cats.

The missing boy was Devon Davis, a two-year-old who had moved with his family to the area just a few weeks prior. While his mother was napping, Devon had wandered out of the house and disappeared. News of the lost child had gripped the state, and law enforcement had spared no expense. But after five days of searching, the mood was grim. The Texas Rangers were gathering in a trailer, their temporary headquarters. The plan was to call off the search at noon. With no options left, they decided to try one last-ditch effort. So they brought in Robinson, and his drone.

Gene Robinson is the founder of RP SearchServices. A former Air Force pilot with a flat top of white hair and a bushy mustache, Robinson got a degree in computer science after his military career and worked for more than a decade in IT. He began building and flying his own model aircraft and eventually moved into drones. The custom vehicle he created resembles a small, fixed-wing airplane. Robinson and his wife have travelled with their drone to 29 states over the last decade aiding in search and rescue operations.

This time, Robinson wasn’t optimistic. "It had already been several days, and it was mean down there. Snakes and gators. We knew everyone was already packing up to leave. So we hurried as fast as we could." Robinson took a few running steps and with a practiced arm, hurled his drone into the air for takeoff. Using a remote control, he piloted three flights over the next hour and a half, soaring high above the area and cutting low beneath the canopy of trees.

Robinson’s drone carried a consumer grade Panasonic Lumix camera, and after landing for the third time, he rushed to download the aerial footage. His wife pulled up the images in Windows Photo Viewer and began to scan them, zooming in and out. After ten minutes her eyes caught on a distinct splotch of red floating in the water. He rushed up the embankment towards the Texas Rangers.

What do we mean when we talk about drones? Back in Shakespeare's day it meant a buzzing bee, but in modern times the earliest use of the word referred to the unmanned aerial vehicles used during World War I to draw enemy fire away or deliver explosive payloads.

Today, purists within the drone community use the word to mean a flying robot that can navigate to multiple GPS waypoints and perform other actions without a human pilot’s constant guidance. But the term has come to mean something very different in the mind of the public and the media.

The Predator drones flying missions in the Middle East are remotely piloted, but we have come to think of them as robo-killers. The word "drone" has become a catchall to describe a range of different aircraft, and to symbolize war performed at a distance, remote killings, and a creeping surveillance state. When we talk about drones in this article, we mean UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), a category that includes a wide spectrum of remotely piloted and semi-autonomous craft that are increasingly less reliant on human pilots.

The Federal Aviation Administration expects there to be more than 30,000 UAVs over our skies by the year 2020 doing work for private companies and law enforcement. Add in the the number of highly advanced vehicles being flown by hobbyists, and that number gets much higher. "I would guess there are already forty or fifty thousand aircraft in the hands of civilians capable of autonomous flight," says Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, who recently left the magazine to focus full time on his drone company, 3D Robotics, and community, DIY Drones. "That’s far more than our best estimates of what the military has, and the number is going to grow rapidly over the next few years."

How have things changed so fast? "10 years ago, drones were military industrial technology, extremely expensive and some of it classified," says Anderson. "What happened over the last decade is that the revolution in your pocket, has made that technology so cheap, and easy, and ubiquitous that regular people could do it."

Once-rare components like accelerometers, magnetometers, gyroscopes, and GPS trackers have all been driven down in cost by the explosion of mobile devices. "A lot of the technologies to pilot a drone used to be covered under what’s called export control, which is to say they were regulated as military technology," explains Anderson. That meant you couldn’t simply order these technologies online or find them at your local hobby shop. "But there is a provision in the export control laws that exempts public domain." In other words, once all these parts became readily available in the smartphones you could pick up at Best Buy, they were no longer banned for civilian use. "Because the stuff became so easy and so cheap, suddenly regular people could do the stuff only defense contractors could do before."

The capabilities and cost of drones seem to obey Moore’s law. The advanced flight control systems built by DJI Innovations used to be reserved for vehicles priced between $5,000 and $10,000. Now $679 buys you DJI’s quadcopter Phantom, a craft capable of flying 22 miles per hour, achieving altitudes of more than 1,000 feet, and using GPS satellites to maintain its position, correct for strong winds, and navigate home in the event that the pilot loses his link.

"Suddenly regular people could do the stuff only defense contractors could do before."

The sudden accessibility of this powerful technology requires new regulations around safety and privacy. Last year Congress passed a bill mandating that the FAA create a new framework so that drones can fly domestically, both for civilian and commercial use. The hope is that drones will spark an economic boom, helping to revolutionize industries like agriculture, security, and shipping. The FAA says it’s working on technology that would allow the drones to "sense and avoid" stationary objects, as well as one another. It’s setting up six test sites around the country to fly unmanned missions and collect data. But the new rules aren’t set to go into effect until 2015. In the meantime, commercial use is banned, and civilian drones are becoming increasingly cheap, plentiful, and powerful.

In the absence of a nationwide framework from the FAA, 30 states and numerous cities have introduced their own legislation, which could lead to a patchwork of reactionary and incompatible laws. "The thing is, the majority of the drone community is in favor of regulation," says Chris Sanz, the founder of Skycatch, which plans to use drones to secure private property. "What we want to avoid is a lot of knee-jerk response on the state level that stifles innovation and growth in this young industry."

"I think it’s important to get ahead on issues like these before they get out of control."

Sanz is acutely aware of how effective drones can be as a surveillance technology. Skycatch is building its own custom UAVs that will dock at a customer’s home. When triggered by a motion sensor, or as part of a pre-programmed circuit, the drones will fly out and record video, beaming the footage back to its owner’s computer, smartphone, or tablet. "What we need to do is create a set of standards for the community, to self-regulate so that we can avoid painful government oversight," says Sanz. To this end, he is developing an air code of ethics — don’t spy on others, do not weaponize your drone — which he hopes will become industry standard. Chris Anderson’s DIY Drones has a similar community code and shuns offending members vigorously.

There is little disagreement in the drone community that laws haven’t kept pace with the evolving technology. "Some of the uses are going to be scary," says Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. "There is a technology called ARGUS which can view an entire city at once." The system, named for the hundred-eyed giant of Greek myth, can track the movements of every vehicle and person in a fifteen square mile radius. "It saves that data and so it has a real potential to build up a database of people’s comings and goings," says Stanley. "We don’t believe people should live in a society where the police can watch you at all times just in case you commit a crime."

But advocates for this budding industry say that it’s the laws around privacy which should change, rather than instituting new legislation aimed specifically at drones. "The fact that drones are capable of doing a lot of aerial surveillance at low cost wouldn’t be that big a deal, but for the fact that privacy law largely isn’t up to the task," says Ryan Calo, a professor of law at the University of Washington.

Calo points to cases like Florida vs Riley, where police used a helicopter to see into a greenhouse through missing panels on a roof, spotted marijuana plants, then used that as evidence to obtain a warrant. The Supreme Court ruled that the aerial search didn’t violate the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, because citizens can have no reasonable expectation of privacy of anything viewable from a public vantage. "That kind of doctrine will likely be applied to drones as well," said Calo.

The Virginia House and Senate recently passed a bill banning the use of drones by government and law enforcement for the next two years, and it’s now awaiting the governor’s signature. "I think there’s a sense of urgency," Donald McEachin, the Democratic state senator in Virginia who introduced this legislation, told the Daily Beast. "I think it’s important to get ahead on issues like these before they get out of control. We can imagine the problems that drones will bring in the future. I believe when the Founding Fathers wrote the Fourth Amendment, they never envisioned a low rider that could sit over your house and see things and hear things."

Another member of the Democratic caucus, speaking anonymously, joked to The Verge that, "This legislation brought out supporters from the Tea Party and the ACLU. When those folks line up on the same side, you know it’s either a damn good idea, or the end times are here."

But Calo says the fatal flaw with legislation like the Virginia bill is that it is narrowly aimed at flying drones. "Why draft a bill that specifically regulates robots which fly through the air? Then it doesn’t pertain to the new machine someone invents that climbs up walls instead. The cameras are going to keep getting better. What needs to change are the privacy laws."


Robinson and his wife got to the Texas Rangers trailer just as they were packing up to leave. They showed them the distinct splotch of red they had noticed on their images and asked them to take one last pass. At that point, the same area had already been swept by a helicopter flyover and search and rescue personnel in kayaks. But with a desperate family still hovering nearby, and news crews and cameras from across the state still rolling, no one wanted to pass up an opportunity, no matter how slim the chances.

There were some key differences between the helicopter and the drone. It took the chopper an hour to get to the site, giving it around an hour of fuel to search before it had fly back. The rescue personnel were also relying on the naked eye when searching from the helicopter, which cruised at around 35 miles per hour. "After 15, 20 minutes of flying back and forth over thick forest like that, everything starts to blur together," says Robinson. "With the imagery we collect, you can study the landscape and focus on things that stick out."

Drone-woods"As soon as the Amber alert went out, there should have been multiple drones in the air."

When the Texas Rangers returned to the red spot the drone’s camera had picked out, they found the body of Devon Davis, floating lifeless in the swampy water. "It wasn’t a happy ending," says Robinson. "To be honest, it makes me angry. We should have been flying from day one. As soon as the Amber alert went out, there should have been multiple drones in the air, making passes at all altitudes, collecting as much footage as possible."

And that’s a big problem facing drone technology right now. It could be put to the great use by public agencies looking to find missing children, track down criminal suspects, or battle a fast-moving wildfire. But because drones have entered the popular consciousness as robotic killing machines controlled by our government, introducing them to domestic airways as tools for law enforcement would only reinforce the image of them as operatives of Big Brother.

In the mind of folks like Chris Anderson, the key is changing public perception, showing drones in some positive function at home that’s unrelated to warfare or surveillance. "Agriculture is the most likely," says Anderson. "You drive down the road with farms on either side and you see the drones surveying the crops or spraying, you’re like ‘oh, that’s a drone,’ and you start to associate it with farming rather than military use, and that’s how we change the narrative."

Robinson, like every drone enthusiast we met, was in favor of more regulation, especially around privacy and piloting. "The FAA should require you to pass a test and maintain a license to fly one of these things, just like a car or a plane. But the stuff that’s going on in these cities and states that are banning drones... well, they are going to be cutting themselves off from technology that could save lives and move them into a new economic age."

Video production: John Lagomarsino, Ryan Manning
Edited by: John Lagomarsino