Pilots also optional?

By Robert Hickson 29/04/2012

In my last post I noted the shift to increasing automation on the roads. We are also seeing this in the air. In the US legislative and budgetary initiatives are set to encourage greater use of unmanned aerial vehicles (aka Drones) in domestic airspace. Some fliers are in a tailspin about the dangers this poses to regular aircraft, because of the absence of collision avoidance systems in most planes and drones.

True, drones usually have a pilot controlling them at a distance, so they are not the same as self-driving cars. But it’s possible that pilot-less passenger aircraft aren’t far off (the belief that current jets can essentially fly themselves is a myth).

A range of organisations have already applied to fly drones in US airspace – the Air Force, Homeland, Security, Universities, and police departments. The latter make some particularly nervous because of the fear of invasion of privacy (rather than having weapon laden drones flying over a city). That’s a distraction from the main issue of the increasing capabilities of sensor systems generally and how they are used (it doesn’t really matter if they are in a small drone or a larger, manned aircraft). With drones I’d be more worried about the potential for accidents in a crowded environment.

However, two can play at the spy game, as Syrian protestors illustrated by keeping an eye on security forces with a camera attached to a model plane. I expect we’ll see more of this – there is already an active DIY drone culture.

New Zealand could potentially use drones for maritime surveillance. A Palmerston North company, Skycam UAV NZ, has developed drones for aerial surveillance.

Second hand military robots are also likely to be donated to police departments in the US — for surveillance and bomb disposal work (some police already buy them). With their widespread adoption by defence forces, I expect military robot manufacturers will look for new markets in police and domestic security applications.

DARPA is also sweetening the pot. In early April they announced a Grand Challenge to develop search and rescue robots. A key initiative they are looking for are systems of robots that can do a range of tasks and communicate with each other. If this Grand Challenge is as successful as their series of self-driving vehicle challenges, then we’ll see a lot more rapid innovation in the robot world.

I’ll end somewhat tangentially. This video is called ‘Robot readable world’, which is misleading because robots aren’t always involved. However, I found it eerily entrancing to see how computers are identifying objects and navigating streets.


Update 7 May: The American Civil Liberties Union have posted what they call “a nightmare scenario” of how police could slowly increase the use of surveillance drones to a point where they infringe privacy. The scenario relies on some future technological developments, such as face and gait recognition, improved visual analytics and coordination between devices, as well as broadening situations when surveillance can be used. The ACLU calls for regulations to be proactively employed to ensure such intrusive surveillance does not occur.  As I noted above, the privacy issue isn’t just about drones, but more generally about the power of sensor systems and the increasing number of ways they can be deployed (overtly or covertly).

Update 14 May: In Australia, the Victorian police are considering using drones for surveillance and searches. Chris Laidlaw’s Radio NZ Sunday Morning programme on 13 May  had a discussion about drones that is worth listening to.