Drones Grow-Up

Our industry has been growing up!  We should be glad that the authorities are finally starting to prosecute people on the basis of illegal drone flights.  We have finally arrived.  Our industry is now important enough that the authorities are taking action to remove bad operators from our ranks.

There have been two recent high-profile prosecutions of small unmanned systems operators.  First, Raphael Pirker of Team Black Sheep got at $10,000 fine from the FAA that he is vigorously contesting.  You can see the video that got him in trouble below.

http://www.suasnews.com/2013/10/25619/the-1st-faa-prosecution-of-a-civilian-drone-uav-we-are-change/

Then, the NYPD charged the drone pilot in Manhattan who crashed his drone with reckless endangerment.  He also made a video of his face before the drone took off.

Drone Arrest

http://abclocal.go.com/wabc/story?section=news/investigators&id=9292217

Both these incidents are are clearly inappropriate flights, well outside of FAA guidelines for hobbyists and rules for aircraft.  The authorities are doing their job in prosecuting and it is going to improve the industry.  We’ve had a “grey area” in aerial robotics for too long.  Yes, we need better rules and FAA rule making for UAS cannot come soon enough.  In the meantime though, our dislike of the current regulatory structure is not enough for us to substitute our judgement for the FAA’s.  In neither case, is the prosecution talking about destroying the life of the operator.  We are talking about fines and a misdemeanor charge.

These seem like appropriate punishments to remind everyone that there are rules about where we can fly and how.  Much, much more airspace will be open to robotic craft, eventually.  In the meantime, we as an industry have to address the concerns of the non-participating community.  They did not consent to have a quad-copter or any other aircraft falling on their heads.  The manned aviation community has built-up an elaborate system to persuaded the public that they can have some certainty of not killing people, particularly on the ground.

One of the points that is sometimes lost on the robotics community is how well our current regulatory structure actually works.  Most of the economic gains from aviation are being captured.  Commercial flights are cheap and safe–there have been two commercial fatalities in the last four years and it is cheaper in real terms than almost ever before.  All this success in commercial aviation has not precluded general aviation and RC hobbyists from pursing their interests.

We are certainly missing some gains from unmanned aircraft, but the largest applications for civilian use of drones remain undiscovered.  Technology spreads based on benefits, regaldless of the law.  If hobbyist style drones provided tangible benefits that had been discovered they would already be as widespread as, say, illegal file-sharing.  And on movie sets, quad-copters now common, but the movie helicopter shot market is not all that large at any price.  If this analysis is correct, since testing continues on drones of all classes, the FAA’s lethargic pace on the new rules has not had as much adverse impact as many in our industry like to imagine.

Given the only hypothetical benefit and the very real danger of unregulated drone flights it seems imprudent of authorities to let the industry go with no enforcement.  Non-enforcement discourages entry by law-abiding players and erodes the integrity of all firms involved in the industry.  If this is ever going to be more than a few guys out tinkering with electronic toys, the industry will have to show it is responsible enough to operate over people’s heads.  This is not going to happen if we resist and tolerate a disregard for regulation.  Many industries have used regulation to expand their reach, by necessity, the aerial robotic market will be one of them.

Is there an open-source / closed-source dichotomy in robotics?

Is there an open-source / closed-source dichotomy in robotics?

I just put up a new piece over at Robohub discussing how open-source and closed-source can live harmoniously in robotics–because all robots are services.

My reflections on #AUVSI North America 2012

I got to spend two days at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) North America 2012 trade show last week.  As a first pass, the industry continues to grow even as defense cuts start to put a damper on things.  Other domains besides air are also starting to look like real possibilities though their manufacturers don’t always see fit to join AUVSI.  There is still tremendous excitement about the FAA’s recent moves that seem to indicate real progress in the last year.  Privacy concerns are being taken seriously, hopefully early enough to nip the issue in the bud, because the safety issues seem to be close to resolved.

  • The show is bigger than ever with more and more companies in attendance.  Based on my entirely unscientific method of walking around the show and looking at the booths at random, it seems to me that there are more companies offering services and software, about the same number offering components and hardware, and many fewer trying a hawk new platforms.  I think this reflects the reality of customer budgets and also the maturity of the industry.  The show didn’t have quite the same clubby feel that I used to remember, but maybe that’s good as well.
  • There was real concern and real awareness of the image problems that our industry has.  AUVSI is still definitely focused on the air side of things, but ground and maritime are definitely on their radar.  There is real determination on the part of the association leadership, both professional and volunteer, to counteract the negative press that the industry has been getting.
  • The Brookings Institution and the American Civil Liberties Association (ACLU) were both in attendance to participate in a privacy forum.  The Brookings and ACLU seem to have a great deal of common ground with the AUVSI membership at large on at least the law enforcement uses of unmanned aircraft.  That is the fourth amendment is still in effect and the same sorts of procedures that govern manned aircraft data collection ought to govern unmanned aircraft data collection.  Further, most people here on both sides of the panel were far more personally concerned about being tracked by cellphone data than unmanned aircraft.
  • The show is still definitely defense centered.  However, there is a feeling in the air that the FAA will actually do something and get unmanned aircraft out in the airspace soon.  Lots more booths are starting to have material that touts civilian use and more thinking is going into what will happen after the FAA starts allowing unmanned aircraft in the airspace.  Personally, I’m still skeptical that FAA is going to meet its deadlines, but I am certainly hoping that they will.
  • Robotics is starting to be used more in the same breath with unmanned systems.  Most of the AUVSI education outreach efforts don’t talk about unmanned systems at all (except maybe in an acronym) but do talk about robotics education.  I think this is a really positive development.  I would like to see AUVSI, the RIA, SAE robotics, and the robotic medical device companies operate under some kind of shared banner.  We all have the same workforce concerns, similar regulatory concerns, and face the same kind of backlash whenever we try to introduce new applications.  I believe that there is strength in numbers and it is always great to get the back-up that the fallacious counter arguments being trotted out against your robotic application are the same ones trotted out against other robotic applications that have gone on to be successful.  Particularly when we go to Capitol Hill to try and get rules changed so that we can compete on level playing field with legacy systems I think that there is value in having the Boeings (NYSE:BA), Intuitives (NASDAQ:ISRG), and Schillings (acquired by FMC NYSE:FTI) of the world support each other.

 

Pittsburgh Robotics: Who is missing?

Our AUVSI chapter finally has a mini-directory of the companies and institutions (both AUVSI members and not) who participate in the Pittsburgh robotics community.  Who is missing?  Any institutions left out?

http://www.auvsi.org/Pittsburgh/PittsburghRobotics/

Pittsburgh has a robotics meet-up!

Time to update the cluster comparison statistics, Pittsburgh has a robotics meet-up!  Join the AUVSI crew for some whiskey tasting.  I’ll be disappointed to be out in the Valley on Monday night.

http://www.meetup.com/Pittsburgh-Robotics/

about

Dear Reader,

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog.  I’m Robert Morris.  A former Army officer and consultant, I am currently an MBA student at Carnegie Mellon University and a nascent robotics entrepreneur.

I’m engaged in creating the future that I saw when I when I was leading a drone unit in Afghanistan.  The technological swords that makes drones are being beaten into robotic ploughshares of unimaginable promise.  These tools will give our society the security and prosperity to continue our moral progress.  Now a civilian, I am engaged in making business work as the vehicle for this positive transformation of our society.

I hope that this can be  repository for useful ideas and observations about robotics, business, and society.

-Robert