The latest panic from our government officials and the media seems to be about flying toys. Somehow the word Drone has been attached to these toys, and that makes it scary. Remote controlled toys are not drones. The word drone has been loaded with connotations of silent evil robots raining death and destruction from the sky. I would like to simultaneously dispel and enhance this misconception.
Five types of Drones…
1. A remote controlled quad-copter is a toy. The only threat it has to anyone is that it may fall out of the sky and bonk you on the head. Or it could get sucked into an airplane engine like a bird, and probably do less damage. They are no more dangerous to the public than a model airplane. Some may have cameras installed to get cool photos or video from a vantage point that is too difficult or dangerous to reach for humans.
2. A remote controlled flying vehicle that has weapons installed could be more accurately called a drone. These are what the military uses in an attempt to combat terrorism. It’s basically a remote controlled weapons platform. The only difference between bomber, military jet, military helicopter, and a drone is that the pilot is operating the vehicle from somewhere other than inside the vehicle. This lowers the risk to the pilot and makes the vehicle smaller and more efficient. This is really scary technology to the target and anyone who feels uneasy by the thought of a faceless killing machine. These machines have some intelligence, but mostly in the same way an autopilot maintains direction and reacts to maintain stability.
3. Semi-autonomous vehicles (quad copters) with cameras are remote controlled camera platforms that have enough intelligence built in to avoid obstacles and react to its environment enough to be stable. You could call these drones. These will become more and more important and beneficial over time.
4. Fully autonomous vehicles are programmed to execute specific instructions and are flexible enough to deal with unexpected variables. These are mostly hobby projects in robotics and university research projects. These are sophisticated flying robots. But they are not dangerous to people and are usually expensive, fragile and require a lot of programming knowledge.
5. Fully Autonomous vehicles with weapons. Think of the Terminator movies or Star Wars. A cruise missile is an autonomous weapon. You tell it where to go and let it off the leash. No human control is necessary. This is very scary. This is what the media would like us to think of when we hear the term Drone.
Can a Radio Shack toy be modified to carry weapons or a carry a camera and spy on you? Sure. So can a kite, model airplane, or hobby rocket. Plumbing can be made into spud guns. Cleaning chemicals and fertilizer can be made into bombs. Cell phones can trigger bombs remotely. And a sharp stick may poke your eye out.
Words mean things. Attaching the term Drone to anything that flies without a pilot is very misleading. It’s like calling a jug of gasoline a weapon of mass destruction. Some people automatically attach the word Drone to any small hovering vehicle. It is assumed that it will eventually be perverted to be used in nefarious ways, like using them as an invasion of privacy, or smuggling drugs, or flying weapons. This kind of paranoia causes a lot of unnecessary anxiety and fear. I am afraid that the more you look into the technology, the more anxious the public will get.
These devices are not only available, but getting smaller, faster, and have longer battery life. There is no going back. The genie is out of the bottle. And it is really cool technology with lots of excellent uses.
So watch out for unnecessary laws and regulations governing toys. Also watch for huge investments in semi autonomous weapons platforms for the military. It isn’t the technology that concerns me, it’s the operators. Private citizens can be arrested and charged. The military and police are much more difficult to regulate.
As with all new technology, you have to take the bad with the good.