It was chaos over Zuccotti Park on the early morning of Nov. 15. New York City policemen surrounded the park in Lower Manhattan where hundreds of activists had been living as part of the nationwide Occupy movement. The 1:00 AM raid followed a court order allowing the city to prohibit camping gear in the privately-owned park.
Many protestors resisted and nearly 200 were arrested. Journalists hurrying towards the park reported being illegally barred by police. The crews of two news-choppers--one each from CBS and NBC--claimed they were ordered out of the airspace over Zuccotti Park by the NYPD. Later, NBC claimed its crew misunderstood directions from the control tower. “NYPD cannot, and did not, close air space. Only FAA can do that,” a police spokesperson told Columbia Journalism Review. The FAA said it issued no flight ban.Regardless, the confusion resulted in a de facto media blackout for big media. Just one reporter had the unconstrained ability to get a bird’s-eye view on police action during the height of the Occupy protests. Tim Pool, a 26-year-old independent video journalist, in early December began sending a customized two-foot-wide robot–made by French company Parrot–whirring over the police’s and protestors’ heads. The camera-equipped ‘bot streamed live video to Pool’s smartphone, which relayed the footage to a public Internet stream.If the police ever noticed the diminutive, all-seeing automaton–and there’s no evidence they did–they never did anything to stop it. Unlike CBS and NBC, the boyish Pool, forever recognizable in his signature black knit cap, understood the law. He knew his pioneering drone flights were legal–just barely.Pool’s robot coup was a preview of the future, as rapid advances in cheap drone technology dovetail with a loosening legal regime that, combined, could allow pretty much anybody to deploy their own flying robot--and all within the next three years. The spread of do-it-yourself robotics could radically change the news, the police, business and politics. And it could spark a sort of drone arms race as competing robot users seek to balance out their rivals. Imagine police drones patrolling at treetop level down city streets, their cameras scanning crowds for weapons or suspicious activity. “Newsbots” might follow in their wake, streaming live video of the goings-on. Drones belonging to protest groups hover over both, watching the watchers. In nearby zip codes, drones belonging to real estate agents scope out hot properties. Robots deliver pizzas by following the signal from customers’ cell phones. Meanwhile, anti-drone “freedom fighters,” alarmed by the spread of cheap, easy overhead surveillance, take potshots at the robots with rifles and shotguns.
The spread of do-it-yourself robotics could radically change the news, the police, business and politics. And it could spark a sort of drone arms race as competing robot users seek to balance out their rivals.
The FAA projects 15,000 robots in U.S. airspace by 2020, and 30,000 by 2030. The industry is in its infancy.
These aren’t just fantasies. All of these things are happening today, although infrequently and sometimes illegally. The only thing holding back the robots is government regulations that have failed to keep up with technology. The regs are due for an overhaul in 2015. That’s the year drones could make their major debut. “Everyone’s ready to do this,” Pool tells ANIMAL. “It’s only going to get crazier.”Robots Past. Not everybody agrees what exactly a “robot” even is. Assuming the term refers to a somewhat autonomous machine, then robots are nothing new. The Germans and Americans had remote-controlled tanks, bombs and airplanes during World War II. Navy pilot Joseph Patrick Kennedy, Jr.--JFK’s older brother--died when the drone bomber he was helping launch crashed in 1944.
The only reason Pool’s drone journalism over Zuccotti Park was legal is he kept his Parrot ‘bot low and within sight, and because he distributed the footage for free.
“Smart” machines started cropping up in America’s factories in the post-war decades, and for a long time drones stayed mostly in the hands of armies and industries. They were caged. But in the ’90s they broke loose. That’s when wireless data networks, cheap and powerful computers and cameras and advanced programming combined to make robots affordable, reliable and easy to use. In 1990, three former MIT researchers founded iRobot, one of the first consumer robotics companies. Their most famous product, the floor-sweeping Roomba, is also their most popular, with more than 3 million sold. The firm also produces ground-based military and police 'bots'.It was in the air that robots really found their niche. Starting in the mid-1990s, the U.S. military purchased thousands of aerial spy drones, ranging from seagull-size “Ravens” to behemoths known as “Global Hawks” that have the wingspan of a 737. Adding sensors and smart software to radio-controlled toy planes produced the first consumer-grade aerial drones in the early 2000s. The next generation adopted helicopter-style rotors, giving them the ability to hover.
Today upstart companies all over the world produce this style of drone. Mikrokopter in Germany sells a popular eight-rotor “Oktokopter” ‘bot for $3,000. Parrot prices its four-engine drones to move at $400 or less. You steer an Oktokopter with a handheld radio controller. The Parrot AR Drone follows commands from an iPhone, iPad or Android running a free app. Both can be fitted with live-streaming video cameras.“There’s a very big market out there,” says Ben Gielow, general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry group headquartered in Virginia. He lists journalists, real-estate agents and police departments as obvious drone customers. “Really, anybody who wants to get a better vantage point from higher up,” Gielow says. The NYPD, for one, has already considered using robots to complement its fleet of manned helicopters, according to press reports. (The police department and the New York City mayor’s office both declined to comment for this story.)
Because drones are cheaper than, say, a helicopter, they’ll get used for things that wouldn’t normally warrant a manned aircraft--and that could mean more intrusion into everyday people’s daily lives.The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees aircraft safety in the U.S., adds firefighters and pipeline operators to Gielow’s list of potential drone users. The FAA projects 15,000 robots in U.S. airspace by 2020, and 30,000 by 2030. “The industry is in its infancy,” the agency pointed out in a recent report. So is the law. The FAA outlaws private drone flights beyond sight and over 400 feet--and bans commercial drone operations entirely. The FAA’s major concern: safety. “How they’re used and what they’re used for are other people’s concerns,” says Les Dorr, an agency spokesman. The fear of robot accidents is not an unfounded one. On several occasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. warplanes have plowed into drones in mid-air, destroying the robots but fortunately sparing the humans. Authorities are particularly worried about drone safety in crowded cities that are already buzzing with manned aircraft.
The few legal users of high- and far-flying robots in America include the military, NASA, the Department of Homeland Security, some public universities and a couple of police departments in Texas and Florida. They’ve all got special FAA waivers. The only reason Pool’s drone journalism over Zuccotti Park was legal is he kept his Parrot ‘bot low and within sight, and because he distributed the footage for free.Matt Waite, a square-jawed man in his mid-30s, runs a drone journalism lab at the University of Nebraska that experiments with combinations of robots and cameras. “If I covered an event and sold the footage to a newspaper, I’d get a nastygram from the FAA saying knock it off.” The agency is investigating whether the iPad-only newspaper The Daily used a MicroDrone MD4-1000 to shoot video of floods and storms in Alabama and North Dakota. It’s not just for-profit media getting into trouble. The LAPD issued a warning after it found out real estate agents were using drones to scope out pricey properties. In March a Website apparently belonging to a food-service startup in San Francisco offered drone taco deliveryusing a Mikrokopter quad-rotor. Although Tacocopter turned out to be a hoax, the robotic taco delivery is clearly illegal under current law.The pressure for looser drone regulations has been building for years. “Drones are a very versatile technology that we’ll want to put to valuable use,” Ryan Calo, a legal expert at Stanford University, tells ANIMAL. Last fall Congress passed a law requiring the FAA to open up civil airspace to routine robot flights no later than 2015. The agency has three years to figure out how to certify and regulate the coming automaton swarms.Political Machines. You can’t use drones for profit. Not yet. But as Pool knew, there are fewer restrictions on non-profits. Outside government, animal rights groups and other activists have been some of the biggest users of aerial robots. And that has huge implications for American politics.
Drones are here, many more are coming and there’s no going back.
Last year the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the Oregon-based anti-whaling group behind the Animal Planet show "Whale Wars," announced it would deploy a drone over another pigeon shootin Ehrhardt, South Carolina, in February. An angry discussion kicked off on the Website of Field and Streammagazine. “Isn’t this an invasion of privacy?” asked one commenter. Others proposed different tactics for shooting down the drone. There was a debate over the best kind of ammo for destroying the Mikrokopter. Someone suggested using an anti-tank rocket.It turns out the hunters weren’t kidding. Shortly after Hindi launched his Oktokopter from a public highway near the hunt site, shots rang out. The drone tumbled to the ground in front of the activists. “I am told that two shots from a .308 [rifle] took care of the problem,” a Field and Streamcommenter crowed.Hindi says his group is undeterred by the violence. “Bring it on,” he says. “Bottom line is, what we’re doing is legal.”All Seeing Eyes.The hunters aren’t alone in fighting back against drones. The Department of Homeland Security and DHS’s Customs and Border Patrol use flying robots for surveillance over U.S. soil. In a pinch, they can help out local police departments--a preview of robots’ wider use after 2015. Gielow says any PD without its own helicopter (and that’s most of them) should jump at the chance to own drones.In Nelson County, North Dakota, last summer Rodney Brossart and his family allegedly stole six cattle that had wandered onto their land. The local sheriff went to investigate and found Brossart and four of his sons angry--and armed to the teeth. The sheriff scurried away and called the feds for help.
Customs and Border Patrol diverted one of its Cessna-size Predator drones to the Brossarts’ property. It orbited overhead, scanning for weapons as a reinforced, multi-agency police force made another, ultimately successful attempt to arrest the accused cattle-rustlers.The Brossarts’ lawyer Bruce Quick vowed to challenge the legalityof the drone-assisted arrest. “It’s bizarre to me they would be using military drones for that purpose,” Quick told the Grand Forks Herald. “I don’t think those things are intended to be used for that.”The ACLU is worried, too. “Our privacy laws are not strong enough to ensure that the new technology will be used responsibly and consistently with democratic values,” the group warned in December. Because drones are cheaper than, say, a helicopter, they’ll get used for things that wouldn’t normally warrant a manned aircraft — and that could mean more intrusion into everyday people’s daily lives. “A police department is unlikely to task a helicopter with flying around a neighborhood looking for unlicensed swimming pools,” Stanford’s Calo says.“But what about a drone?”Drones are here, many more are coming and there’s no going back. “As this technology becomes more readily available--and as restrictions on their use drop away--we’ll be seeing a lot more drones in our skies,” Calo says.But whose? Pool is hard at work on better cameras and controls and tougher outer shells for his fleet of Parrots--modifications he could license or offer for free to other users. He says he hopes more and more private citizens will adopt drones, at least keeping pace with the companies and government agencies looking to build their own robot fleets as the FAA restrictions loosen. “By the time the regulation is over and drones become prolific, we want to make sure there’s a balance of power.”(Photo illustration: Jason Leiva)