UAVs, regulations, and when a hobby goes mainstream

Well, news about "drone"- or Unmanned Areal Vehicles (UAVs) as they are better called (or even better, I guess UnBODIED Areal Vehicles; they are after all still mostly controlled by humans) is almost as common in 2015 as the devices themselves.

Which is to say you see more of them in a day than a Volvo 200 series in Gothenburg during the 1980ies…

Well. Almost, and it is not all good. Not strange, they're something new, fairly loud, uncontrolled, and now and then flown by yahoos without knowledge of regulations or respect for other people. Their bigger cousins (by name) has also been weaponized and used for military operations of questionable legality. In short, it is a controversial subject.

First, this post this is not me rolling my eyes at the copter trend. I am actually designing and building a small one myself. Not as much from interest in either flying or photography, which seems to be common reasons, but simply because it was the class offered at my local makerlab, and it seemed like a good way to brush up on my soldering skills and learn how to use the machines in the shop. Not sure I'll ever finish or fly it. It is an exercise in skills I've left dormant, lack, or rarely use.

But, doing so I've dipped in to both the news stream and the hobbyist community, and I started thinking about what happens when a hobby goes mainstream. I'll begin with a recent article with the headline Drones used to monitor bears send their heart rates through the roof over at ArsTechnica. The post is reporting on a publication in Current Biology indicating how the rather loud noise from a UAV might stress bears.

The issue of sound is very interesting and something well worth looking into. The devices are really quite loud - I always think of a whole hive of bees - and travels far. While the ambient sounds of an urban environment might drown it out quickly, that is not the case.

It would not surprise me if we end up seeing similar studies verifying this result for other wildlife. As UAV devices already have transitioned into luxury toys and everyday devices this problem is unlikely to go away in the near future. People are bringing them into nature and as with any mainstream hobby there will be those stupid, unemphatic, or careless enough to leave them there or interfere with wildlife. Simply without considering the consequences of something going wrong. About a year ago someone put a drone into a geyser at Yellowstone National Park in the USA.

Not only wildlife is disturbed however. There's a multitude of privacy complaints, neighbours shooting down each others UAV's, military uses, and other troubling reports. Last month some morons trying to photograph a wildfire using UAV's ignored the no-fly zone and thereby hindered water-bombing flights from fighting the fire.

It all makes me wonder what the old guard of RC enthusiasts think of the newcomers. Researching the parts and design for my own build (don't want to do it from a kit) on the Internet it really seems like a the enthusiasts is a crowd of people mostly keen on standards, safety, and with clear respect for the areas in which they fly. Everything that the mass media reporting of UAV flights are not. But the newbies are seen as an expansion of the RC community in many ways. Or perhaps a mutation of it. So for many veterans of the scene, it must be with mixed feelings they see how their hobby is changing. On one hand it is growing like never before, but on the other, the expansion brings with it a few people without sense who threaten to destroy the reputation they might feel they've fought to built up. I am afraid they will feel the growth pains and issues from having a hobby go into the spotlight.

Makes me think of gaming in the late 1990's and early 2000's when the bro-gamers (in opposite to the nerd-gamers) came to that scene, fuelled by a new generation consoles and games with a very different focus. As a classic geek was easy to feel out of place then and go around complaining about 'dumbing down', focus on sports and war games (though of course there has always been shooting going on in games), of the introduction of regulations and age restrictions… and of people playing who could neither build nor install stuff on their own PC.

But one grew up from that, matured, and realized that in the long run it was good. Because, after the frat boys came the general public, and while it has been slow going, gamers are diversifying as a group. Both to gender and ethnicity. Which means better games and a fledging indie-scene.

Games have always been art, but now it is truly treated as such, with critics considering the actual impact they have in our culture. It is fantastic, and something I never thought I would see. Sure, there's been backlashes against this progress as well, empowered by stupidity and the internet. But, it too will go away. Moreover, with the introduction of a broader audience to gaming came money. Investments were made into companies who designed hardware specialized for gaming.

Sound and 3D graphics cards weren't only for professionals any more. Gaming pushed development, and it did not stay in gaming. Many number-crunching machines used for very important tasks today run on hardware stemming from technology innovation motivated by gaming.

Now, to return to UAVs, I think the RC community may see themselves going into the same kind of 'deal with the devil'. The surge of interest in their hobby with drive innovation and lower prices, but with the group of new and curious users will come a few rotten apples who's inconsiderate actions might leave scars… and new regulation.

Simplified, and perhaps more restrictive as with anything that must be understood and accepted by a huge group of people. But with it will come a diverse user group (yes, today there's mostly white men earning a decent salary flying these things, but as with gaming I hope it will diversify and benefit from that). There will also be more funding and technical progress. Speaking of regulations - I don't believe UAV flight should be banned or even be very hard to do.

I think we might need the technology push in robotics that comes out of it. But it needs to be controlled outside cities and perhaps also within them (during the recent fireworks festival in Vancouver, B.C. I saw several UAVs up in the air during the displays; not a problem now, but it is easy to imagine how it might look like if they'd be more common). I really do think that nature and technology can and will co-exist, even thrive together. But, we need to start thinking of how.

From recent political interest, it also seems inevitable that there will be some kind of regulations, and I am interesting in how it will be received. We are currently at a state of society of extreme egocentricity, we all cry out against restraints, and rarely think about the fact that restrictions are not there to stop us, but the small group of outliers that must be among us if our hobby is of any decent number. There are three keys to have good technological advance: to generate funds - an interest from the public; to protect from collapse from its own practitioners - basic restrictions; and to control direction of innovation - challenges. That last one, challenges, is the one I haven't written about yet, but I do think it is very important. These usually sprout spontaneously as competitions, and many people seek them out.

There's currently a quickly growing drone racing scene which I am guessing will lead to a pro-league, formula racing, and such. Not all of that is good of course, one must know when to stop… and we are bad at that. However, the important thing is that a lot of thought and focus goes into making these things go faster, better… and for longer. The incentive does not interest me very much but the results do. However, these spontaneous competitions are usually defined by classic 'competition'. Like I wrote. Stronger, faster, better. Some may say very primitive, or even masculine traits. Not in an all good way. If we want to do things intelligently we will consider pushing more elegant goals of our competitions, for these provide the environment for technical evolution.

So what can be done in addition to speed? I think racing is all fine, it is needed. But, I would also fund (if I could) a 'whisper' price for quiet crafts as well. Noise is in my opinion the main cause of UAV annoyance, and probably the most disturbing factor for wildlife right now (there are others as well). Some form of hide and seek, improving tele-presence is another idea. Safe disposal another.

In any case, I will watch with interest how this UAV trend develops. I think it is positive from a robotics and cybernetics point of view. One important aspect of a major hobbyist trend is that while some of the innovation might benefit military use, overall it brings technology away from the realm of weapons, past that of companies, and into the civil life.