Cases in point? Crop-dusting and agricultural monitoring. Inspecting pipelines and offshore oil rigs. Ms. Cummings thinks that within 10 years, shipping companies such as Fedex and UPS will transport packages via autonomous jumbo jets.
“Israel has a UAV the size of a 737 that can take off and land and do everything itself,” she said. “It’s packed with cameras right now. Take those out, and you have a cargo airplane.
“These companies are chomping at the bit, and there’s no technical reason we can’t do this now. The only reason we don’t is regulatory issues.”
University of Nebraska journalism professor Matt Waite spent nearly two decades as a reporter, often covering natural disasters. Last summer, he was attending a digital-mapping conference in San Diego when he came across the Gatewing X100, a small UAV.
The drone could fit in the back of a sport utility vehicle. It was hand-launchable. It came equipped with a downwardfacing high-resolution camera and a tablet computer controller — just pull up a map and touch the screen to tell the vehicle where to fly.
“My jaw dropped,” Mr. Waite said. “I thought of every single fire, flood, hurricane and tornado I had covered. I went to the sales guy and said, here, take my money, how do I take this thing home?
“He said it’s $65,000 and it’s illegal in the U.S. So I put my credit card away. But it was amazing, and I could not shake the thought of it.”
Four months later, Mr. Waite founded Nebraska’s Drone Journalism Lab, the first of its kind in the country. In January, his brainstorm was bolstered by an inadvertent proof of concept: An amateur drone pilot in Texas captured aerial footage of a “river of blood” flowing from a Dallas-area meatpacking plant, prompting public outrage and a criminal investigation.
“That’s investigative journalism, and you don’t need something like a Predator for it,” Mr. Waite said. “A small [fourrotor] copter with a video camera will let you cover a house fire, a local flood. . . . All I need is to be able to do this for a commercial purpose — change the law, and I’m in the ballgame.”
Eyes in the sky
Ms. Cummings is on sabbatical in the Washington, D.C., area. Back on MIT’S Cambridge, Mass., campus, however, she makes a habit of closing her office blinds.
“My students want to drop a drone out of their [class] window and have it fly up to my window and peek in,” she said with a laugh. “They haven’t done it yet, but there’s no question in my mind that they could. And I’m not nearly as worried about that as a little robotic bird that sits on a branch outside my window. That is much more subversive.”
In December, the American Civil Liberties Union released a report on law enforcement drone use that called for updated privacy laws and warned that the nation was on the verge of moving “a large step closer to a ‘surveillance society’ in which our every move is monitored, tracked, recorded and scrutinized by the authorities.”
Mr. Singer said he recently spoke with a federal district judge who believes there soon will be a Supreme Court case involving drones and Fourth Amendment rights.
“This is very powerful technology, and can be very useful for the police and emergency workers,” said Jay Stanley, the co-author of the ACLU report and senior policy analyst with the organization’s Speech, Privacy & Technology Project. “But it also has big privacy implications. Communities need to discuss and decide what kind of balance they want to strike here. It should not be decided by procurement policymaking in which the police just buy [drones] and start flying them around.
“We think police drone deployment should be limited to emergency situations, or when they have reason to believe they will uncover evidence of wrongdoing. We’d also like to see limits and protections placed on how images of innocent people going about noncriminal business are handled and processed.”
Safety is another concern. Two years ago, the Navy briefly experienced a loss of communication with a 3,000-pound robotic helicopter that was flying toward the nation’s capital; when the drone did not immediately return to its airfield according to programming, military officers reportedly considered shooting it down.
And a prototype drone being tested by Houston-area police last fall crashed into a SWAT team armored vehicle during a planned photo-op. No one was harmed and the impact reportedly caused about only $90 of damage — but generated a slew of embarrassing national headlines.
“What can go wrong?” Mr. Waite said. “Well, there’s a very basic principle called gravity. And it always wins.”
Like manned aircraft, drones pose a potential security risk. A 26-year-old Massachusetts man was arrested last September and charged with plotting to attack the Pentagon and the Capitol with a remote-controlled model aircraft rigged with explosives.
At a security conference held in Las Vegas last August, researchers demonstrated a lightweight quad-rotor drone that was designed to automatically detect and compromise wireless Internet networks — in short, an autonomous airborne hacking platform — and it cost less than $600 to build. Another presenter demonstrated a drone that flew silently and identified and tracked human targets by locking in on their cellphone signals.
“With the man who wanted to fly a drone into the Capitol, his challenge wasn’t getting the robot,” Mr. Singer said. “It was getting the C-4 explosive. That’s the era we’re entering.
“Very early in the history of the automobile, it was turned into a car bomb. So with terrorism, the question goes to licensing. Who gets to utilize drones and how? Each one of these new applications creates huge, huge policy questions. As drones become smarter and more autonomous, we move into a legal world that we are not ready for.”
Drones ‘R’ Us?
Mr. Anderson never planned on becoming a drone hobbyist. On a weekend in 2007, however, he brought home a Lego toy robotics kit and a remote-controlled airplane, hoping to interest his children in science and technology.
“The robot just runs into a wall, backs up and runs into the wall again,” Mr. Anderson recalled. “My kids were unimpressed. Then we built the plane and immediately flew it into a tree. My geek dad weekend was a bust.”
Irritated, Mr. Anderson went for a run. A former physics major at George Washington University, he pondered the sensors in the Lego kit — gyroscopes, accelerometers, Bluetooth — and upon returning home created a crude autopilot.
While Mr. Anderson’s children quickly lost interest in favor of video games, Dad was hooked. He founded a website for amateur drone enthusiasts, Diydrones.com, that counts defense and aerospace engineers among its 23,000 members and averages 1.4 million page views a month — numbers Mr. Anderson expects to double by the end of the year.
The Internet also is where Mr. Anderson saw a Youtube video of Mr. Munoz’s Wii-controlled drone helicopter. The two quickly struck up an online correspondence that became a friendship; the friendship led them to co-found 3D Robotics in Mr. Munoz’s apartment after Mr. Anderson asked Mr. Munoz to make some avionic circuit boards.
According to both men, Mr. Munoz made 40 boards — and sold them all in one day. Three years later, his company is selling components to employees of Boeing and NASA and hobbyists in Germany and China.
“In 1977, [Apple founders] Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak make a computer,” Mr. Anderson said. “Everyone said, ‘What is that for?’ They said, ‘Well, you can program it.’ That’s where we are with drones right now. Users do it because they can, because it’s cutting-edge robotics and awesome.
“How long did it take before the first killer computer app? We don’t know what that will be with drones. But if we make the technology cheap, easy and ubiquitous, regular people will figure it out.”
Mr. Anderson has a point: Personal drones can be purchased for as little as a few hundred dollars. Computer chips and batteries become smaller, more capable and less expensive every year. If the regulatory drone future brings to mind the introduction of the automobile — as Mr. Singer suggests — then the cultural outlook may be closer to the spread of computers, with hobbyists leading the way.
Mr. Munoz recently heard from a civil engineer in Mexico who is using a drone to help build an airport, saving thousands of dollars on hot air balloon rental costs. Mr. Anderson currently is working with an accomplished windsurfing friend to design and program a drone that doubles as a personal, onerobot film crew.
Then there’s Mr. Munoz himself. One windy day, the Internet connection in his offices stopped working. He suspected a problem with a rooftop antenna — problem was, the upstairs access door was locked, and off-site management had the only key.
Solution? Mr. Munoz sent a drone to check on things.
“It turned out the antenna was fine, and the issue was something else,” he said. “That’s the only time I’ve used a drone for a personal use that way. But it’s really up to your imagination.”
The hand-held Wasp drone needs no runway. Drones can be the size of jetliners or Frisbees. A Draganflyer X6 drone (left) lent to the Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff’s Department in 2009 is used in search-and-rescue, finding suspects and identifying fire hot spots.