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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.


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