07 November 2007

You Look Like You Need To Go To Bed--And Don't You Ever Wash Your Underwear?

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are not just for the battlefield anymore. They are being used to watch public spaces like open air rock concerts, and other large assemblies that may turn rowdy. They are flying above the US-Mexico border, looking for smugglers of drugs and people. A small "dragonfly" UAV may be looking through your window right now, listening to your phone conversation or monitoring the emissions of your computer. Because--I hate to tell you this--UAV's are small enough and cheap enough for most cities and mid-sized corporations to be able to afford them.
Having evolved from military use, drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are taking to the air in increasing numbers for public-service and civilian roles. They are being operated by groups as diverse as police, surveyors and archaeologists. A UAV helped firemen track the blaze that recently ravaged southern California. The most immediate advantage of a UAV is cost: operating even a small helicopter can cost $1,000 an hour or more, but the bill for a drone is a fraction of that.

...UAVs can peek much more easily and cheaply than satellites and fixed cameras can. Although it is possible to peer into someone's back garden with Google Earth, the images are not “live”—some are years old. Live satellite images can be impaired by clouds and darkness. A UAV, however, is more flexible. It can get closer to its target, move to new locations faster and hover almost silently above a property or outside a window. And the tiny ones that are coming will be able to fly inside buildings. Before long paparazzi will put cameras in them to snatch pictures of celebrities.

...Some hovering types can land automatically. One such device is made by Microdrones, a German company. Their flying machine looks like a small flying saucer with four rotor blades on stubby arms. It is not much bigger than the laptop computer used to program its flight and monitor what it is looking at. It can stooge around for about 20 minutes carrying video and infra-red cameras. Some police forces have started to try it out. Earlier this year British bobbies used one to keep an eye on a music festival, busting people for drug offences and catching others breaking into cars.

...The Portsmouth team is working on a UAV small enough to fit on a hand. Charlie Barker-Wyatt, a member of the university group, says all he can reveal about the device is that it contains sensors, can remain airborne for about 15 minutes, has a range of 500 metres and flies like a “hovering and spinning frisbee”.
Smaller UAV's present more options for local surveillance and spying. For example, the ability to power a small UAV indefinitely on beamed microwaves has been around for over ten years.
Beamed power micro UAVs would have obvious limitations – they're not going to be flying hundreds of miles away over enemy territory. But for covert surveillance in the domestic arena, they might be just the thing. I have no idea whether there are any dragonfly spies out there yet; but if there aren't now, there soon will be.

Wired's Chris Anderson runs a website that acts as an information clearinghouse for amateur UAV builders and flyers. It is becoming a DIY hobby for enthusiasts and techno-hackers. Using the "Lego Autopilot" and other off-the-shelf parts, Chris has built one UAV for around $1000.

While some have expressed concerns about people like Chris Anderson "giving away information to terrorists," you could have said the same thing about Steve Wozniak or Bill Gates--or the early developers of cell phones. In an open society such as the US or Canada, people are going to hack technology--all kinds of technology. Accept it.

Larger UAV's are potentially hazardous for civilian and military aircraft, and will have to be regulated to minimise that danger. Smaller UAV's are more dangerous for the many nefarious activities to which they could be put. I was going to give examples, but why should I give information away to the terrorists?

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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