More Uses for Drones in our Future
A roomful of dinner guests in Chelo's banquet room last Tuesday night got a glimpse into the future, when Don Bousquet turned down the lights and his son Nate sent a silent, winged drone flying above their heads. The little microplane, about fifteen inches from wingtip to wingtip, weighs less than an ounce, runs on battery power and nimbly responded to Nate's remote-control commands, banking and circling with its bright LED lights flashing. The diners, most of them members of the Rhode Island Pilots Association, oohed and ahhed as the little airplane toured the darkened room.
Don Bousquet, best known for his Rhode Island-themed cartoons, lives in South County and builds remote-controlled aircraft as a hobby. Nate learned to fly life-size airplanes a few years ago at T.F. Green. Together they decided it would be great fun to send a camera aloft in an RC aircraft and take aerial photos of our beautiful coastline. Don got to work thinking about all the different capabilities needed to do the job – light weight, durability and maneuverability – and came up with a sleek, efficient design inspired by an airplane from 1907.
That early airplane, built and flown by the famous Alberto Santos-Dumont of Brazil, was a simple monoplane with the pilot seat right at the center of gravity, a sort of pivot point, which Don realized would be the perfect place to mount an ordinary little digital camera. "We're not equipped to actually see through the lens from the ground," says Nate. "So this way I can just fly the airplane, and the camera shoots wherever the nose is pointing." A simple mechanism, controlled by the same handheld unit that controls the airplane in flight, clicks the shutter. The photos, as the Bousquets imagined, are spectacular.
It might not seem like much, but these little drone designs are slick, effective and just the beginning. The Bousquets' short demo reminded me of Benjamin Franklin's famous 1783 visit to France, when he saw a manned balloon fly for the first time. Someone in the crowd (according to legend) asked, "But what use is it?" and Franklin responded, "What use is a newborn child?" Perhaps he couldn't envision a direct line from that balloon experiment to the Concorde and the space shuttle, but he might have had an idea.
And what use are the Bousquets' little experimental drones? They might be just toys today, but the Federal Aviation Administration is working feverishly to meet a deadline to write new rules by 2015 that will allow the use of drones to expand dramatically. The pressure to get those rules finalized is intense, because the technology promises to get things done cheaply that humans find tedious, dangerous or difficult. Drones can patrol farms, power lines and national borders; they can assist in search-and-rescue and wildlife research; and police departments want them to help track suspects. Plans are in the works to create autonomous cargo aircraft, and even to deliver tacos by drone.
Does that sound too futuristic, or maybe a little ominous? Privacy advocates already are worried about drones with cameras peering into backyards and through windows. But the FAA is working to build privacy protection into its new rules, along with safety assurances. And if this all sounds a little space-agey, take a look at this video from some creative experimenters at the University of Pennsylvania. Drones are in our future, and the future is almost here.