“Who is John Galt?” Finally Answered

For those who haven’t read [Ayn Rand’s] philosophical tome Atlas Shrugged, there’s a pretty cool piece of engineering stuffed in between the 100-page-long monologues. Although fictional, a character manages to harness atmospheric static electricity and convert it into kinetic energy and (spoilers!) revolutionize the world. Harnessing atmospheric static electricity isn’t just something for fanciful works of fiction, though. It’s a real-world phenomenon and it’s actually possible to build this motor.

who-is-john-galt-thumbAs [Richard Feynman] showed, there is an exploitable electrical potential gradient in the atmosphere. By suspending a tall wire in the air, it is possible to obtain voltages in the tens of thousands of volts. In this particular demonstration, a hexacopter is used to suspend a wire with a set of needles on the end. The needles help facilitate the flow of electrons into the atmosphere, driving a current that spins the corona motor at the bottom of the wire.

There’s not much torque or power generated, but the proof of concept is very interesting to see. Of course, the higher you can go the more voltage is available to you, so maybe future devices such as this could exploit atmospheric electricity to go beyond a demonstration and do useful work. We’ve actually featured the motor that was used in this demonstration before, though, so if you’re curious as to how a corona motor works you should head over there.

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Who Is Responsible When Machines Kill?

This morning I want you to join me in thinking a few paces into the future. This mechanism let’s us discuss some hard questions about automation technology. I’m not talking about thermostats, porch lights, and coffee makers. The things that we really need to think about are the machines that can cause harm. Like self-driving cars. Recently we looked at the ethics behind decisions made by those cars, but this is really just the tip of the iceberg.

A large chunk of technology is driven by military research (the Internet, the space race, bipedal robotics, even autonomous vehicles through the DARPA Grand Challenge). It’s easy to imagine that some of the first sticky ethical questions will come from military autonomy and unfortunate accidents.

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The FAA Wants Your Input On Upcoming Drone Regs

Earlier this week, the US Department of Transportation announced registration would be required for unmanned aerial systems. Yes, drones will be regulated, and right now representatives from the Academy of Model Aircraft, the Air Line Pilots Association, the Consumer Electronics Association and others are deciding which quadcopters, planes, and other aircraft should be exempt from registration.

Now, the US DOT and FAA are looking for consumer’s input. The US DOT is asking the public such questions as:

  • Should registration happen at point-of-sale, or after the box is opened?
  • Should registration be dependant on serial numbers? If so, how will kits be registered?
  • Should certain drones/UAS be excluded from registration? Should weight, speed, maximum altitude, or flight times be taken into account?
  • Should registration require a fee?
  • Are there any additional ways of encouraging accountability of drone/UAS use?

Comments will be taken until November 6, with the task force assembled by the US DOT providing its regulations by November 20. The hope for all involved parties is that this system of regulation will be in place for the holiday season. One million UAS are expected to be sold by Christmas.

FAA Suggests $1.9M Civil Penalty Against Aerial Photography Company

An October 6th Press Release from the FAA states that SkyPan International, a Chicago based aerial photography company conducted 65 unauthorized operations over a 2+ year period resulting in a $1.9M penalty. This is by far the most severe penalty the FAA has proposed, the previous leader being $18,700 against Xizmo Media which was issued in September.

SkyPan International isn’t your suburban neighbor’s spoiled brat kid who flies his new octocopter through the neighborhood with his HD camera running in hopes to catch…well, you get the idea. SkyPan has been in the aerial photography game for 27 years and was awarded a Section 333 Exemption from the blanket ban of commercial UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) operation from the FAA  in 2015. They also proactively contacted the FAA in 2005, 2008, and 2010 to discuss and suggest technical regulatory parameters. The seemingly civil history between the two entities leaves things in a confusing state, which seems to be par for the course when it comes to UAS.

In case you missed it, we also covered the announcement by the US DOT requiring drone registration.

via bbc.com

3D Printed Quadcopter Props

Here’s something that isn’t quite a hack; he’s just using a 3D printer as a 3D printer. It is extremely interesting, though. Over on Hackaday.io [Anton] is creating 3D printable propellers for quadcopters and RC planes. Conventional wisdom says that propellers require exceedingly exacting tolerances, but [Anton] is making it work with the right 3D file and some creative post-processing treatment of his prints.

These 3D printed props are a remix of an earlier project on Thingiverse. In [Anton]’s testing, he didn’t get the expected lift from these original props, so a few small modifications were required. The props fit on his 3D printer bed along their long edge allowing for ease of slicing and removal of support material. For post-processing, [Anton] is using acetone vapor smoothing on his ABS printed design. They come out with a nice glossy sheen, and should be reasonably more aerodynamic than a prop with visible layer lines.

Although [Anton]’s prop is basically a replica of a normal, off-the-shelf quadcopter prop, 3D printing unique, custom props does open up a lot of room for innovation. The most efficient propeller you’ll ever find is actually a single-bladed propeller, and with a lot of experimentation, it’s possible anyone with a well-designed 3D printer could make turn out their own single-blade prop.

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Breaking: Drone Registration Will Be Required Says US DoT

Today, the US Department of Transportation announced that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will require registration in the future.

The announcement is not that UAS, quadcopters, or drones would be required to be registered immediately. This announcement is merely that a task force of representatives from the UAS industry, drone manufacturers, and manned aviation industries would provide recommendations to the Department of Transportation for what types of aircraft would require registration. The task force is expected to develop these recommendations and deliver a report by November 20.

A Short History of FAA Model Aircraft Regulation

Introduced in 1981, AC 91-57 was the model aircraft operating standards for more than 30 years. This standard suggested that model pilots not fly higher than 400 feet, and to notify a flight service station or control tower when flying within three miles of an airport.

The FAA Modernization And Reform Act Of 2012 (PDF) required the FAA to create a set of rules for unmanned aerial systems, however the FAA is expressly forbidden from, ‘promulgating any rule or regulation regarding model aircraft.’ The key term being, ‘model aircraft’. This term was defined by the FAA as being, “an unmanned aircraft that is capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere; flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and flown for hobby or recreational purposes.” Anything outside of this definition was an unmanned aerial system, and subject to FAA regulations.

While this definition of model aircraft would have been fine for the 1980s, technology has advanced since then. FPV flying, or putting a camera and video transmitter on a quadcopter, is an extraordinarily popular hobby now, and because it is not ‘line of sight’, it is outside the definition of ‘model aircraft’.

This interpretation has not seen a great deal of countenance from the model aircraft community; FPV flying is seen as a legitimate hobby and even a sport. The entire domain of model aircraft aviation is expanding, and the hobby has never been as popular as it is now.

The Safety of Model Aviation

The issue of drone regulation focuses nearly entirely on the safety of airways in the United States; model aviators flying within five miles of an airport must ask the airport or control tower for permission to fly. To that end, the FAA created the B4UFLY app that takes the trouble out of reading sectional charts and checking up on the latest NOTAMs and TFRs.

However, the FAA is increasingly concerned with drones, multicopters, and model aircraft. In a report issued last summer, the FAA cited a marked increase in the number of ‘close calls’ between manned aircraft and model aircraft. The Academy of Model Aeronautics went over this data and found a different story: only 3.5% of sightings were ‘close calls’ or ‘near misses’. The FAA data is questionable – the reports cited include a drone flying at 51,000 feet over Washington DC. Not only is this higher than any civilian passenger aircraft capable of flying, the ability for any civilian remote-controlled aircraft to operate at this altitude is questionable at best.

Nevertheless, the requirement for registration has been greatly influenced by the perceived concerns of regulators for mid-air collisions.

What exactly will require registration?

The group of industry representatives responsible for delivering the recommendations to the Department of Transportation will take into account what aircraft should be exempt from registration due to a low safety risk. Most likely, small toy quadcopters will be exempt from registration; it’s difficult to fly a small Cheerson quadcopter outside anyway. Whether this will affect larger quadcopters and drones such as the DJI Phantom, or 250 class FPV racing quadcopters remains to be seen.

You Might Want To Buy A Quadcopter Now

NBC News has reported the US Government may implement regulations in the coming days that would require anyone who buys an unmanned aircraft system to register that device with the US Department of Transportation.

The most simplistic interpretation of this news is that anyone with a DJI Phantom or a model aircraft made out of Dollar Tree foam board would be required to license their toys. This may not be the case; the FAA – an agency of the US DoT – differentiates between unmanned aircraft systems and model aircraft.

This will most likely be the key thing to watch out for in any coming regulation. The FAA defines model aircraft as, “an unmanned aircraft that is capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere; flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft; and flown for hobby or recreational purposes.” Additionally, the FAA may not make any regulations for model aircraft. While this means planes and quads flown without FPV equipment may be left out of this regulation, anything flown ‘through a camera’ would be subject to regulation.