Let Skynet Become Self-Aware!

Not so long ago, it was hard to fly. Forget actual manned aircraft and pilots licenses; even flying model aircraft required hours of practice, often under the tutelage of a master at a flying field. But along with that training came an education in the rules of safe flight, including flying at a designated airfield and watching out for obstacles.

We accidentally messed that up. We in the drone industry made aircraft super easy to fly — perhaps too easy to fly. Thanks to smart autopilots and GPS, you can open a box, download an app and press “take off”. The copter will dutifully rise into the air and wait there for further instructions — no skill required. And it will do this even if you happen to be in an NFL football stadium in the middle of a big game. Or near an airport. Or in the midst of a forest fire.

The problem is that along with taking training out of the process of flying a drone, we inadvertently also took out the education process of learning about safe and responsible flight. Sure, we drone manufacturers include all sorts of warning and advisories in our instructions manual (which people don’t read) and our apps (which they swipe past), and companies such as DJI and my own 3DR include basic “geofencing” restrictions to try to keep operators below 400 feet and within “visual line of sight”. But it’s not enough.

Every day there are more reports of drone operators getting past these restrictions and flying near jetliners, crashing into stadiums, and interfering with first responders. So far it hasn’t ended in tragedy, but the way things are going it eventually will. And in the meantime, it’s making drones increasingly controversial and even feared. I call this epidemic of (mostly inadvertent) bad behavior “mass jackassery”. As drones go mass market, the odds of people doing dumb things with them reach the singularity of certainty.

We’ve got to do something about this before governments do it for us, with restrictions that catch the many good uses of drones in the crossfire. The reality is that most drone operators who get in trouble aren’t malicious and may not even know that what they’re doing is irresponsible or even illegal. Who can blame them? It’s devilishly hard to understand the patchwork quilt of federal, state and local regulations and guidelines, which change by the day and even the hour based on “airspace deconfliction” rules and FAA alerts written for licensed pilots and air traffic control. Many drone owners don’t even know that such rules exist.

Drones Themselves Should Know Rules of Each Area

Fortunately, they don’t have to. Our drones can be even smarter — smart enough to know where they should and shouldn’t fly. Because modern drones are connected to phones, they’re also connected to the cloud. Every time you open their app, that app can check online to find appropriate rules for flight where you are, right then and there.

Here’s how it works. The app sends four data fields to a cloud service: Who (operator identifier), What (aircraft identifier), Where (GPS and altitude position) and When (either right now or a scheduled time in the case of autonomous missions). The cloud service then returns a “red light” (flight not allowed), a “green light” (flight allowed, with basic restrictions such as a 400 feet altitude ceiling), or “yellow light” (additional restrictions or warnings, which can be explained to the operator in context and at the point of use).


Right now industry groups such as the Dronecode Foundation, the Small UAV Coalition (I help lead both of them, but this essay just reflects my own personal views) and individual manufacturers such as 3DR and DJI are working on these “safe flight” standards and APIs. Meanwhile, a number of companies such as Airmap and Skyward are building the cloud services to provide the up-to-date third-party data layer that any manufacturer can use. It will start with static no-fly zone data such as proximity to airports, US national parks and other banned airspace such as Washington DC. But it will quickly add dynamic data, too, such as forest fires, public events, and proximity to other aircraft.

(For more on this, you can read a white paper from one of the Dronecode working groups here and higher level description here.)

There’s Always a Catch

Of course, this system isn’t perfect. It’s only as good as the data it uses, which is still pretty patchy worldwide, and the ways that the manufacturers implement those restrictions. Some drone makers may choose to treat any area five miles from an airport as a hard ban and prohibit all flight in that zone, even at the cost of furious customers who had no idea they were five miles from an airport when they bought that toy at Wal-mart (nor do they think it should matter, since it’s just a “toy”). Other manufacturers may choose to make a more graduated restriction for the sake of user friendliness, adding a level of nuance that is not in the FAA regulation. They might ban, say, flight one mile from an airport, but only limit flight beyond that to something like 150ft of altitude (essentially backyard-level flying).

That’s a reasonable first step. But the ultimate safe flight system would go a lot further. It would essentially extend the international air traffic control system to millions of aircraft (there are already a million consumer drones in the air) flown by everything from children to Amazon. The only way to do that is to let the drones regulate themselves (yes, let Skynet become self-aware).

Peer-to-peer Air Traffic Control

There’s a precedent for such peer-to-peer air traffic control: WiFI. Back in the 1980s, the FCC released spectrum in the 2.4 Ghz band for unlicensed use. A decade later, the first 802.11 standards for Wifi were released, which was based on some principles that have application to drones, too.

  1. The airspace used is not otherwise occupied by commercial operators
  2. The potential for harm is low (in the case of WiFi, low transmission power. In the case of drones, low kinetic energy due to the weight restrictions of the “micro” category)
  3. The technology has the capability to self-”deconflict” the airspace by observing what else is using it and picking a channel/path that avoids collisions.

That “open spectrum” sandbox that the FCC created also created a massive new industry around WiFi. It put wireless in the hands of everyone and routed around the previous monopoly owners of the spectrum, cellphone carriers and media companies. The rest was history.

Quadcopter ThumbWe can do the same thing with drones. Let’s create an innovation “sandbox” with de minimus regulatory barriers for small UAVs flying within very constrained environments. The parameters of the sandbox could be almost anything, as long as they’re clear, but it should be kinetic energy and range based (a limit of 2kg and 20m/s at 100m altitude and 1,000m range within visual line of sight would be a good starting point).

As in the case of open spectrum, in relatively low risk applications, such as micro-drones, technology can be allowed to “self-deconflict the airspace” without the need for monopoly exclusions such as exclusive licences or regulatory permits. How? By letting the drones report their position using the same cellphone networks they used to get permission to fly in the first place. The FAA already has a standard for this, called ADS-B, which is based on transponders in each aircraft reporting their position. But those transponders are expensive and unnecessary for small drones, which already know their position and are connected to the cloud. Instead, they can use “virtual ADS-B” to report their position via their cell network connections, and that data can be injected into the same cloud data services they used to check if their flight was safe in the first place.

Once this works, we’ll have a revolution. What WiFi did the telecoms industry, autonomous, cloud-connected drones can do to the aerospace industry. We can occupy the skies, and do it safely. Technology can solve the problems it creates.

About the Author

judge-thumb-AndersonChris Anderson (@Chr1sa) is the CEO of 3D Robotics and founder of DIY Drones. From 2001 through 2012 he was the Editor in Chief of Wired Magazine. Before Wired he was with The Economist for seven years in London, Hong Kong and New York.

The author of the New York Times bestselling books The Long Tail and Free as well as the Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.

His background is in science, starting with studying physics and doing research at Los Alamos and culminating in six years at the two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science.

In his self-described misspent youth [Chris] was a bit player in the DC punk scene and amusingly, a band called REM. You can read more about that here.

Awards include: Editor of the Year by Ad Age (2005). Named to the “Time 100,” the newsmagazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world (2007). Loeb Award for Business Book of the Year (2007). Wired named Magazine of the Decade by AdWeek for his tenure (2009). Time Magazine’s Tech 40 — The Most Influential Minds In Technology (2013). Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers (2013).

No, Mounting A Gun To A Quadcopter (Probably) Isn’t Illegal

Earlier this month, [Austin Haghwout] posted a video on YouTube of a remote controlled quadcopter armed with a semiautomatic handgun. While there are no details of this build, it’s safe to say any reasonably sized quadcopter could be armed in such a manner; just strap a pistol to the frame, add a servo, and connect the servo to the RC receiver. We don’t think this is the first time it’s been done, but has garnered the most attention.

There is nothing novel about mounting a handgun to a quadcopter. Anyone with any experience with RC flying could replicate this build, and the only interesting part of watching a video of a quad firing a gun is seeing how the flight controller reacts to the recoil. However, in the pursuit of the exploitation of a fear of technology, this video has gone viral.

The Verge calls it, ‘totally illegal’, while The Christian Science Monitor asks how it is legal. Wired posits it is, ‘most likely illegal,’ while CNET suggests, ‘surely this isn’t legal.’ In a rare break from reality, YouTube commentors have demonstrated a larger vocabulary than normal, calling the build, ‘felonious.’

With so many calling this build illegal, there should be someone who could point out the laws or regulation [Austin Haghwout] is violating. This information is surprisingly absent. In a Newsweek post, a representative from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is quoted as saying:

“ATF has reviewed the video with local law enforcement and other federal agencies. It does not appear that the device violates any existing firearms regulations…”

The Associated Press reports no state laws were broken by [Austin]. With the BAFTE and Connecticut State Police both signing off on this build, the issue of jurisdiction becomes more pronounced. How, exactly, is a gun mounted on a quad illegal?

The answer, as with all things involving quadcopters, comes from the FAA. We could find no regulations explicitly banning handguns on remote controlled quadcopters, but of all stories and posts on [Austin]’s handiwork, this is the closest anyone has come to providing the framework for calling this build illegal:

No pilot in command of a civil aircraft may allow any object to be dropped from that aircraft in flight that creates a hazard to persons or property. However, this section does not prohibit the dropping of any object if reasonable precautions are taken to avoid injury or damage to persons or property.

-FAR Part 91 Sec. 91.15

That’s it. The closest anyone has come to providing a reason why a semiauto quadcopter is illegal: because the cartridge (and bullet), are ‘dropped’ from a quad. The Feds charging [Austin] with “dropping” a bullet from a quadcopter is like taking down [Al Capone] for Income Tax Evasion. The difference being that [Al] was a notorious criminal who had obviously harmed a large swath of people and [Austin] doesn’t seem to be harming anyone.

Although [Austin]’s video of a gun toting quad is only fourteen seconds long, a few reasonable assumptions can be made about his small experiment in flying firepower. The video shows the quad hovering a few feet above the ground. This is surely allowed by the recently published safety guidelines for sUAS users. The gun itself appears to be firing into an offscreen hillside – a sensible precaution. If the only justification for the FAA’s investigation of [Austin]’s video is FAR 91.15, he’s on easy street.

“Drones” Endanger Airborne Wildfire Fighting

usdaThere is no denying that personal drones are in the public eye these days. Unfortunately they tend to receive more negative press than positive. This past weekend, there were news reports of a wildfire in California. Efforts to fight the fire were hampered when no less than five drones were spotted flying in the area. Some reports even stated that two of the drones followed the firefighting aircraft as they returned to local airports. This is the fourth time this month firefighting planes have been grounded due to unmanned aircraft in the area. It’s not a new problem either, I’ve subscribed to a google alert on the word “Drone” for over a year now, and it is rare for a week to go by without a hobby drone flying somewhere they shouldn’t.

The waters are muddied by the fact that mass media loves a good drone story. Any pilotless vehicle is now a drone, much to the chagrin of radio control enthusiasts who were flying before the Wright brothers. In this case there were two fields relatively close to the action – Victor Valley R/C Park, about 10 miles away, and the Cajun Pass slope flying field, which overlooks the section of I-15 that burned. There are claims on the various R/C forums and subreddits that it may have been members from either of those groups who were mistaken as drones in the flight path. Realistically though, Victor Valley is too far away. Furthermore, anyone at the Cajun pass flying site would have been fearing for their own safety. Access requires a drive through 3 miles of dirt road just to reach the site. Not a place you’d want to be trapped by a wildfire for sure. Who or whatever was flying that day is apparently lying low for the moment – but the problem persists.

Rules and Regulations

In the USA, the FAA rules are (finally) relatively clear for recreational drone operations. The layman version can be found on the knowbeforeyoufly.org website, which was put together by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), and other groups in partnership with the FAA.

Continue reading ““Drones” Endanger Airborne Wildfire Fighting”

Hackaday Links: May 17, 2015

Here’s a worthwhile Kickstarter for once: the Prishtina Hackerspace. Yes, that’s a Kickstarter for a hackerspace in Kosovo. Unlike most hackerspace Kickstarters, they’re already mostly funded, with 20 days to go. If we ever get around to doing the Istanbul to Kaliningrad hackerspace tour, we’ll drop by.

Codebender is a web-based tool that allows you to code and program an Arduino. The Chromebook is a web-based laptop that is popular with a few schools. Now you can uses Codebender on a Chromebook. You might need to update your Chromebook to v42, and there’s a slight bug in the USB programmers, but that should be fixed in a month or so.

Here’s a great way to waste five minutes. It’s called agar.io. It’s a multiplayer online game where you’re a cell, you eat dots that are smaller than you, and bigger cells (other players) can eat you. [Morris] found the missing feature: being able to find the IP of a server so you can play with your friends. This feature is now implemented in a browser script. Here’s the repo.

The FAA currently deciding the fate of unmanned aerial vehicles and systems, and we’re going to live with any screwup they make for the next 50 years. It would be nice if all UAV operators, drone pilots, and everyone involved with flying robots could get together and hash out what the ideal rules would be. That’s happening in late July thanks to the Silicon Valley Chapter of AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International).

SOLAR ROADWAYS!! Al Jazeera is reporting a project in the Netherlands that puts solar cells in a road. It’s just a bike path, it’s only 70 meters long, and it can support at least 12 tonnes (in the form of a ‘fire brigade truck’). There’s no plans for the truly dumb solar roadways stuff – heating the roads, or having lanes with LEDs. We’re desperately seeking more information on this one.

Flight For Your Right (And Do It By Friday)

Model aircraft

About a month ago, the FAA – the governing body for nearly everything that flies in US airspace – proposed an interpretation of their rules governing model aircraft. The world hasn’t ended quite yet, but if the proposed rules go into effect, an entire hobby will be destroyed in the United States. While congress has given the FAA authority over nearly everything that flies, there are specific laws saying what the FAA has no jurisdiction over – model aircraft being one of the major exceptions.

Congress, however, is working on a definition of model aircraft that is at least 10 years out of date and doesn’t have any leeway for the huge advances in technology that have happened since then. Specifically, all FPV flight with video goggles would be banned under the proposed FAA rules. Also, because model aircraft are defined as being for, ‘hobby or recreational purposes,’ anyone who flies a model aircraft for money – a manufacturer conducting flight tests on a new piece of equipment, or even anyone who records a video of their flight, uploads it to YouTube, and hits the ‘monetize’ button – would be breaking the law.

The proposed FAA rules for model aircraft are not in effect yet, and you can still make a public comment on the proposal until 11:59 PM EDT Friday. If you leave a comment, please make a well-reasoned statement on why the FAA’s interpretation of the rules governing model aircraft are overly broad, do not take into account technological advances made since the drafting of Congress’ working definition of ‘model aircraft,’ and the effects of a complete ban flying model aircraft for any type of compensation.

This is not a good comment.

Of course, if the proposed rules for model aircraft go through, the only option will be to turn to the courts. Historically, the FAA simply does not lose court cases. Recently, cases involving drones have come up with successful defenses and judges deciding in favor of drone operators. The legal services for the eventual court case challenging the proposed FAA rules will most likely be funded by the Academy of Model Aeronautics, who just so happen to be offering membership at 50% off.

Below is a video of some RC people we really respect – [Josh] from Flite Test and [Trappy] of Team BlackSheep – talking about what the proposed rule change would do to the hobby. There’s also a great podcast featuring the first lawyer to successfully defend drone use in federal court that’s worth a listen.

Continue reading “Flight For Your Right (And Do It By Friday)”

Congress Destroys A Hobby, FAA Gets The Blame

As ordered by the US Congress, the FAA is gearing up to set forth a standard for commercial UAVs, Unmanned Aerial Systems, and commercial drones operating in America’s airspace. While they’ve been dragging their feet, and the laws and rules for these commercial drones probably won’t be ready by 2015, that doesn’t mean the FAA can’t figure out what the rules are for model aircraft in the meantime.

This week, the FAA released its interpretation (PDF) of what model aircraft operators can and can’t do, and the news isn’t good: FPV flights with quadcopters and model airplanes are now effectively banned, an entire industry centered around manufacturing and selling FPV equipment and autopilots will be highly regulated, and a great YouTube channel could soon be breaking the law.

The FAA’s interpretation of what model aircraft can and cannot do, and to a larger extent, what model aircraft are comes from the FAA Modernization And Reform Act Of 2012 (PDF). While this law states the, “…Federal Aviation Administration may
not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft…” it 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.” The FAA has concluded that anything not meeting this definition, for example, a remote controlled airplane with an FPV setup, or a camera, video Tx and Rx, and video goggles, is therefore not a model aircraft, and falls under the regulatory authority of the FAA.

In addition, the FAA spent a great deal of verbiage defining what, “hobby or recreational purposes” in regards to model aircraft are. A cited example of a realtor using a model aircraft to take videos of a property they are selling is listed as not a hobby or recreation, as is a farmer using a model aircraft to see if crops need water. Interestingly, receiving money for demonstrating aerobatics with a model aircraft is also not allowed under the proposed FAA guidelines, a rule that when broadly interpreted could mean uploading a video of yourself flying a model plane, uploading that to YouTube, and clicking the ‘monetize’ button could soon be against the law. This means the awesome folks at Flite Test could soon be out of a job.

The AMA, the Academy Of Model Aeronautics, and traditionally the organization that sets the ‘community-based set of safety guidelines’ referred to in every law dealing with model aircraft, are not happy with the FAA’s proposed rules (PDF). However, their objection is a breathless emotional appeal calls the proposed rules a, “a strict regulatory approach to the operation of model aircraft in the hands of our youth and elderly members.” Other than offering comments per the FAA rulemaking process there are, unfortunately, no possible legal objections to the proposed FAA rules, simply because the FAA is doing exactly what congress told them to do.

The FAA is simply interpreting the Modernization And Reform Act Of 2012 as any person would: FPV goggles interfere with the line of sight of an aircraft, thus anyone flying something via FPV goggles falls under the regulatory authority of the FAA. Flying over the horizon is obviously not line of sight, and therefore not a model aircraft. Flying a model aircraft for money is not a hobby or recreation, and if you’re surprised about this, you simply aren’t familiar with FAA rules about money, work, and person-sized aircraft.

While the proposed FAA rules are not yet in effect, and the FAA is seeking public comment on these rules, if passed there will, unfortunately, exactly two ways to fix this. The first is with a change in federal law to redefine what a model aircraft is. Here’s how to find your congresscritter, with the usual rules applying: campaign donations are better than in-person visits which are better than letters which are better than phone calls which are better than emails. They’ll also look up if you have voted in the last few elections.

If passed, the only other way these rules will align with the privileges model aircraft enthusiasts have enjoyed for decades is through a court ruling. The lawsuit objecting to these rules will most likely be filed by the AMA, and if these rules pass, a donation or membership wouldn’t be a bad idea.

FAA GPS data formatted for your use


[Michael] posted up-to-date GPS data sets in the GPX format.  These data sets are an alternative to paid updates. Since GPX is a published standard which uses an XML style formatting for location data [Michael’s] time was spent getting the original sets and finding a way to translate them for his Garmin EXTREX GPS.

The original data comes from — hang on, this is a mouthful — the US Federal Aviation Administration’s Facility Aeronautical Data Distribution System (FADDS). He had to apply for permission to download it and to use it in producing a custom GPS build. He grabbed the Airport waypoints and navaid sets, then studied accompanying files detailing the data structure before writing his own Visual Basic 2010 program to spit out the GPX files. He says he wanted to make them available in the spirit of the Open Hardware/Software movement. This may be most interesting for pilots (the kind that put Nooks on the dashboard, not the kind who watch the aircraft from the ground), but we’re sure there’s a myriad of uses for non-pilots alike.