It seems almost quaint to think of the days when talk of drones was limited to clandestine armed forces operations. Today, drones seem to be everywhere—from the military to the marketplace, in public parks and on the White House lawn. The evolution of drones has gone from military strikes to terrific selfies, and such a wide spectrum of possibility only testifies to how broad the use of this technology promises to be.
UC San Diego is no stranger to the opportunities afforded by a drone future. Faculty, students and alumni have used them for years, and are now involved in almost every aspect of the industry—from design to development to making a livelihood from their use. Yet for as much as they have real potential to benefit society, anyone involved with drones recognizes that there are serious ethical and legal issues to be addressed, issues made more challenging due to the technology’s rapidly advancing evolution. From privacy to safety, to the potential to perpetuate violence, drones are truly a Pandora’s box that is already open.
Childhood Hobbies Pay Off
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has not always been so complex and not nearly so intimidating. For Radley Angelo, Warren ’15, his entrance into the field started innocently enough. His father being a remote control (RC) enthusiast, Angelo spent weekends building and flying RC planes and helicopters with his dad and brothers in the Bay Area. He never thought that such a hobby would put him on track to start his own business, but while earning his degree in computer science at UC San Diego, Angelo’s flight skills made him a prime candidate for a unique project.
In 2008, research scientist and alumnus Dr. Albert Lin, Marshall ’04, M.S. ’05, Ph.D. ’08, had just teamed up with Ryan Kastner, professor of computer science and engineering, and Curt Schurgers of Calit2, now known as the Qualcomm Institute, to form Engineers for Exploration—an organization designed to develop technology to push the future of exploration. Based upon Lin’s previous travels, that meant a partnership with National Geographic and repeated expeditions to Mongolia to search for the tomb of the legendary Genghis Khan. Because of the environmental density and sensitivity of the region, Lin elected to utilize satellite imagery and drones to scout areas that were previously unreachable.
“We were in a very remote location and had really great access to satellite imagery, but I wanted to be able to get a bird’s-eye view in areas that were more tree covered,” says Lin. “I found Radley, who was really into remote control helicopters, and took him with me.”
Many of the drones the team used they built themselves, because the technology simply wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now. At the time of Lin’s first expedition to Mongolia, their drones cost upward of $20,000 each. Today they can be purchased for a fraction of the price, allowing the organization to take on additional adventures around the globe.
For his part, Angelo has seen firsthand how quickly the technology has changed—from the RC devices he built with his family, to the drones he worked with at UC San Diego, to what has become the cornerstone of his career. Angelo is the CEO of Spark Aerial, a systems integration company focused on aerial robotics, founded with fellow students Kurt Selander and Austin Hill while all three of them were at Earl Warren College. “As far as what we’re actually doing day to day now, there’s almost nothing similar to what we were doing at UCSD,” says Angelo.
Real World Rules and Regs
All of this excitement may move at a fast pace, but the future of drones and drone technology is still—pardon the pun—up in the air. The potential may be tremendous, but negative consequences abound if the transition to a new drone world isn’t thoughtfully considered. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been tasked with creating and implementing regulations for drone usage by the end of this year. Many other countries have such legislation already in place, which has left drone enthusiasts frustrated.
“It’s something I lose sleep over, because it’s a huge part of what we do and the future of the company,” says Angelo, who is quick to add how he understands why the FAA needs to get this right. “Like with any new tech, you can’t just introduce something and expect people to regulate it themselves. There’s nothing more important than sensible legislation here.”
Jay Guan, ERC ’09, has been one of the people responsible for putting the “sensible” into that legislation. After graduating with a degree in aerospace engineering, Guan moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for contractors that advise the FAA on systems and solutions regarding drones. “On the surface, it seems like the FAA is a little squeamish about this,” says Guan. “But from what I’ve seen, the FAA doesn’t have anything against drones or commercial drones. It’s just that safety has always been an overriding concern, and right now there is no good way to ensure that drone operations won’t compromise that.”
There’s a lot to consider. If drones are allowed in air space that has traditionally been occupied by manned flights, entire systems will have to be rethought. “What does that mean for air traffic controllers?” asks Guan. “What about all of the nation’s systems that the controllers are using? We need to identify and formally articulate these needs into requirements, so we can define systems or change systems as needed.”
Like the technology itself, the legislation has to move quickly. In 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which ordered the FAA to create rules and regulations as to how drones will fit into the larger airspace. With the threshold to drone ownership lower than ever before, and no license required to operate one, drones currently have the potential to pose serious threats to commercial jets, private planes, and, especially in crowded urban areas, helicopters. Guan says that the FAA’s current operational and safety standards were developed over the course of a century, and the timeline the organization was presented with has put it seriously under the gun. “Basically,” says Guan, “Congress asked the FAA to do a century’s worth of work in three years.”
Still, he also thinks once the FAA regulations are in place—proposed new rules were released in February—drones will become even more commonplace than they are now. The fact is, says Guan, “the world is going ahead with drone use whether we like it or not.” For its part, the FAA says it will integrate drones into the airspace, but it will do so on an incremental basis.
To Infinity and Beyond
Regulations are as much a certainty as the permanence and pervasiveness of drones in our lives. But if drones are our future, then what is the future of drones? This is a multibillion-dollar question, and interestingly, the answer may be determined less by advances in drone technology than by innovations in computers, data systems and robotics.
“We create more data every day than humanity has ever made,” says Angelo. “And that’s only going to increase as resolutions go up and this tech gets more adopted.” The true back end of the burgeoning drone industry will be creating ways to analyze that data, quickly and in real time.
UC San Diego professor Ryan Kastner, co-founder of Engineers for Exploration and a specialist in embedded computer systems, says changes in both types of technology—drones and data processing—have already been dramatic. “The computing platforms weren’t cheap enough or power efficient enough,” he says of the early days of drones. But as the technology has changed, so have the possibilities, and according to Kastner, automation will be key.
I think we’re going to be able to integrate supercomputers into the drones in the very near futureDominique Meyer, Sixth ’17
Continuing the legacy of Angelo, Engineers for Exploration’s latest undergraduate drone pilot, Dominique Meyer, Sixth ’17, agrees the true power of drones will be in computing. “I think we’re going to be able to integrate supercomputers into the drones in the very near future,” says Meyer. “The drones will do the data processing in the air, and send down condensed data close to real time. If that happens, what might take us a couple of months to process now could be done in seconds.”
For instance, imagine an orchard swarming with drones that have the ability not just to count the number of apples that are currently on the trees, but to determine whether they’re ripe. Or emergency humanitarian aid delivered directly to survivors who can’t be reached by emergency workers. Or drones equipped with thermo-imaging, finding exactly where heat is leaking out of buildings, saving energy and money for companies, homeowners, or even universities; Professor Kastner’s research group has already tried this last one on campus.
As computing speeds and data transfer rates increase, all of these possibilities could become reality, and UC San Diego is positioning itself to be on the leading edge. The Qualcomm Institute has recently dedicated new resources to developing the technology, and assuming everything is in line with FAA regulations when it comes to drones, the sky’s the limit. In any case, one thing is clear: the drone future is coming, and it has yet to even come close to realizing its potential. As Angelo says, “We’re not even at the Model T phase of this technology yet.”
Web Bonus! Check out UC San Diego’s best drone footage.
This Watch Watches You
When Jelena Jovanovic, M.S. ’04, was dissatisfied with the cell phone video of her daughter’s first steps, the former engineering product manager at Google set out to make the ultimate personal camera—easy to carry and fast to access. The result was Nixie, a quad-copter camera that doubles as a bracelet, able to capture images from wherever you toss it and needs no operator or remote control to use. The prototype alone showed enough promise to best more than 500 other entries in Intel’s Make It Wearable challenge, earning the fledgling company $500,000 in funding.