Edward Tessen Tanaka
Aug 6, 2012

Coming soon: inexpensive, civilian-made domestic drones

A predator drone costs a little over $4 million per unit -- a far cry from the $200 civilian version.At Defcon this week, Wired magazine's Chris Anderson talked about a trend that to most people probably sounds like a disaster waiting to happen: DIY drones. In reality, it could be one of the best things that could happen to the industry. Thanks to smartphones, the number of civilians who are experimenting with homemade autonomous vehicles has drastically increased in the last few years, a trend that Anderson says will eventually make the control system for a drone "ultimately disposable."

When most people think of drones, they envision the Predator or the Reaper because UAVs have largely been the territory of the United States military until recently. Those drones cost millions of dollars to make, one of the largest criticisms of opponents. Civilian made drones are on average very low-cost, meaning that as the technology and capabilities evolve, they could pose a serious threat to the commercial drone business. Anderson describes the phenomenon as "open sourcing the military industrial complex." If his predictions are accurate, there may come a time when defense contractors are obsolete.

Right now, most civilian drones are built by hobbyists and kids using kits not unlike the ones that Anderson's company, 3D Robotics, sells. He founded the company after the success of his website, DIY Drones, which offers free downloadable open-source software for drones. 3D Robotics sells the Arduino-based hardware that hobbyists combine with the software they download from his site to create their own drones at home. Annual sales are close to $3 million, and with the hardware selling for an average price of around $200, that's a lot of tiny drones.

While the vast majority of homemade drones are made for recreational purposes, there have already been several instances where civilian drones have made the news. Last year, journalist Tim Pool used a Parrot AR Drone to live-stream footage from Occupy Wall Street to the public via his smartphone. Real estate agents in Los Angeles were warned by police earlier this year not to use photos taken by drones in their marketing literature. But one of the biggest concerns around homemade UAVs (as well as commercial drones) is their security.A photograph of a DIY drone posted by Tim O'Brien on diydrones.com

Most civilian drones do not use an encrypted GPS feed, the vulnerabilities of which were shown earlier this month when a professor from the University of Texas was able to take over and crash one into the ground. Pilots are concerned that the bill that President Obama passed in February, which will open up the skies to commercial and civilian drones in 2015. The FAA has predicted that within the next ten years, the number of civilian drones in the country will be at 30,000. Pilots say that such a large number of UAVs could affect their flying patterns. And, of course, privacy is a huge concern as thousands of autonomous devices flying around collecting information makes a lot of people understandably uncomfortable.

However, despite their drawbacks, many people are already seeing the potential benefits of small, cheaply made civilian drones. Of course they can aid law enforcement, but some other, more creative uses have been proposed. Journalism professor Matt Waite has created a Journalism Drone Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In an interview with Government Technology, he said that one possible application for civilian UAVs is to monitor soil conditions to help prevent overwatering, which he says could save hundreds of thousands of gallons of water -- and that's just on golf courses. The utility industry is already experimenting with small drones that could search for and report downed power lines during extreme weather conditions.

No matter how we feel about drones, it seems they are definitely here to stay, and it's hard to refute Anderson when he says that his community "can deliver 90 percent of the performance of military drones at 1 percent of the price." One of the largest criticisms of the military UAV industry, aside from moral concerns, is its astronomical costs, so as civilian drones evolve and become more sophisticated, the public is likely to support their use due to the hundreds of millions of dollars the country could save on defense.

Of course, as with any situation that can affect civil liberties, the exact opposite can happen.  Isaac Asimov, one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, was famed for his development of a system of behavior and ethics that was ingrained into his creations and became known as the "3 Laws of Robotics." These rules prevented any automated system from directly or indirectly harming a human being. Designers and others who create intellectual property have an opportunity to not only showcase their creativity, but also a chance to articulate their position on the ethics and morality of such devices by incorporating safeguards into their systems.