Civilian drones are a popular topic in 2016, providing inspiration for countless online media hot takes, TV news segments, and late-night discussions at the bar (though you should never drink and drone!). As with any new and novel technology that most people are unfamiliar with, a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and outright BS surrounds drones. So as part of Slate’s Futurography package on the “creepiness” of drones, I’ve compiled some of the most common misunderstandings people have about this exciting (and excitingly controversial) technology.
1. Military drones and consumer drones are pretty much the same.
While consumer drones are becoming increasingly popular, many people still envision a General Atomics MQ-1 Predator when they hear the word drone. They assume that the camera-carrying quadrotors you can buy on Amazon or in pricy airport stores are simply smaller, less-sophisticated variants on military technology. Common sense as the military connection to consumer drones seems, it’s not actually accurate: While Predators and DJI Phantom 3s are both unmanned aerial vehicles with some autonomous capabilities, they have very different origins and exceedingly different capabilities. To use an analogy, a Predator is like an aircraft carrier and a DJI Phantom 3 is like a rowboat: They’re both technically boats, but you wouldn’t assume they’re capable of the same things—or used for the same purposes.
A bit of history: While pilotless aircraft have existed since 1849 in one form or another, the U.S. first deployed unarmed Predator drones over Bosnia in 1995, kicking off a modern debate over autonomous weapons and remote warfare that rages on today. The consumer multirotor drones we know today, meanwhile, hit consumer markets around 2009 and 2010, approximately the same time that modern smartphones became widely available. The timing is not a coincidence: Both iPhones and consumer drones are possible thanks to recent advancements in embedded processors, tiny sensors, GPS receivers, and lightweight but powerful batteries.
As these components became cheaper and easier to obtain, hobbyists with geeky inclinations began using them to construct do-it-yourself drones with highly capable computer-driven autopilots, swapping tips with one another on the internet. Some of these innovators went on to launch their drone companies, like 3D Robotics and DJI, which are geared toward consumer and civilian markets and produce much cheaper and much less powerful UAVs than those put out by major military players like General Atomics. Blame powerful minicomputers and inexpensive sensors for the annoying drone your neighbor got for his birthday, not shadowy military skunkworks.
2. Drone delivery is easy and will probably start happening by 2017.
I feel like I’m telling a 6-year-old that Santa Claus isn’t real when I bring this one up, but I’m going to do it anyway: Drone delivery is an exciting and futuristic concept that is very unlikely to become mainstream in the next five to 10 years, for a number of reasons. One is simple physics: You need more power to move bigger things, and maneuverable multirotor drones (like those shown in Amazon’s fancy commercials with Jeremy Clarkson) still have rather wimpy battery lives and flight ranges, especially if they’re carrying objects weighing more than a couple of pounds.
Today’s drones also are a lot dumber than you may think they are. Sense-and-avoid technology has seen many recent, promising advances but remains fairly rudimentary. In the hostile conditions of your neighborhood, a drone needs to be able to autonomously navigate around your mailbox, your lawn flamingo collection, and your enraged Chihuahua with the same skill as your boring, human mail carrier. It also must avoid enterprising individuals who’d just like to score some free stuff.
Finally, delivery drones have to be able to safely share the sky with manned aircraft, other drones, and the occasional territorial eagle. How do you get a huge number of drones in the air while ensuring they don’t crash into one another? How do you track these drones without forcing them to carry even more weight? And how do you ensure that small drone players—individuals, researchers, small businesses—are able to use the airspace without being pushed out by powerful corporations like Amazon? Many clever organizations—including NASA—are on the case, but we don’t have concrete answers yet.
Systems that use unmanned aircraft to move stuff from airport to airport or within protected, smaller areas are less complex to create and essentially already exist—manned cargo airplanes are already very automated. Still, this is a less sexy concept than a whirring Amazon drone delicately alighting on your lawn to drop off a giant pack of gummy bears and the latest Call of Duty. (My extended gripe on why delivery drones aren’t going to be a thing as of next year can be found here.)
3. They all have cameras on them, and those cameras have creepily powerful zooming capabilities.
Many DIY drone hobbyists build drones solely for the purpose of flying, whether for races, acrobatic tricks, or sweet aerial battles. While most drones do have some kind of camera equipment on board—often used more for navigational purposes than for capturing images of the ground—that doesn’t mean they’re all capable of the remarkable zoom capabilities of multimillion dollar military drones.
Optical zoom lenses are heavy, and the lightweight and relatively inexpensive cameras most consumer drones carry don’t zoom at all, or only in the same grainy, electronic fashion as your cellphone camera. A consumer drone shooting still photographs or video with a DSLR camera still isn’t capable of collecting aerial information much more detailed than that freely available in Google Earth–hosted satellite and Street View images. Further, if a drone camera is close enough to you to pick out the intimate details of your backyard topiary, you’re almost certainly going to notice it’s there.
4. If a drone flies above your property, it’s trespassing.
I regret to inform you that you do not own the sky above your property up into the stratosphere. This is for a practical reason: When aircraft first became commonplace, legislators realized that it would be impossible to negotiate flyover rights for every scrap of land in the nation and acted accordingly.
Our current confusion where drones are concerned derives from the fact that a minimum legal altitude for overflight above private property has never really been legally determined, largely because manned aircraft don’t fly nearly as low as drones (and traditional model remote-control aircraft keep fewer people up at night, for whatever reason). Until legislators come to some kind of agreement on how much of the air property owners rightfully own, the law surrounding private property and drones remains very murky.
One thing is clear: Shooting down a drone is a federal crime per 18 USC. 32, which “makes it a felony to damage or destroy an aircraft”—and yes, a drone qualifies as an aircraft in the eyes of the Federal Aviation Administration. It’s not just illegal: Shooting down a drone is a massive overreaction that could potentially endanger other people, cause property damage, and damage your bank account.
If you see a drone above your property that you didn’t authorize, reasonable recourses include attempting to find the drone pilot to ask him or her to knock it off (which shouldn’t be that hard, as most consumer drones have a range of a mile or two and brief battery lives) and phoning the local police to do the job for you. Don’t break out the gun.
5. Drones are good for spying on people and regular citizens use them frequently for this purpose.
I know they have nifty little spy drones in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but that show is a work of fiction, and so too are stealthy, powerful consumer-level spy drones capable of persistent, longterm surveillance. Multirotor drones remain hampered by brief battery life, the inability to carry powerful and heavy zoom lenses, and the noise that their props generate.
Potential drone-using creepers must also face the cruel reality that while a drone at a higher altitude is harder to notice—although still quite noticeable—it is also capable of collecting less detailed imagery, and only for a brief period of time. (There probably are people who get excited by grainy images of what might theoretically be a nude person but could actually be a Honda Civic, or a dumpster, but we can assume they are rare.)
Even in the drone era, a creeper’s best friend remains a hefty bird-watchers camera lens and a stepladder through the bushes, or the devious apps that permit you to hijack laptop cameras, or an apartment in New York City with direct line-of-sight on a hot tub.
While it might be possible to hover your drone at a fairly low altitude over that swinging nude barbeque you didn’t get invited to, party-goers would almost certainly notice the device before you were able to gather much in the way of scintillating imagery. Furthermore, existing Peeping Tom laws cover areas in which people have a reasonable expectation of privacy and likely would apply in this context. (But I’m not a lawyer.)
6. A drone with a bomb strapped to it is an effective weapon.
While it is certainly possible for someone to strap a bomb or a gun to a drone, this does not mean that such a drone would be an effective tactical weapon. Again, this comes down to the quotidian realities of physics: Small drones have a limited payload and could only carry a small amount of explosives if someone fancied using one instead of a plain old grenade.
While some drones (like octocopters) can carry a few pounds, they are proportionately much larger and less maneuverable. A terrorist who wishes to deliver an explosive payload while exploiting the element of surprise is probably unlikely to select for the mission a 4-foot-wide machine that sounds like a swarm of bees and is covered in blinking lights.
The gun drone that everyone and their cousin saw on YouTube last year and then promptly emailed to me represents another example of a weapon that—while possible—is unlikely to be particularly effective. If you are dead set on shooting someone for reasons we don’t need to go over here, it remains much easier and stealthier to simply shoot them yourself, instead of sending a wobbly drone with dubious aiming accuracy and a 10-minute battery life to do the job.
The same goes for biological attacks. Using a drone to scatter anthrax over a crowd of people is theoretically possible, but there are more effective and less obtrusive ways to do the job—like mailing letters. While it’s definitely not impossible that drones could be used in terrorism, the utility they provide isn’t particularly impressive. I do think it’s possible that media-loving terrorist groups might consider using a small, consumer drone to produce a scary psychological effect. But again, that doesn’t mean they’re actually good at blowing things up. Further, the mere possibility of a drone-based attack doesn’t mean that a ban is in order: We still have cars, after all, despite the longstanding and devastating career of car bombs.
And now that those six misconceptions are out of the way, here are three things that people don’t know about drones—but should.
1. Drones still aren’t formally regulated in the United States.
Nope—although comprehensive regulations do exist in other countries, like France and Australia. In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress requested that the FAA write rules and standards pertaining to drones and set a September 2015 deadline for integrating commercial UAVs into U.S. airspace.
Now it’s May 2016, and we’re still waiting on those rules and standards. The FAA has yet to issue any drone-specific regulations beyond a recent rule requiring that drone owners register their devices for $5. Instead, the agency has applied existing aircraft rules to the operation of civilian UAVs and has stated that rules prohibiting the reckless and careless operation of aircraft pertain to drones, too.
The ensuing debate over what drone laws should be and how the interim rules ought to be interpreted have been complex and subtle enough to keep aviation lawyers arguing with each other on the Internet for the past two years. Peter Sachs’s Drone Law Journal and Jonathan Rupprecht’s websites are both good resources for more information on this distinctly confusing topic.
The FAA’s delay in coming up with regulations specific to drones has been a particular problem for aspirant commercial drone operators, who still must seek specific FAA approval to operate. Critics note that the involved legal process required to secure such an exemption—and the accompanying requirement that the drone operator hold a pilot’s license for manned aircraft—has hampered U.S. innovation in a particularly promising tech industry. The FAA has promised to release final rules by June 2016. Well, we’ll see.
2. You can build your own drone.
Yes, you! In fact, that’s where consumer drones came from, as I mentioned earlier. Building a drone is surprisingly easy and fun, and many great resources available online are approachable for everyone from rank, confused beginners to hardcore electronics experts who can solder in their sleep. DIY drones are used for everything from moviemaking to high-octane racing, and there are a sea of online communities and Meetup groups devoted to the hobby.
People who build their very own flying robots gain an intimate understanding of drone hardware and software, develop widely-applicable DIY skills, and are able to customize and tweak their drones to suit their needs and desires. They also earn the nerdy bragging rights of saying you built your very own drone, which is sure to impress potential dates. (This was actually 100 percent true in my case.) I recommend it.
3. Consumer-level drones are still pretty terrible at avoiding obstacles.
Every college-aged skier has sugar-plum dreams of a drone following them down the mountain while they do sweet tricks, a Red Bull–fueled vision that a number of Kickstarters have profited greatly from. The problem? The drones that your average consumer can afford are still very, very bad at avoiding obstacles—as mentioned above—which means this X-Games fantasy is more likely to result in the drone’s sudden collision with a tree and a lot of swearing.
A lot of engineers are industriously working away at this problem and improvements are almost certainly on the horizon. But don’t donate to a Kickstarter with the expectation that your SickTrickz Xtreme Drone will be working as advertised by the time snow starts falling again.
DJI’s new (and currently available) Phantom 4 does have some neat sense-and-avoid capabilities, but I still wouldn’t trust it to follow me as I screamed through a halfpipe, competed in a tense dirtbike race, or wove through the drugged-up crowds at Coachella. (Note these are all things I would never actually do, but work with me.) If you still desperately desire a sick skiing video with a drone, you can always pay these guys.
This article is part of the drones installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through June 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on drones:
- “Do Drones Have to Be Creepy?”
- “Your Cheat-Sheet Guide to the Key Players and Debates for Drones”
- “The Rise of Nonviolent Drones”