We Don't Call Them Drones Anymore Print E-mail

20140205(San Diego Reader February 5, 2014)

I want to believe that when we talk about drones —also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aerial systems —whose bodies vary from pterodactyl-big to mosquito-small (the Robobee, a robotic insect, weighs less than 1/300th of an ounce), and any one of which will soon be taking off, in ungovernable numbers, in our coming (2015) deregulated airspace, we are not talking about General Atomics’ “Predators and their Hellfire missiles bombing daycare centers in Afghanistan.”

But the drone has already earned its inalterable reputation. Much to the chagrin of the man who uttered the sardonic quote above: the resourceful, loquacious, fingers-in-many-pies Lucien Miller, CEO of Innov8tive Designs, in Vista. Miller is behind his desk in a small office, next to an adjoining warehouse, one of hundreds of manufacturing warrens in the Palomar Business Park. Dressed in a light blue knit shirt, faded jeans, and comfortable loafers, Miller is a-flurry with info and PR on unmanned aerial vehicles and their possibility. Which is why he’s adamant that the word “drone” is a great misnomer.

Miller is a licensed pilot whose less than 20/20 vision did not qualify him to fly commercial jets, as he’d hoped to do. To replace it, he’s developed a next-best passion. He designs, builds, flies, distributes, and sells kits and fully assembled aircraft for the radio-controlled model-airplane industry. This technology has, in just three years, evolved into his specialty, the multi-rotor or quadcopter, the hobbyist’s drone. “Instead of having the one big main rotor” like a helicopter, “they have four small rotors with airplane propellers.” His quadcopters, complete at $2000, have “sophisticated GPS systems so when you set them down and power them up they learn the position they took off from.” Auto-command GPS gives them that sense that they “know” where they are because you, the controller, have positioned them so.

Miller has more fun with his drones than a man in his 40s should be allowed. Imagine him and his joystick, “chasing neighbor kids up and down the street on Halloween” with his “Ghost Quadcopter” —a torso-sized body, cloaked in black, with a frayed skirt, a derby-topped LED-lighted skull, and Frankenstein-stiff arms. In the video, the children scream in fright while the adults laugh at the anomaly, their cellphone cameras flashing and recording the stunt. One year, Miller buzzed the Ghost Quadcopter beside the driver’s window of a passing car, “and it no doubt freaked the poor woman out to no end.”

Drone strikes in Pakistan —resulting in hundreds of innocent civilians blown apart —have so corrupted Americans’ thinking about drones, Miller notes, that not only does the press ignore the “good uses,” but the consensus remains that all flying things incur surveillance. “It’s all how the media portrays it.” It’s absurd, he says, police peering in our windows with bots. The personal computer and the cellphone did not meet with such bad press. Coverage, for the unmanned aerial vehicles, he finds moronic. So much so that he’s started the rolling blog, thetruthaboutdrones.com. Only positive posts, please.

It may be that our deepest fears of a National Security State arrive from outside and above, like in Steven Spielberg’s sadistic War of the Worlds —and not from within our super-hive of laptops and wireless connectivity. Post–Edward Snowden, many privacy rights activists believe the true menace comes from government and corporate surveillance of us via our devices. Still, because of our attack history, we fear the unexpected air assault —9/11, Pearl Harbor. No wonder we’re spooked by flying machines —those incoming planes are coming for us.


Lucien Miller hates the word drones. So does Monica England at Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the largest unmanned aerial vehicles lobby, which heavily romances both the military and Congress. England writes in an email that unmanned aerial vehicles are not “drones. A drone is a target used by naval aviators in combat training.” She attaches a photo. It’s not a target; it’s a missile, fired from a ship. Headed to Pakistan. Now, that’s a drone.

Jordi Muñoz also hates, though good-humoredly, the word drone. The chief technology officer of 3D Robotics, who’s 27, a wunderkind, both affable and brimming with ideas, prefers “flying robots,” he tells me while clearing a desk in his no-longer spacious, research-and-development headquarters in the Kearny Mesa Industrial Park. Floor and shelf space is his number-one burden. He began in his garage, in Riverside, built his first drone at 20, sold it and more at 22, moved to San Diego, where he’s established one of the company’s three sites: a manufacturing plant bubbles along in Tijuana and business and sales are staffed in Berkeley, run by Muñoz’s partner, CEO Chris Anderson, a founding editor of Wired magazine.

A drone or unmanned vehicle, he says, can be anything that “makes a decision by itself or follows a preprogrammed mission.” In the air, underwater, inside buildings, searching the wilderness for a lost child —or, the future butler, Droney, as in, “Hey, Droney, slippers, please. The master wants to relax.” Muñoz employs open-source computer codes, taken from Nintendo and the iPhone, to design the “brain” of the unmanned aerial vehicles, also called the machine’s “autopilot.” The brain is a miniaturized panel of sensors that controls the functions of the unmanned aerial vehicles: a lithium-ion battery for an hour or two of flight; an accelerometer for speed; a gyroscope for locating itself in relation to the ground, other flying robots, and unmovable objects (“Look out for that wall, Droney”); and a magnetometer for finding its bearing vis-à-vis north.

Muñoz is dedicated to open-source design, in which software codes are shared on the internet for free. “It’s the way I grew up; it’s my mentality,” he says, showing me slides of his PowerPoint presentation. As he developed code for his robots, others used it as well, correcting and revising his language. Though such “online collaboration” remains viable, Muñoz found many hobbyists had no time to make brain and bot as he had. “Do it yourself,” he told them when they inquired if he had one for sale. Instead, they begged for his machines —voilà, 3D Robotics, an international supplier of drones and parts with 170 employees, still growing avalanche-fast. In the past four months, $30 million in new venture capital has fattened the company’s bank account. Already they’re scouting larger digs.

Muñoz sells drones and parts to universities where pilotless aircraft is one of the du-jour points of entry for aspiring technologists, a learning platform both playful and potentially commercial. One ingenious bot is the shipboard life-saving unmanned aerial vehicles. Once a person falls overboard, a drone carrying a stack of life rings is launched, which hovers and drops rings, gently and immediately, to one flailing in the waves.

Another example is the grape-monitoring unmanned aerial vehicles. Device and camera surveil rows of grapes — future wine — taking infrared video to measure dryness, ripeness, and diseases: “You can tell from the air,” Muñoz says, “how happy the plant is.” These days the hedge-fund billionaires who live in Hawaii can espy their vineyards in California. The isle-lounging vintner, receiving an alert, texts his irrigation system to “give that plant,” row five, stalk 37, “an extra drink of water.” The new saying around Muñoz’s office — staffed with bench-tied young techies, most in black T-shirts, turning miniature Phillips screwdrivers — is “Make Wine, Not War.” As I’m leaving, Muñoz tells me that 3D Robotics courts an international market for his products: since the company has no link to the U.S. military, its technology poses no threat to national security. “We’re worldwide neutral.”

Whatever benefits military drones benefits San Diego

San Diego, as the Daily Beast put it recently, is the “undisputed drone capital of the world.” The San Diego North Chamber of Commerce reports that drone production has risen to 12 percent of local Department of Defense contracts. That’s a hefty investment in a technology with strict limits imposed on its domestic use, despite what Amazon.com is promising in five years: to drone-deliver your package at (highly unlikely) “no extra charge.”

Our fair city is home to two titanic defense contractors: Northrup Grumman in Rancho Bernardo, and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems in Poway, a division of General Atomics. Neither would talk to me, though the latter sent a quotable email: “We appreciate your interest in GA-ASI, but as a privately-held company our owners like to keep a pretty low profile in the media apart from the trades.”

The Blue brothers, Neal and Linden, Cold War aviators, bought General Atomics in 1986 for $60 million. Their idea was to link airplanes and anti-communist uprisings and parlay that alliance, initially, on behalf of the contras during Nicaragua’s 1980s civil war. The brothers have poured millions into drones — those that map, surveil, and take out targets. It took years for them to evolve a pilotless killer. One source put the early failure rate for military unmanned aerial vehicles at 20 percent, most crashing via a ground-pilot’s error. But the “success” of General Atomics’ Predator in Afghanistan is legendary — and deeply resented — because of civilian casualties, so-called “collateral damage,” especially under President Obama’s tenure.

U-T San Diego reported in 2012 that General Atomics Aeronautical Systems received $2.4 billion in military contracts, hundreds of millions bolstering unmanned aerial vehicles production. That largesse is footing the bill for the Gray Eagle, Predator’s upgrade. To keep going, the company has spent millions lobbying Congress and footing the overseas travel costs of congressional aides since 9/11. One stable of beneficiaries is the 60-member Unmanned Systems Caucus, known as the “drone caucus.” Representatives Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine) each received more than $200,000 in campaign donations from unmanned aerial vehicles interests during the 2010 and 2012 election cycles. Of the millions given to the drone-caucus troop, 74 percent of the funds have earmarked Republicans; 26 percent, Democrats. Is it any wonder that the industry is putting its political capital into a business that is estimated to double from $6.6 billion to $11.4 billion in the next decade?

While General Atomics’ growth has been phenomenal, it may be that investment in pilotless bombers has peaked. General Atomics announced last November that it will have to lay off one-fourth of its 6000 employees after their usual order for Predators was halved by the military. Sequestration, or mandatory defense-budget cuts, are to blame. Orders still pour in from Europe and the Middle East, where the national skies are largely open. A new, post–Cold War arms race in unmanned aerial vehicles manufacturing hasn’t really materialized as many have predicted. Not yet.

The unmanned aerial vehicles business locally continues with military applications and an expected surge in commercial and consumer markets. The boon will be in small, video-taking drones—domestic surveillance, mapping, search-and-rescue—and not in behemoth bombers. Such is the message of Matt Sanford of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation. Of the unmanned aerial vehicles explosion, his blog post asks, “Have We Found the Next Internet?”

The local numbers are Everest-high: in 2011, the UAS/unmanned aerial vehicles industries generated $1.3 billion in activity and 7200 jobs; by 2019, the figure will balloon (so Sanford’s crystal ball says) to $12 billion. San Diego attracts swaths of “technical talent,” he says. “Software engineers and developers, the innovation economy, which is a third of our driver,” or local workforce. (The top drivers are defense and tourism.) For the drone rush, San Diego’s five House representatives have signed a letter in support of the industry’s countywide boom, especially a new test site proposed for the desert regions of Southern California, one of six in the country.

Lady Gaga can fly

The epitome of the unmanned aerial vehicles entrepreneur, who by now should be running a company with 100 employees, is Gus Calderon. At 50, he’s a commercial pilot, aerial photographer, documentary filmmaker (with his wife, Maha), and garage-assembler of the Y6 model unmanned aerial vehicles. The Y6 balances three ultra-stable dual-props, each prop mounted on a boom and turning in opposite direction from its companion, a rather dandy, sensitive, quick-on-its-heels flying robot.

“We’ve given up on changing the name,” Calderon tells me in the living room of his Carlsbad home, small flying robots, like resting dragonflies, stippling the floor. “We say let’s distinguish them: that’s a civilian drone, that’s a commercial drone, that’s a military drone.” He and Maha have trademarked the name “civilian drones,” in part, because they’ve made a film promoting unmanned aerial vehicles as search-and-rescue vehicles: the aerial platforms have found bodies when human canvassing on foot could not.

Calderon photographs from a manned plane; his specialty, high-end real estate. But that means he has to be 1000 feet up, with fog and haze muddying the shot. He argues that drones are much practical; they fly "below the treertops," are versatile, controllable, and cheap to build and fly. (Calderon has shot some luscious vdeo: Carlsbad Flower Fields on his webstie.) After a childhood spent waking his neighbors with radio-controlled planes, he got hooked on flying robots. The crafts have "so many applications beyond aerial cinematography — this is going to change the world."

But, as the FAA reminds him, before you change the world, you can’t fly unmanned aerial vehicles for commercial purposes — that is, for money; that requires a commercial license, as yet unavailable for drones.

“I want to postpone it,” he told Lady Gaga’s handlers, meaning the flight and the album launch. She was called, forthwith, into her dressing room.

She listened to his fears, he tells me. “She had this look of determination and vowed to take full responsibility. ‘I’ve done far crazier things,’ she said. ‘I’ve broken my hip in performance. I know what my limits are. We’ll keep you in the background, in the dark, and nobody needs to know about you’”— though Calderon was hired because as pilot he controls the machine. “‘This is all on me,’ she said.”

He again tried to dissuade her but she volleyed back — there’d be 150 to 200 video cameras filming it for TV stations around the world. Most of her followers, she said, are international and young. “‘If we’re able to do this today,’” she told him, “‘we will inspire millions and millions of young people to know that they can use technology to improve their lives. This isn’t some stage stunt.’”

Gus Calderon of IsisCopters talks drones

Gus Calderon of IsisCopters, who worked on Lady Gaga's "flying dress," talks about the complexity, design, operation, utility, and cost of remote control, unmanned drone systems. Gus also demonstrates a quadcopter in flight.

He weighed her words and responded: “Sometimes it’s okay in life to take a calculated risk for the good of a cause. I can be onboard with that.” And so Volantis took off, hovered shakily, flew forward 20 feet. And landed — to great applause.

According to Calderon, Lady Gaga didn’t want “‘this technology to be in the hands of [those] in ivory towers and corporations. This technology is for everybody.’” She appealed to young entrepreneurs (like Calderon) to send her ideas — she’s an investor in Backplane, a venture-capital funder for start-ups, offered as “a blend of music, celebrity, and technology” — to finance green technology, especially electric-powered flying machines, manned, womaned, or not.

Applications for Lady Gaga’s flying dress are multiple, Calderon says. It’s not just for human payloads. Large unmanned crafts could be used after a tornado to loft a cellphone tower and restore service. He thinks — bolstered by her empire: 58 million Facebook likes and 30 million Twitter followers — that this technology will boom but only when the FAA integrates such copters into the airspace. So he waits.

Surveillance of citizens

Craig Miller, Escondido police sergeant with the special-investigations unit and toy-helicopter hobbyist, is aware of the wobbly alliance of unmanned aerial vehicles, law enforcement, and the public. It’s not lost on him that the public has “valid concerns” about police “spying on people,” in Miller’s phrase. He says it’s his department’s job to demonstrate (and not just tell) people that police “unmanned aerial vehicles are for a very limited, specific use. This [will] not [be] a system, up in the air, 24/7, all over town, just looking.” Someday, “we’ll have a critical incident with a bad guy on the run and we need to find him. A person’s going to be lost,” or abducted, like Amber Dubois in 2009 and Chelsea King in 2010, “and we’re going to need to find her in as short a time as possible. The public-awareness component will be huge.”

Locating lost kids, searching for criminals is one thing; surveillance of citizens is quite another. The Fourth Amendment guarantees that if a search of a citizen is reasonable, police or government officials must have a warrant. We need probable cause that a crime has been or will be committed. This 222-year-old right would seem to disallow all sky-born surveillance — the core difficulty many have with unmanned aerial vehicles. One may surveil an individual from the air with a court order but in what circumstances can one blanket-surveil the populace?

Contrary to popular wisdom, drones are already among — or above — us. There are ten unarmed MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles surveiling the U.S.-Mexico border, aloft 12 hours a day. In Imperial Beach, over the Silver Strand Training Complex, the WASP drone, carrying regular and infrared cameras, was tested from August 2011 to August 2012, not once but hundreds of times. A North Dakota farmer, claiming his cattle had been rustled, was tracked and arrested via a Predator drone. In 2012, 81 “public entities,” including the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, applied to the FAA for certificates of authorization to use drones. The sheriff’s department inquired in 2011 about buying an unmanned aerial vehicles system with equipment and trainers: the request — it cost $131,000 — was never approved.

Most unmanned aerial vehicles technology is propelled by the cash-fat military where they find regular — and notorious — duty surveiling and in foreign wars. Nothing, not even civilian murder, stops them. Domestic law is uneven. U.S. courts have upheld privacy laws when thermal-imaging cameras watch people and their “suspicious activity” inside their homes — for example, finding hot marijuana-growing rooms via an unmanned aerial vehicles is illegal. But judges have also ruled that robot birds of prey, which espy your backyard pot plants, requires no warrant and are admissible in court.

Two bills to regulate unmanned aerial vehicles and their surveillance were put forward in 2013, House and Senate sides. H.R. 637, sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), bans drones “armed with a firearm”; minimizes “the collection or disclosure of...covered information”; imposes time limits on surveillance and calls for data to be discarded once it’s used in court; stipulates that a court order is almost always necessary and must be based on a “reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and a reasonable probability that” the unmanned aerial vehicles “will provide evidence of such criminal activity”; and declares unmanned aerial vehicles “unlawful to intentionally operate” “in a manner that is highly offensive to a reasonable person,” especially “any type of visual image, sound recording, or other physical impression of an individual engaging in a personal or familial activity...in which the individual had a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), who hates most federal intrusion, has introduced Senate Bill 1016, which favors some of Poe’s House bill but exempts border patrols “to prevent or deter illegal entry.” The bill further stipulates that when law enforcement “possesses reasonable suspicion,” they can use drones “to prevent imminent danger to the life of an individual” or “to counter a high risk of a terrorist attack.”

Last March, Paul filibustered in the Senate, taking advantage of the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA. Brennan, who was confirmed, is the architect of the U.S. drone war against Al-Qaeda. Paul’s 13-hour “drone rant” promulgated the putative threat that the U.S. government may target its own criminally suspected citizens with Hellfire missiles, a screed against unmanned aerial vehicles that seems to have made few converts.

The FAA does not regulate spying

Worries are endless. For one, drones will proliferate: in ten years, 30,000 flying robots are predicted to join the 30,000 commercial planes already aloft every day. Unmanned aerial vehicles are small, cheap, and efficient, all of which fits the shrinking budgets of government agencies. Large drones can stay aloft, some on solar power, for weeks, and fly outside of citizen detection. Even bird-size drones can photograph, video, intercept communications, and more. Such information harvesting is much more invasive than an eye-in-the-sky vineyard monitor. Where are the laws that will protect us from targeted or mass surveillance?

Last May, a congressional hearing on surveillance and drones began examining our drone fears. Among privacy activists and members of the drone lobby who testified, Greg McNeal, Pepperdine College law professor, noted that “Congress may want to craft simple surveillance legislation rather than detailed drone-based legislation.” In essence, McNeal favors “a sliding scale for surveillance,” one that looks at the degree and legality of the surveillance rather than “the platform from which the surveillance is launched.” If Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and other internet-based data collectors are already sharing our records with the NSA, many feel there should be one law to cover all surveillance, make it clear what’s legal and what’s not, whether it’s inside your computer or above your patio.

Jennifer Lynch, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, tells me that her group’s fear is twofold: there is more and more surveillance happening and the spying is nearly impossible for watchdogs like her to track.

“We don’t even have a federal law that protects privacy. We have a piecemeal set of laws at the federal, state, and local level. It’s too hard” for Congress “to pass a broad federal anti-surveillance law.” Lynch says that, so far, the FAA “asks for information about the payload” of a domestic drone — such as those already being flown by Customs and Border Protection, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Homeland Security, and the F.B.I. — but, by law, “the FAA cannot regulate their payload,” that is, their spying capability.

California cannot trump the FAA’s mandate to regulate the safety of the airspace. But states and other jurisdictions, Lynch says, can require police departments to report drone purchases and employment, obtain warrants, and avoid flying over certain public places. Like the beach or state parks. As for privacy, California already has a right to privacy written into the state constitution, which is more protective than what the federal government covers. This may curb the rise of unwarranted commercial unmanned aerial vehicles peering at us in our swimming pools or while we bicycle to work.

In 2012, Congress reauthorized the FAA to set a timetable for integrating unmanned aerial vehicles into the national airspace and announce it by September 2015. After that, the sky may be overrun with flying robots, just this side of a sky, darkened by winged monkeys, we remember from The Wizard of Oz. Come 2015, Lynch says, “Google, a film company, an agricultural servicer will apply for a license,” and their spying capability will, unless Congress acts, be unregulated and untracked, worse, untraceable.

Jordi Muñoz of 3D Robotics warns that “if the government wants to find out about somebody, they can tell a lot more about a person [using the internet] than with a drone.” Muñoz kids, not unrealistically, that once the FAA sanctions unmanned aerial vehicles, their bumpers must display license plates. If a hovercraft breaks the law, a citizen can report its number and the drone operator will be ticketed, fined, or banned by the new D.O.D. — Department of Drones. And that may be the extent of our anti-surveillance protection. Unless Congress acts.

Man marries machine

When Gus Calderon starts his Y6 copter up for me in Poinsettia Park, not far from his Carlsbad home, it pings a perky, R2D2 digital melody of happy compliance. It noises on with a loud whirr, like lips buzzing a comb covered by wax paper, a half defiant, half at-the-ready hum. Using his rabbit-eared controller, Calderon lifts the Y6 aloft. Close by, it hovers. Its GPS system tells it the coordinates to stay at. There it stays. The aerial platform is also equipped with a pressure sensor so, Calderon says, “it knows to maintain that altitude. This is what’s called ‘semi-autonomous’ flight.”

Now, I think, we’ve begun bridging the divide between man and machine, granting the latter some of the liberty we enjoy.

Calderon switches the controller to manual mode so he, the human, takes over. But, wait. Semi-autonomous flight. This conjures up intent — the hovering ability, like the dragonfly, to await a command. But what? Instructions. A wind. A turn of the earth. Or, in the case of multiple drones working together (it’s called “swarming”), formations of multiple intent, programmed to move from individual to centralized control, that is, among self- and group-interest.

It all seems so effortless, so intended. But it’s not, he says. “It’s difficult to operate these properly. All the motors have to be balanced, the propellers, the weight.” And this drone is no bigger than a computer box. His unmanned aerial vehicles, he says, are not “smarter” than he is but, he admits, the specter of a semi-autonomous vehicle “scares a lot of people.”

Still, off it goes, flying way up high with an avidity, in my imagination, to be free and to serve. Isn’t that the romance of flying robots? Maybe of the android-like man/machine associations this is the strangest: we think we’ve created drones but as their “intelligence” is refined by us, their masters, they make us believe they are thinking creatures and subservient to us. It’s the price we pay for believing drones can exist outside our control.

The point is, computers are faster reactors than we are. The gap is termed the “neuromuscular lag,” which means we need a half-second to spot a threat and another half-second to act while drone brains sense and respond in 1/300th of a second. One touchstone of their “semi-autonomous” nature is this lightning-swift turn. You don’t want a drone to wait while you decide which option the drone should employ.

I like how University of Washington “drone” scholar/researcher Ryan Calo explains it. The more an unmanned aerial vehicle is made to resemble an anthropomorphized being with choice-making ability, the more people blame the machine if it screws up and the less they blame the maker or the operator. Who killed those civilians? Not the controller. The drone did it.

In the end, we may need drones to remind us who we are more than we need them to take the fall for our mistakes. Now that’s some 21st-century existential confusion.