Zap Zap Zap

domesticate the drones!

by by Barry Elkinton

illustration by by Katy Windemuth

Last month, the Internet was abuzz over the launching of TacoCopter, a San Francisco-based tech company offering taco delivery via aerial drone to customers around the Bay Area. The TacoCopter concept was fairly straitforward–after placing an order using the TacoCopter Smartphone application, a customer simply waits in one spot while a small drone flies to deliver tacos to their precise GPS location. “Our unmanned delivery agents are fast and work tirelessly,” reads the TacoCopter website. “Just tap and let the machines do the rest.”

Sadly, it was too good to be true. Soon after reaching viral notoriety, TacoCopter was revealed to be a hoax created by a MIT robotics graduate Star Simpson, who also made headlines in 2008 for wearing a fake bomb strapped to her chest in Boston’s Logan Airport. When contacted by news outlets, Simpson admitted that the website was comical in nature, but perhaps prophetic of a future where drones occupy a wide variety of non-military roles. “We basically only hear about quadrotors in scary contexts,” Simpson told Wired. “I think [TacoCopter] does give that fear and emotional tension a safe and hilarious outlet.”

If you’re wondering why TacoCopter remains in the conceptual stage, blame Uncle Sam. Under current regulations, the use of drones in American airspace is subject to strict regulation. Last year, the Federal Aviation Authority only issued an estimated 300 special permits to government agencies and academic researchers to fly drones under specified conditions. While the government tolerates limited recreational flights of smaller drones below heights of 400 feet, any commercial use of drones is categorically prohibited.

That will soon change. Last February, Congress passed a bill requiring the FAA to begin easing restrictions on domestic drone flights. Under the proposed timetable, law enforcement will have access to drones by June of this year, and commercial drones will be phased in over the next three years. Although the FAA still plans to implement certain restrictions on drone flights to protect public safety, the agency estimates around 30,000 drones will be flying in American airspace by 2020.

A wide variety of governmental agencies, private citizens and corporations are expected to take advantage the FAA’s eased restrictions. For law enforcement, drones promise to unlock a wide range of strategic capabilities, from suspect tracking to search and rescue assistance. With some drones costing as little as $300, the commercial opportunities are also endless. According to National Public Radio, oil companies are likely to use drones for monitoring pipelines, famers might use drones to check on crops, and paparazzi are likely attempt to film celebrity weddings from the air.

Some potential applications of drone technology are even more adventurous. Cy Brown, an electrical engineer in Louisiana, has recently made a name for himself on Youtube by posting videos of his nighttime hunting adventures using a model airplane equipped with a thermal camera to help him locate feral pigs on his brother’s rice farm. Nicknamed the “Dehoagflier,” Brown finds his drone saves him time and energy. “Now you can know in 15 minutes if it’s worth going out,” Brown told the New York Times.

The rapid improvement of drone technology will likely encourage the use of drones for recreational and commercial purposes. “There are drones that could literally fit in a backpack or the palm of a hand,” John Villasenor, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution told NPR. “There are drones that are basically like balloons that sit up there in the sky in one place and can observe enormous swaths of territory.”

Despite the excitement many expressed over the possibility of aerial taco deliveries, many civil liberties advocates worry that the increased use of drones will lead to widespread privacy violations. The American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Privacy Information Center recently petitioned the FAA to “address the threat to privacy and civil liberties involved in the integration of drones in the national airspace.” According to these groups, there is good reason to be concerned about law enforcement and corporations using drones to monitor individuals without their knowledge or consent. “We need a system of rules to ensure that we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without bringing us a large step closer to a “surveillance society,” reads a December 2011 ACLU report.

Even Simpson believes the government probably has good reason to be wary of letting drones run amok in our skies. “Honestly I think it’s not totally unreasonable to regulate something as potentially dangerous as having flying robots slinging tacos over people’s heads” Simpson told Wired. “On the other hand, it’s a little bit ironic that that’s the case in a country where you can be killed by drone with no judicial review.”

BARRY ELKINTON B’13 can know in 15 minutes if it’s worth going out.