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In 2012 Paul Wallich, a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, built a small flying drone to walk his son to the bus stop. It cost him about $500 to make.
In 2013 real estate agent Ed Kaminsky commissioned fly-through promotional videos of houses using an FX-600 drone. One of the houses in Altadena, California would go on to sell for $2.5 million.
Since the beginning of the decade drones have propagated through the military, the 21st century technological mindset, and American culture as a whole. Due to the Obama presidential administration’s widespread use of the machines, they’ve also gained a somewhat sordid reputation.
“The general name for these flying machines is ‘unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV),’” said Selahattin Ozcelik, Ph.D, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University-Kingsville (TAMUK). “I think ‘drone’ is a buzzword.”
Ozcelik is chairman of the robotics program at TAMUK, which aims to prepare engineers in the integrated study of unmanned aerial vehicles, wireless sensor networks, data mining, resource optimization, and information modeling and analysis.
“These components are believed to make up a complete body of knowledge and experience to serve as a basic technical foundation for security engineering,” Ozcelik said.
But what truly makes a drone a drone, says Ozcelik, is its degree of autonomous ability.
“When a machine is referred to as ‘autonomous’ it means it is totally self sufficient and independent. With drones, there is a certain amount of control by a human pilot,” Ozcelik said. “They’re more semi-autonomous.”
Machines such as the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper are controlled by an operator on Creech Air Force Base in Clark County, Nevada. Operators on site often conduct ‘flying operational missions’ in Kandahar, Afghanistan; more than seven thousand miles away.
“It’s all done with satellites,” said Wesley McClaren, retired Air Force Sergeant. “But at the end of the day these guys are still pulling the trigger, and still in combat.”
In a survey of nearly 840 operators of Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk drones, the Air Force found that 46 percent of Reaper and Predator pilots and 48 percent of Global Hawk sensor operators reported what the Air Force termed “high operational stress.”
“Now some of these operators are trying to get combat pay, and the Pentagon is considering awarding a Distinguished Warfare Medal to drone pilots,” McClaren said.
But while military use of drones is certainly a concern to many, others are more worried about how relatively easy and cheap it is for a layman to build a UAV.
Sites like diydrones.com or buildyourowndrone.co.uk sell all the parts a person might need to build a drone of their own, and also sell fully assembled and ready to fly quadrocopters and arduplanes.
“Ease of construction depends on what you’re designing, of course,” said Ozcelik. “If you’re designing something that’s going to carry a payload, fly a certain speed and altitude, and take high quality pictures; that’s very difficult and very costly. You could spend upwards of 500 to 600 thousand dollars on a single drone.”
Still, others are bothered by the degree of removal from the battlefield that drones allow.
“So, back during Afghanistan these guys are flying a drone around, and they see some people run out of a house, set up a mortar, fire, and run back inside,” McClaren said. “So, they get the go ahead to fire on the house, but just as the missiles are about to hit, they see a german shepard run out. Big explosion, no more house. Do you know what the operators said?”
“‘God, I hope the dog’s OK!’”