Unsocial Networks

Holy Putin, Batman! The drone took off, leveled at around three feet, and hovered nicely. The problem began when we tried to bring it down.

It got the bit between its teeth, climbed to thirty feet, and a gust of wind pushed it east. It surprised the shit out of two pigeons attempting to copulate in the high branches of the pine, swooped for the ground, rose steeply, and smashed onto the roof.

Here’s the thing, it’s not my roof. It took a little trespassing to bring it back down. The creature recorded the entire misadventure in HD. It’s quite the movie, and as I watched it I thought of the drone pilots in Creech AFB, Nevada, steering their craft over the Swat valley—no easy task.

Add to that the battle situation, the missile payload, and the uncertainty in targeting, and you begin to understand the challenge. Drones are part of asymmetric warfare, the new doctrine of wars that can’t be won.

I described my first encounter with a drone on these pages some months back—all in, I think I blew about four hundred bucks, and I’m ashamed to say the damn thing never got off the ground.

My first effort was a self-assembly single-engined plane—if it had ever gotten its maiden flight, it would shortly thereafter have lost both life and virtue.

Its successor belongs to a new group of creatures called quadcopters, or quadrotors.

As the name suggests, these are four-propeller choppers, and despite our early attempts, they are easy to fly. This one came back with me from the US, and resisted any attempt to be consigned to the hold.

I had some serious exchanges with Delta ground staff on the subject—they seemed more concerned with stowing bags than actually providing a decent airline service.

I have to admit I mostly expected trouble from TSA, but not from the airlines. But the TSA people only wanted to know how much the drone cost. Given the electronics the craft has, including independent engines for each prop, two cameras, and wifi capability, I’m not at all sure it should be allowed in the cabin.

But package something in a big red box, and suddenly it just looks like an expensive toy.

My worry? It can be much more. The most interesting part of the quadcopter is the control unit—there isn’t one. My previous effort required a serious looking box, complete with antenna, to operate it remotely. This baby, just like the one you see in the YouTube clip, uses an app.

Yup, you can run it off a smart phone. That collapses the price, but most of all it’s a paradigm shift—wifi used in a completely different way. What started as touchy-feely, social network, friendly fun technology, suddenly shows a darker side.

No longer are you bound by hardware, a box with a couple of switches and a joystick. Now your app can tell the craft to do anything it likes. This new toy can turn on a front-mounted camera or a vertical one, and record what it sees to the control tablet.

Maybe the crazy Russian video is a fake—lots of special effects on the flame and smoke side of things, but the three core issues remain.

There are apps out there that can be customized in a heartbeat to provide control platforms for just about anything.

Outdoor wifi range is just shy of a football field, but nothing stops you daisy-chaining base stations.

It’s a no-brainer to instrument quads with sensors of all kinds—switch on a camera, pull a trigger, drop a bomb.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

Atmos Fear and The India Road. Quick links for smartphones.

 

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