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Attack of the Drones

By Michael Ray

By Michael Ray

The pace of technological change is accelerating.   We know that.  There is too much money to be won.  Some 21-year old kid in Irvine just sold a virtual reality headset invention for $2 billion. It is the same everywhere, not just the Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, but also the new ones in Venice-Marina del Rey, Manhattan, Chicago, Dallas and yes, here, too. Last week, I was offered three new-tech investment opportunities created in Orange County, and each was startling in its potential.

Despite protestations to the contrary, no other country comes close to the United States in the sheer volume on new potential technologies.  Europe stagnates under its bureaucracy. China steals what it can yet creates little. And Japan has retreated unto itself, content to grow old with its vast riches.

No other economy matters. This leaves the U.S., with all its diversity, cultural clashes and universities in a caldron of chaos, out of which breakthroughs are emerging in ever-accelerating arcs. Our military-industrial complex further quickens the pace. That new technology invented for the war in Iraq? Hey, tweak it and suddenly there are thousands of civilian applications.

Like drones. They started out as unmanned weapons. It was deemed better to kill the bad guys using drone bombs than to send jets.  Recruits who learned joystick control from computerized games like “Call of Duty” pilot the drones. The recruits man consoles in offices oceans away from war zones.

Small, quiet drones equipped with cameras proved their use patrolling inaccessible villages of say, Pakistan. Use technology, not boots on the ground.

Now switch to civilian applications. Go to almost any great surfing beach with a cliff. There, hobby guys shoot surfing videos with “quadracopters” you can buy online. The mini-helicopters seemingly float 20 feet over the waves as the hobby guys stand on cliffs with hand-held controls and maneuver them.

Real estate brokers are jumping in too. Want to see a house for sale?   What better way than to take a close look via a video feed taken from the air swooping over the house?

The same sort of little helicopters and petite airplanes can be used for all kinds of surveillance purposes. Do you own a winery?  Want to view your growing grapes from the comfort of your couch?  No problem. Are you a contractor who wants to view steel being placed on a high-rise?   No problem. Want to monitor the roadways to see traffic jams or car crashes quickly? No problem.

Here is where it gets personal. The same technology allows a peeping-tom quadracopter to hover right outside your bedroom window and videotape you. Hell, the real peeping tom can be 10 miles away while his quadracopter glides over Laguna at 10 p.m. looking for opportunities.  What about speeding on a freeway? The police could deploy these drones to fly right next to your car. It can even video you making illegal texts while driving.

So far, we are talking about drones that have human pilots, so the number of drones is a function of available pilots, who are limited and expensive. Here is where it gets scary. The technology already exists that makes human pilots unnecessary. The drones can be programmed to be autonomous; no need for human pilots.  It a simple matter of computing capacity and software.

Further, little drones are cheap and getting cheaper.  Soon, a thousand will be less expensive than one real helicopter.   All can be programmed to hover over the city, watch, monitor, video, listen and report anomalies.  Or be peeping toms.

Finally, they are becoming smaller and more covert every day. What about a drone that looks like a bird?  It exists already; not very good, not yet, but give those budding entrepreneurs another few years. What about a drone as small as an insect?  It is coming, my friend. It will be able to crawl under your door or through a tiny hole and watch you.  You will never know or even suspect.

Big Brother has arrived.

There are few laws governing this activity.  The assumption of privacy is only that, an assumption. The very chaos upon which the vast and growing technology is based means that any sort of attempt at regulation lags reality by years, if not decades.

Do I have a “fix” for any of this?   No.  Do I even have a suggestion?  No.

I have no idea what to do.

All I know is this:  it is accelerating. Exponentially.

Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and now lives in Laguna Beach.  He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.

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  1. Anonymous

    There are several misrepresentations in this article.

    First, even with 4K video on the most recent $1,300 UAVs it is really quite difficult to identify people unless you’re buzzing close to them. 4K doesn’t mean the camera has any zoom capability.

    Second, these things are LOUD. Even tiny palm-sized quadcopters are loud, but anything big enough to carry a halfway decent camera sounds like a swarm of angry bees. There is little chance that someone could hover outside your bedroom window unnoticed. I am way more concerned about being annoyed by the sound than I am of a privacy invasion.

    Third, pilots can’t fly these 10 miles away from the comfort of their living room. They require LINE OF SIGHT for control and video, not to mention staying within FAA regulations. Even professional level aircraft can only go a couple miles, and their video feeds drop long before that. At that distance when your video feed drops you are stuck because you can’t even see the craft or determine orientation (your only hope is a return-to-home function that uses GPS).

    Fourth, these aircraft are expensive. If you tap a tree branch or catch a good gust of wind you can lose a $4000 setup in 1 second. I don’t think there are many crazy peeping toms out there willing to risk that kind of dough (besides, wouldn’t it be far, far easier and cheaper to just hide quietly in the bushes?).

    I think the concern over drones/UAVs is fairly exaggerated, and it’s only made worse by the sensationalistic media. There are certainly some valid concerns, but blowing them out of proportion does them disservice.

    For those who are concerned enough to take action, consider establishing a no-fly zone above your house. Some UAV manufacturers don’t allow their GPS-equipped models to fly at these locations. https://www.noflyzone.org

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