In a field in Halifax, James Peverill and Adam Woodworth have been test-flying a new kind of aircraft. Its flight plan is set by a smartphone or laptop, using a map on the screen. It can fly for 45 minutes, while taking still photos or video of the ground below. The FocalPlane weighs about a pound, and could cost as little as $250.
Peverill and Woodworth’s start-up, Rotary Robotics, is just one of several local groups working to demilitarize drone aircraft. While the armed forces have deployed unmanned aerial vehicles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya that cost millions and are sometimes armed with Hellfire missiles, this new fleet will be small, cheap, and geared to tasks like evaluating farm crops, finding missing children, or inspecting bridges.
Many expect that the domestic UAV industry is about to take off, and the Federal Aviation Administration has estimated that 30,000 drones could be aloft by 2020. “We’re in a rapid spool-up phase now, where we’re thinking about going from producing tens of aircraft per month to a thousand or more,” says Tom Vaneck, vice president of space technologies at Physical Sciences Inc. in Andover.
While some law enforcement agencies already have clearance to fly the aircraft — a SWAT team in Massachusetts has filed an application with the FAA to use one — adoption by businesses and individuals could be a few years away. That’s because the FAA has yet to hash out rules that would govern commercial use of a UAV hovering 100 feet above your home or zipping past your office window. (Could Google Interiors — images of the inside of our homes — be the next upgrade for Google Maps?)
The highest-profile of the UAV makers is CyPhy Works of Danvers. The company was started in 2008 by Helen Greiner, one of the founders of iRobot Corp. Greiner hasn’t said much about CyPhy. Most of what is known about the company comes from a $2.4 million federal grant it received in 2009 to design a hovering craft with high-resolution cameras that could be used to assess the condition of highways, bridges, and other infrastructure.
One of the first UAVs to take to Massachusetts skies could be the Skate, a 2-pound, mostly foam aircraft priced at $35,000 and up. The Skate system fits in a backpack and delivers live video to the operator’s control device. It can also carry an infrared camera, which can help spot people by the heat their bodies give off. The twin-propeller craft can transition from flying like a plane to hovering like a helicopter. It doesn’t require a runway for takeoff; you just lob it into the air.
The Skate was developed at the Cambridge office of Aurora Flight Sciences, a Virginia aerospace company. “We’re targeting law enforcement agencies with it,” says Mark Litke, a business development manager at Aurora. “For them, putting a helicopter in the air might cost $1,500 an hour, but using an unmanned aircraft like the Skate is just a few dollars.”
The Metropolitan Law Enforcement Council, a group of more than 40 police departments in the western suburbs of Boston, said earlier this month that it will check out the Skate in training exercises and actual operations — once it can get approval from the FAA.
Physical Sciences hasn’t released pictures of its InstantEye UAV, which has four propellers and is designed to hover for about 20 minutes. “Our customers have asked us not to be too public about it,” says Vaneck. But, the company did demo it this year for Senator Scott Brown when he visited PSI.
PSI, says Vaneck, studied insects and small birds to “understand how they can fly through a very cluttered environment, and most of the time not collide with anything. When they do collide, they bounce off, reorient themselves, and go about their business.” The same is true for InstantEye.
Physical Sciences is aiming for a $300 price tag. “We are talking about inexpensive enough to be on a Walmart or a Brookstone shelf,” Vaneck says.
Which raises the question: What will Walmart shoppers be scoping with their $300 UAVs? Sure, some may look for lost dogs, but I wonder whether others might check out that awesome-sounding backyard barbecue next door. Companies could spy on competitors by hovering outside office windows, using high-resolution cameras to read notes left on a whiteboard.
“From a personal privacy standpoint, I certainly wouldn’t want someone flying one over my house while I’m outside playing with my kid,” says Vaneck. “It’s going to be a fairly sticky situation when it comes to civilian use and privacy. But right now, our customer is the US government.”
FAA spokesman Les Dorr says the agency is working on rules that would govern “small unmanned aircraft,” including “ways to address the privacy issues.” In August, US Representative Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat, released draft legislation intended to ensure that privacy is part of the FAA’s rule-making process.
“We think that basic privacy safeguards need to be put in place,” says Giselle Barry, a spokeswoman for Markey. “Who will operate these aircraft, where will they be flown, what data will be collected?”
As is often the case, legislators and regulators are racing to keep up with the market. “UAVs have been considered the domain of the military, because of the high price point,” says Peverill. “But there’s a lot of demand, now that prices have been coming down so rapidly.” His start-up plans to launch a campaign on the fund-raising website Kickstarter later this year, and begin delivering FocalPlanes in 2013.
It used to be so simple: When you looked up in the sky, you could be pretty sure it was either a bird, a plane, or Superman. Before long, it could be a camera-laden UAV — looking down at you.
Scott Kirsner may be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.