Lively conversations over a virtual cuppa

Can we trust drones?

An illustration of Mark Shepard and Puneet Singla with coffee cups.

Mark Shepard (left) and Puneet Singla. Illustrations: Chris Lyons, BFA ’81


The FAA recently announced looser regulations on commercial drone flights in the United States, which allegedly could result in 600,000 drones in the air within a year. How might this impact U.S. citizens’ privacy and safety? To find out, we spoke with Puneet Singla, associate professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering, who is researching weather-tracking applications for drones, and Mark Shepard, associate professor of architecture and media study, who focuses on the intersection of technology and urban life.

Mark Shepard: Clearly one of the biggest concerns is privacy. This is profound when you consider urban environments. You already have stories of people in New York City living in a condo and seeing one of these things outside their window. Voyeurism takes on a new meaning in the age of unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs], which you can buy from Amazon for less than $500. One also begins to wonder, in urban contexts, what happens when you suddenly have a drone traffic jam?

Puneet Singla: Our research is in making the drone flight as autonomous as possible. You can do it for a big drone with a very fast processor on board that can process obstacles like other drones or human beings and plan a new route to avoid a collision. But doing it for a quad-rotor that doesn’t have much processing power, doesn’t have a battery, and doing that in real time becomes very difficult. Urban environments are much more challenging. You have tall buildings that create local weather effects. We have wind tunnels right here on campus. You try to take a quad-rotor in there and it will crash. So one thing we try to do is certification of autopilots. What is the range in which my autopilot can give me a guarantee of stable flight? How much wind can it handle? Can it give me a warning when it starts seeing challenging environments?

MS: It’s no surprise, then, that the most common applications right now are in environments that are sparsely populated, like agricultural and weather applications. Also hazard and rescue missions, whether it’s a forest fire or collapsed building, any situation that’s dangerous for a human to enter—one can see obvious benefits there. But it does seem that the idea of the cohabitation of humans and these UAVs is well down the road.

“We have high-resolution sensors that allow for all kinds of data collection—the question is how that data will be used. The laws have not caught up to that.”
Puneet Singla

PS: Coming back to the privacy issue, I was doing some reading on that. Apparently legal precedent was established by a 1940s law that says the owner of a home or building has privacy up to only 83 feet above the roof. At the time the law probably made sense for aerial mapping, but now the FAA says the drones can fly up to 400 feet, and the law has not been updated. There was actually a shooting, last year, of a drone. A drone was flying with a GoPro camera, going back and forth over the backyard where someone’s daughter was sunbathing. The homeowner didn’t like it, took a shotgun, and shot it down.

MS: So it’s aerial trespassing.

PS: Yes. According to the law, a person can do it if they’re above 83 feet. But now your objective may not just be to survey an area for mapping. We have high-resolution sensors that allow for all kinds of data collection. The question is how that data will be used. The laws have not caught up to that, and there’s a feeling that the FAA really doesn’t know how to deal with it.

MS: In a sense, we’re trying to come to terms with how we regulate the third dimension in space. We have clear laws about the boundaries of public and private space on the ground, but the minute you start to elevate that position, you run into a host of other issues. Until we understand privacy as a volumetric condition as opposed to a two-dimensional, planar condition, we’re not going to be able to resolve these things very easily.

PS: When Google puts an image on Google Maps, they don’t show house numbers or the license plates on cars. They gray them out. If you see a person, if you zoom in, you’ll see that they don’t let you see the face. We can control this legally because Google is a corporation. The drones bring another dimension because of the volume of the data. There are many small, do-it-yourself drones. How can we enforce regulations or laws? It’s very easy to just shoot a video and put it on YouTube.

MS: One of the FAA’s regulations says the drone needs to stay within the line of sight of the operator or pilot. That’s a major constraint in terms of many of these applications that have been projected, like the Amazon delivery service. One can imagine, though, that that regulation will have to be managed at some point.

PS: But I think even if there is a line-of-sight regulation, once the drone goes above 100 feet, it’s just a dot in the sky. You really don’t have any clue what it is doing, what is happening to it. I can design my autopilot so that it only flies within a certain region, but how do you ensure that? If you see a UAV crossing a limit, how do you stop it? Can you jam the sensors or kill it in some way? Perhaps geo-fences will be able to create a kind of virtual wall that the drones cannot cross.

MS: One imagines that you’re going to have enforcement drones. We might start seeing air battles between the enforcing drone and the renegade drone. One pastime of mine is to watch videos on YouTube of drones being attacked by hawks and other birds. This inter-species warfare between organic birds and what are essentially inorganic birds is really quite fascinating. The videos always end the same way. The bird wins and you see this spiral going down followed by a stationary image of the clouds. It’s quite a beautiful thing.

PS: In the Netherlands, the police are actually training eagles to go and attack the drone if it’s not cooperative. It’s on YouTube.

MS: Fantastic. Now I have a weekend viewing schedule.

How do you take your coffee?

Mark Shepard and Puneet Singala.

Mark: I like a plain Americano.

Puneet: I drink tea.