MIT wishes it could deliver acceptance letters via drone

MIT wants prospective students to know that it’s fully aboard the drone bandwagon, parlaying an army of delivery drones (and computer-generated imagery) for a tongue-in-cheek admissions video, complete with Wagnerian orchestration. MIT sends acceptance letters to its next class of freshmen on Pi Day, aka March 14, or 3/14. The fanciful video shows the letters being delivered around the world by the aforementioned drones.


Personal drone registration will become necessary, U.K. Lords say

A U.K House of Lords committee has recommended that, in the long term, people operating drones for leisure may need to register them so their owners can be traced.

The House’s European Union Committee issued a report on Thursday into various aspects of drone regulation. It said there would soon be a need for commercial drone operators to register their flights somewhere, so as to keep airspace safe, but it also noted that hobbyist or leisure-use drones were on the increase, and this may cause issues in the long run.

The committee said there were many potential benefits to civilian use of remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS), so “we certainly do not support banning the leisure use of RPAS,” but it laid out several recommendations on how to maintain safety.

A licensing regime or the use of digital identity chips in the drones are some of the options that were raised by industry and police representatives, leading to the following recommendation:

We have already recommended the creation of an online database through which commercial RPAS pilots can provide details of their flights to inform other airspace users. We heard compelling arguments as to why the leisure use of RPAS presents risks to the general public and other airspace users. Therefore, in the long term, we foresee the need for a system which can track and trace all RPAS, especially those flying below 500ft, irrespective of whether they are flown by commercial or leisure pilots. This will be essential not only to manage the increased traffic in the sky, but also to enforce existing and future laws governing RPAS use.

The committee also said it was keen on having media campaigns and messages in drone packaging to remind people that they’re flying aircraft, and encourage them to do so safely. It also pushed for geo-fencing features, which bring down drones when they encounter the borders of restricted areas, to be made more widely available.

The report was a response to communications issued by the European Commission on the subject of drones, and will be debated by the wider House of Lords.

On the issue of drone-enabled state surveillance, the committee said this was “beyond the scope of this inquiry … but the acceptability of state use of RPAS should be subject to urgent public debate.” It also recommended that, given privacy concerns, media regulators should launch a public consultation on the use of drones for reporting.

Check out this drone video of a frozen Niagara Falls

How cold is it? So cold that most of Niagara Falls has frozen over – and NBC News has the footage to prove it, thanks to a drone flight from the Canadian side of the border.

As the network explains, temperatures stayed below freezing for all of February, and now the three waterfalls that make up the landmark site are frozen almost entirely:

Frozen Niagara Falls

According to a Snopes account of “frozen Niagara Falls” stories, the only time the falls have frozen entirely was in 1848 where an upstream ice blockage caused the flow of water to slow to a trickle.

Here’s another shot, which shows how drones, which some are maligning as a menace, can also offer unprecedented forms of photography:

Niagara Fall frozen

Other recent examples of the news gathering power of drones took place during an explosion over Harlem last year, and after the Napa Valley earthquake. In both those cases, though, the footage was taken by amateurs.

Currently, professional news gathering organizations are challenging FAA rules that forbid using drones for commercial use (which may explain, along with the better views, why NBC did its reporting from the Canadian side of the border.) The FAA announced proposed rule changes last weekend to loosen the policy, but those changes are not expected to go into force until at least 2016 at the earliest.

Here’s the full video, courtesy of NBC. (If you’re having trouble seeing the video in Chrome, you’ll have to click the little shield at the far right of the URL bar to “load unsafe scripts.” This one is safe. If it still doesn’t appear, you can find it here) It provides more footage, an impressive ice-climbing display and fine Niagara Valley regional accents:

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FAA plan would bar delivery by drone, “micro drone” rule possible

The troubled skies over the U.S. drone industry cleared a bit on Sunday, as the Federal Aviation Administration proposed a new plan to speed up the integration of unmanned aircraft into the American economy — though the likes of Amazon and Google, which are planning delivery services, could be left in the cold.

In a news release and related press conference, the FAA proposed rules that would let companies operate drones under certain certain conditions that include:

  • Drones can only be flown in daylight hours and within the direct line of site of the operator
  • Operators must be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate
  • Drones must be under 55 pounds, can’t fly higher than 500 feet or faster than 100 mph, and can’t fly over people
  • Drones can’t allow “any object to be dropped” — which would seem to kibosh Amazon’s plans for an airborne delivery service

It’s important to note that these rules are just a proposal, and are subject to a 60-day public comment process, which means the rules wouldn’t go into effect until 2016 at the earliest.

Drone experts are pleased that the long-overdue rules are moving forward. Many in the industry, however, are likely to be frustrated by the proposed line-of-sight rule, which could preclude long distance flights, and restrict the use of the drone’s remote cameras for search-and-rescue and other operations.

One bright spot in the rules, though, is the FAA’s nod to so-called “micro drone” regulations of the sort proposed last summer by lawyer Brendan Schulman:

“The proposed rule also includes extensive discussion of the possibility of an additional, more flexible framework for “micro” UAS under 4.4 pounds,” said the news release, which also alluded to the creation of special drone “innovation zones.”

If the “micro drone” plan goes forward, it could open a window for the likes of Amazon and Google to use devices under 4.4 pounds to go forward with their drone delivery ambitions.

Meanwhile, the new announcement does not affect current policy on drone use by hobbyists, whose antics — including crashing their machines on the White House lawn and into a Yellowstone geyser — have made unmanned aircraft a high-profile issue.

As for commercial use, companies will for now continue to have to seek waivers from the FAA. Currently, only a handful of such waivers, which come with onerous restrictions, have been granted — even as other countries, like France (where the post office is testing delivery drones) and Canada, are supporting wave of new drone-based industries.

An FAA spokesperson said by phone that the odd timing of the release (on a Sunday morning of a long weekend) was related to a leak on Friday of an internal agency study that suggested drones could offer significant benefits to the U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, the White House also put out an executive order today to promote responsible drone use.

Super Bowl will have 30-mile “no drone zone”

Buzzing quarterback Tom Brady with an unmanned aircraft might sound like fun, but anyone who flies a drone remotely near the University of Phoenix stadium, where Super Bowl XLIX is taking place this Sunday, could face big, big trouble from the FAA.

On Wednesday, the country’s aviation regulator singled out drones in a fact sheet about Super Bowl–related aircraft activity, saying the popular consumer devices can’t be flown within a 30-mile radius of the stadium (my emphasis):

A second outer ring will encompass the airspace between 10 and 30 miles from the stadium. [..] All unmanned aircraft operations – also known as drones—are prohibited within the restricted areas. These include model aircraft operations, model rocketry and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). Anyone who operates an unmanned aircraft in the restricted area could face civil penalties or criminal charges.

The FAA rules feel a tad excessive given that a variety of conventional aircraft will be permitted to fly within that outer ring, and that devices like a 6-pound quadcopter can’t do much harm from 20 miles away.

Still, the agency is understandably feeling skittish after a drunk person crashed a drone on President Obama’s doorstep this week, and after drones in the last year have made unexpected and unwanted appearances at other football games and at the U.S. Open. The White House incident led the Administration to call on agencies to take increased action this week.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports this morning that drug dealers and would-be terrorists are turning to drones as potential delivery vehicles.

So, in this context, it’s hardly a surprise that the FAA is coming down hard on drones at the Super Bowl. In case anyone missed the point, the agency also put out this “No Drone Zone” video on YouTube.


Drone on White House lawn leads to lockdown

A small drone landed on White House grounds late Sunday night, leading to emergency vehicles swarming the area, and the perimeter being placed on lockdown until 5:00 a.m., according to the AP. A White House spokesperson told the New York Times he did not have details about the size or make of the drone, but that the Secret Service is investigating.

The White House episode is the latest mishap involving drones, which are becoming ever more popular with average consumers. Other such mishaps include an arrest at the U.S. Open, and a ban on the devices at National Parks where tourists have harassed wildlife and crashed a device into a famous hot spring.

While Sunday’s incident posed no danger to the president, who is in India, it will provide more grist for the debate over how to regulate the ongoing proliferation of small camera-equipped unmanned aircraft.

As it stands, the FAA has been coming down hard on anyone who uses a drone for commercial purposes, such as real estate photography, but has largely left it up to local authorities to police amateur drone enthusiasts.

The result, according to Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz, is that “We now have the worst of both worlds: Hobbyists are not effectively regulated, creating potential safety issues, while commercial development is criminalized.”

While the federal agency was supposed to have new rules for drones in place by last year, it has repeatedly missed deadlines, and now reports suggest the rules may not be ready until 2017.

As I’ve argued in the past, the U.S. should take a page from countries like France and Canada, which have developed permitting systems to encourage commercial uses, and which are considering certification processes to ensure hobbyists use the devices safely.

Drone pilot and FAA settle for $1,100 in key commercial use case

Raphael Pirker, who is probably the world’s most famous drone pilot, has reached a deal with the Federal Aviation Agency, which had sought to impose a $10,000 fine on Pirker for using an unmanned aircraft to take pictures for the University of Virginia in 2011.

Pirker issued a statement through his company, Team BlackSheep, that described the settlement, which will require Pirker to pay $1,100 but does not admit any regulatory violation, as “favorable”:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”We are pleased that the case ignited an important international conversation about the civilian use of drones, the appropriate level of governmental regulation concerning this new technology, and even spurred the regulators to open new paths to the approval of certain commercial drone operations.”[/blockquote]

The case, which began in 2013, quickly took on national significance as a test of the FAA’s power to regulate unmanned aircraft at a time when consumer drones are exploding in popularity among hobbyists and when a wide variety of industries are clamoring to use them.

The FAA chose to fine Pirker because he was using his drone for a commercial purpose (photography), which the agency claims is forbidden without a special waiver.

Pirker, however, argued that the FAA’s rules on commercial use are beyond the agency’s legal authority since the agency had failed to pass formal rules. A number of high profile media outlets, including the New York Times, filed legal briefs supporting Pirker before the National Transport Safety Board, claiming the ban violated their first amendment right for news gathering.

Pirker initially won a key ruling last year before an administrative law judge who agreed with his legal position, but the Board later overturned the ruling in a way that side-stepped the question of whether the FAA overstepped its authority.

Pirker’s lawyer Brendan Schulman, who specializes in drone law, has argued that the most appropriate way to regulate drones is through “micro-regulations” that would ensure safety, but not impose burdens like those required for plane or helicopter pilots.

Meanwhile, the FAA’s foot-dragging on drone rules, which some attribute to pressure from pilots, is a source of frustration to U.S. companies, which fear they will lose out to competitors in places like Canada and France, where commercial drone use is flourishing.

Here’s a copy of the settlement:

Pirker settlement

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DJI fixes bug that caused Inspire 1 drone crashes

DJI has issued a firmware update to owners of the brand new Inspire 1, a drone that caught the industry’s attention last year for its filming abilities and futuristic form. Some of the drones’ first users experienced fly aways and crashes, turning what might be an innocuous bug in any other product into a serious hazard. “It is a required update,” DJI director of aerial imaging Eric Cheng said. “When Inspire 1 owners connect their smart devices and power up, they will be informed, and given 3 days to perform the update before they are grounded.” Figuratively and literally.

Robots embrace Ubuntu as it invades the internet of things

Canonical has revealed what I reckon is its biggest announcement in years: Ubuntu is about to invade the internet of things with a minimal version of the Linux distribution that it hopes will provide a standardized platform for connected devices from drones to home hubs.

“Snappy” Ubuntu Core came out of [company]Canonical[/company]’s mobile efforts (which are yet to go anywhere) and was made available on [company]Amazon[/company] Web Services, [company]Microsoft[/company] Azure and the [company]Google[/company] Cloud Platform at the end of 2014. Now it’s available for smart devices, and Canonical has already got players such as the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF), drone outfit Erle Robotics and connected hub maker NinjaBlocks on board.

From mobile to IoT, via the cloud

Unlike traditional, package-based Ubuntu for servers and desktops, the extensible Core keeps apps and each part of the OS securely isolated from one another, and it allows for “transactional updates” — they only need to include the difference between the old and new version, allowing for easy upgrading and rolling-back if needed. In the cloud, Canonical is pushing Ubuntu Core as ideal for Docker and other containerized apps.

Mark Shuttleworth

Mark Shuttleworth

However, Core’s suitability for the container trend was more or less an accidental bonus while the technology was quietly making its way from Ubuntu Touch to the internet of things, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth told me in an interview. According to Shuttleworth, Core’s development began as Canonical grappled with carriers’ annoyance at existing mobile firmware update mechanisms, and as cheap development systems such as Raspberry Pi and Arduino started to take off.

[pullquote person=”Mark Shuttleworth” attribution=”Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical founder” id=”907873″]Let us deliver those updates to your device with the same efficiency as with a phone[/pullquote]”Two years ago we started seeing a lot of what I’d call alpha developers starting to tinker with what at the time people called embedded development,” Shuttleworth said. “We realized there was a very interesting commonality between the work we were doing for mobile — specifically this update mechanism work – and the things you’d want if you were to build a product around one of these boards.”

Canonical had “invested in the container capabilities of the Linux kernel as it happened for the mobile story,” Shuttleworth said, as it was needed to fix security issues on the phone, such as isolating untrusted apps from the address book. “Docker is based on those primitives that we built,” he noted.

Developer push

For makers of connected devices, the same technology means being able to concentrate on the connected app and keeping the device more secure. “[Currently] if you’re going to get an update for that firmware, what you’re getting is a whole blog of kernel and OS and app, and the net effect is you rarely get them, so a lot of devices are vulnerable,” Shuttleworth said. “With Core, you can let us worry about Heartbleed and so on, and let us deliver those updates to your device with the same efficiency as with a phone.”

What’s more, Core for smart devices comes with an app store (that can be white-labeled for brands) that provides developers with a distribution mechanism, and also opens up the possibility of running different apps from different vendors on connected devices.

Shuttleworth gave the example of a smart lawnmower that could take an add-on spectral camera from a different manufacturer and run that manufacturer’s app:

It’s going from a single-device stodgy world to more cross-pollination between devices from different vendors. Because you have a store, you can see more innovation where people concentrate on the software – they don’t have to build a whole device. Because it’s a common platform, they can deliver that app to many devices.

One of the key benefits of Core is its flexibility. The base Ubuntu Core code is identical across the cloud, connected devices and even the desktop – it supports both ARM and x86. This means device makers can prototype their “Snappy” apps on a PC before running thousands of simulations in the cloud, and it also means old PCs can be easily repurposed as a home storage server or photo booth or what have you.

Early adopters

The OSRF is going to use Ubuntu Core for its new app store, so developers can push updates to their open robots. Erle Robotics is using Core to power its new Erle-Copter open educational drone (pictured above), which will ship in February.

NinjaBlocks' Ninja Sphere smart home controller

NinjaBlocks’ Ninja Sphere smart home controller

NinjaBlocks’ is using Core and its app store as the basis for its new Ninja Sphere smart home controller (pictured right).

Shuttleworth said he was intrigued by the possibilities of hubs: “They may be routers or set-top boxes [but] you really want to think of them as extensible. Why can’t a NAS also have facial recognition capabilities; why can’t your Wi-Fi base station also run a more sophisticated firewall?”

The current Raspberry Pi won’t run Ubuntu Core as it uses the older ARMv6 architecture – Core requires ARMv7, though the ODroid-C1 provides a cheap ($35) option in that department. “We decided we wouldn’t go to lower specifications because our Core story is the next generation of devices,” Shuttleworth said.

Speaking of hardware, the Ubuntu founder also hinted that there might be further announcements in connection with the big silicon vendors, with which Canonical already has extensive relationships – “At the silicon level we’re a unifying factor” — though he didn’t want to go into detail just yet. The likes of Intel and Samsung and Qualcomm are all trying to develop their own (infuriatingly disparate) standards for the internet of things, and it would be interesting to see how Canonical can insert itself into this chaotic land-grab, if indeed it can.

Ubuntu’s future

For those wishing to repurpose old PCs, the private cloud storage outfit OwnCloud (already available in the Core app store) provides an interesting test case for the difference between Ubuntu Core and the full-fat Ubuntu. As Shuttleworth tells it, OwnCloud “got bitten” by the traditional package management system on Ubuntu, because that involves different packages for different versions of the OS.

“It came to the question of who’s responsible for an out-of-date, insecure version of OwnCloud,” he said. “We can’t usually give [developers] access rights to the archive to push updates – if something malicious is in there… it can go anywhere. [Now] we can say: ‘OK, there’s just one place you push the latest version of OwnCloud and it goes directly to every device with Snappy.’ If they were to do something malicious, we’d confine that to just the data you’ve already given to OwnCloud.”

So, is Core Ubuntu’s WinCE or the future of the venerable Linux distro? Shuttleworth was adamant that the Debian-package version of Ubuntu “will never go away because it’s the mechanism with which we collaborate amongst ourselves and with Debian” and would be of continued relevance for developers:

The question comes when you look to shipping the software to a device or user – folks are increasingly comfortable with the idea that a more bundled, precise and predictable delivery mechanism is attractive for that. I think there will be millions of people using Snappy, but I don’t think the package-based version will go away. It’s so useful for developers and in many cases for production, but in cases where you have a particular property of very high cost to go fix something if it breaks, the Snappy system is very attractive.

For any given application, it’s clear which would be better.

Elon Musk’s satellite plan: Project Loon without helium or latency

Elon Musk dropped a bomb from near-earth orbit on Friday at an event in Seattle: Instead of working with mini-satellite startup OneWeb to build an internet network in the heavens (as was widely expected) Musk told Bloomberg he plans on creating a globe-spanning constellation of his own, launching hundreds, if not thousands, of interconnected satellites each weighing as much as a Vespa.

This is the kind of bold plan we’ve come to expect from Musk, but unlike his past grand-scale projects, the idea for this one isn’t entirely new. The most obvious example is [company]OneWeb[/company]’s planned constellation of 648 satellites. Formerly know as WorldVu, the company was founded by ex-Google satellite chief Greg Wyler and has backing from [company]Virgin[/company] and [company]Qualcomm[/company].

But there are also already satellite constellations in the sky supplying internet access to any point on Earth, most notably Iridium and Globalstar’s networks, though neither one is offering what you would consider broadband speeds. And if we’re looking to make comparisons to other internet projects out there, we need look no further than [company]Google[/company].

The voyage of Loon balloon I-167 as it circumnavigates the globe (source: Google)

The voyage of Loon balloon I-167 as it circumnavigates the globe (source: Google)

When a balloon looks like a satellite

There are surprising similarities between Project Loon and Musk’s proposed SpaceX network as well as OneWeb. The two projects not only appear to share the goals – to connect the farthest corners of the Earth with low-cost internet – but the basic architectures of the networks would be the same.

Google is building a vast network of balloons that surf the stratospheric winds 12 miles up in loosely defined latitudinal orbits around the world. Those balloons use a radio broadband link to connect to transmitters on the ground and mesh networking techniques to link to the other balloons on the horizon, creating a kind of floating internet in the sky. Data is passed from balloon to balloon until it’s within site of a ground receiver, which offloads that data into the internet proper.

Musk’s plan calls for essentially the same scheme, just 740 miles higher up. The original talk of 700 orbiters has now turned into plans for a a constellation with as many as 4,00o satellites. In low-earth orbit, those satellites would be skimming the top of the Earth’s atmosphere, 30 times closer to the surface (and your PC or smartphone) than the geostationary satellites that today carry the bulk of our orbital internet traffic. They won’t be floating like Loon Balloons, but those satellites are still bound by the laws of physics. At that altitude, they’ll need to travel at 16,000 mph and would complete a full orbit of the Earth in a little less than two hours – otherwise they’d fall out of the sky.

That means from a vantage point on Earth these birds will be whizzing overhead. So as with Loon, an Earth-based transmitter won’t be connecting to a single Musk-built orbiter, but multiple. Both balloon and satellite would pass your connection on to the next balloon or satellite as they pass overhead. Data would then flow from balloon to balloon and from satellite to satellite until they found their appropriate ground-based links.

An Iridium flare

An Iridium flare

If you want to get a more concrete of visual, you need only look to the night sky (with a little help from this website). [company]Iridium[/company]’s network of satellites have highly reflective antennas, which produce “flares” when they reflect the Sun’s light, making them resemble shooting stars.

A new spin on the orbital constellation

As those Iridium flares readily demonstrate, there’s already plenty of hardware in the heavens dedicated to providing global internet access. What will Musk or OneWeb’s constellations do that Iridium or [company]Globstar[/company]’s won’t? Or for that matter what Project Loon or other sky-bound internet projects like Facebook’s drones?

While Iridium and Globalstar may have pioneered the globe-spanning internet constellation, they also have limited number of satellites in the sky (66 for Iridium, 32 for Globalstar). Putting more birds in orbit is the equivalent of adding more towers to an urban cellular network: fewer people are connecting to the same cells so every user can tap faster speeds and there’s more overall capacity throughout the entire system.

An Iridium Next satellite

An Iridium Next satellite

Iridium and Globalstar are also focused on providing mobile internet connectivity from satellite phones and modems to a network far above. That’s very useful for leaving a GPS breadcrumb trail for a lost airplane or maintaining contact with dog sleds racing in the Iditarod, but Musk appears to have more stationary transmitters in mind. A high-power antenna aimed at a satellite can produce a lot higher data speeds than one you carry in your backpack.

And while Globalstar and Iridium may have had cutting edge technology at one point, they leave a lot to be desired today. Iridium’s current network is slower than a dial-up modem, and the new Iridium Next network Iridium is launching into space starting this year – ironically on the back of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 — will support a 15 Mbps to a stationary dish antenna.

It ain’t easy running satellites

It takes a long time to plan, design, build and deploy a satellite network. The birds that Iridium is rolling onto the launch pad this year were designed several years ago, and the network won’t be fully operational until 2017 when the last of 66 orbiters are in place.

Musk will be working with newer technology (The Information has it that SpaceX is weighing using optical lasers instead of radio spectrum), and being Elon Musk, he’ll likely be facing a much shorter development timeline (it helps to have the resources of SpaceX at your disposal). But once he gets those birds in space, he’ll likely face many of the same hurdles as other satellite providers. His technology will be frozen in time. These satellites aren’t exactly easy to fix if they break, and upgrading a satellite usually mean sending to fiery death in the Earth’s atmosphere and replacing it with a new one.

A look at the various satellite orbits. Musk's proposed network would sit in low-earth orbit.

A look at the various satellite orbits. Musk’s proposed network would sit in low-earth orbit.

One of the advantages to Project Loon is that Google’s network will be much more accessible. A Loon balloon will circumnavigate the world three times before coming down for regularly scheduled maintenance. Even [company]Facebook[/company]’s drones can be flown down for repairs and upgrades.

But Musk seems to be counting on his orbital network doing something those atmosphere-hugging projects can’t: create a better, faster internet. I’m not talking about speed here, but latency – the delay data undergoes when traversing the globe. When connecting in San Jose to a server in Sydney, your request is hitting multiple routers before it even arrives at the undersea cable to begin its long journey across the Pacific, and all of those steps introduce latency.

Musk claims he can build a purer, simpler internet in the heavens. Though any traffic would have to got through the Earth’s atmosphere twice, once that data stream is 750 miles up, it would make only a few satellite hops across a near vacuum, through which electromagnetic waves travel much faster than through a fiber optic cable. So what Musk is promising to do is not only build an internet to connect the furthest corners of the planet, but a create a network that would draw those far corners much closer together.

There’s enough of a difference between Loon and Musk’s plan, that Google may view them as complimentary technologies, and according to the Information’s report, Google is considering investing in the SpaceX project.

This post was updated on Jan. 21 to note that the size of SpaceX’s planned constellation has grown from 700 to 4000 satellites.