Every agency will soon be droning on

We all have a drone in our future. At least you’d think so judging from this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Dozens of vendors are showing off unmanned aerial systems. One is designed to hover just over your head, filming whatever you want, wherever you walk or trot.

Not just aerial systems are going autonomous. Robotics is spreading to many functions, including window-washing. Now that federal contractors have to pay employees a minimum of...

READ MORE

We all have a drone in our future. At least you’d think so judging from this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Dozens of vendors are showing off unmanned aerial systems. One is designed to hover just over your head, filming whatever you want, wherever you walk or trot.

Not just aerial systems are going autonomous. Robotics is spreading to many functions, including window-washing. Now that federal contractors have to pay employees a minimum of $10.10 per hour, think of the low-bid possibilities if human window washers were replaced with robots that don’t get lunch breaks. Not so good for the humans, though.

The future looks less bright for those fire-prone “hover” boards. When not burning up from bad battery circuitry, these gadgets seem mainly designed to sweep people onto their tuchuses.

At CES, vendors are pushing home automation, something that may or may not have a big market. For these companies, the Internet of Things means not so much big data as using wireless networks to control garage door openers, heating and air conditioning, and whatever other appliances and gadgets might be equipped with WiFi and remotely operated actuators. Some published reports say these home linking gadgets aren’t selling well, as industrial grade counterparts for commercial buildings do. The application might be clever, but it doesn’t solve a problem people think they need solved.

That’s the fickleness of technology. Some of it seems sure to catch on but never does, often because of expense or complexity. Many years ago an old line company called Bell & Howell came out with something called Film-O-Sound, an apparatus for marrying Super 8 movies to tape cassette recordings, so you could make sound movies on consumer-grade gear. The clunky product bombed. Home video came along a few years later.

Some technologies developed at one time find new life in another. Virtual machines date back to the earliest mainframe days when memory addressing was limited, memory and storage themselves exponentially more expensive than today. Yet in the last decade, just look at the explosion in the x86 virtualization market

Fast-selling drones exemplify not so much new technology as the combination of existing products in such a way as to make new markets — small, cheap, easily deployed aerial vehicles made of motors, rotors, wireless controls, batteries and a frame. Mainly cheap and requiring no skill. Model airplanes have been around as long as the full-sized ones, but they’ve required significant expense and skill to build and use. Check out this model B-29 video powered by chainsaw engines.

That vid is from 2007. Alas, the model spectacularly crashed a couple of times, as documented in subsequent videos. According to the model operator’s website, he eventually  gave up and sold off the materials in his shop.

By contrast, the types of drones you can buy in 7-Elevens and malls are finding their way into the hands of the same people who buy hoverboards. No wonder remotely controlled, unmanned aerial vehicles, especially in the hands of amateurs, have become a federal issue.  Anything flying poses a danger to aircraft occupied by people, to say nothing of people near where they crash. The FAA is struggling to establish a registration, safety and rules program for drones.

But because the technology is both inexpensive and easy to obtain, Homeland Security is working the privacy and security issues for federally-used drones. Not just military grade drones like the Global Hawks inefficiently operated by Customs and Border Protection, either. Agencies won’t buy the types of toys sold in convenience stores, but they will find uses for the many industrial-grade drones also finding their way into nearly every industry.