Drone HoneyBees?

The plight of bees has been wildly reported and discussed in recent years.  This apocalyptic crisis has been reported from CCN to Rolling Stone, with naysayers throwing their 2 cents in the lot.  After all, without bees, there is no food.  Literally, there is no food.  Bees pollinate our plants providing us with the food produced by such pollination.  All those flowers blooming now?  Fruit tree flowers turn into, well, fruit.  But only if they are pollinated.

Well, drones are here to save the day!  Or are they?

Photo from NPR.org Courtesy of Dr. Eijiro Miyako

NPR ran a story recently on a project to partially solve the bee epidemic, bee drones.  A discussion with Eirjiro Miyako, a researcher at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, discussed their efforts to develop a drone to aid in plant pollination.

I do not doubt the ability of Miyako to use drones to aid in pollination.  I  do doubt the entire approach.  It seems as though we encounter problems, problems we have created, we attempt to solve them without truly solving them.  The solution to pollinating plants is bees.  This summary from Science Daily suggests bees have been around for 100 million years.  100 million years.

This 100-million-year-old bee embedded in amber was found in an amber mine in the Hukawng Valley, Kachin state, northern Myanmar (Burma). Credit: Image courtesy of Cornell University

You cannot simply replace a species this old and integral to evolution with modern technology.  If we lose bees, everything will likely be gone.  The solution to dying bees is to prevent the bees from dying.  While I don’t dismiss Miyako’s work, I do think it can be important, it delineates away from the real issue and doesn’t properly address what the problem really is.  It uses a Snoopy band-aid on a mortar wound.

I don’t know the solution.  I do know that I can attempt to lend my hand to saving this critical species.

My very brightly decorated beehive.

Walmart Attempts to Enter Patent Drone Delivery Space

Walmart, close to 18 months after announcing its plans for drone deliveries, has three drone-delivery related patents publish (a published application is a not a granted patent and these applications will encounter a rigorous inspection and claim amendments at the USPTO).

U.S Patent Publication No. 20140081028, “Systems and Methods of Delivery Products with Unmanned Delivery Aircrafts” published last week.  The patent incorporates pulleys or cranes into a UAV for delivery packages.  The UAV is additionally equipped with sensors to determine the flying height of the drone, when the package encounters a delivery surface, and when a package is released.  Figure 1 illustrates a such a potential system:

This application proposes some interesting ideas but at first blush appears to incorporate known technologies together.  The patent does not elaborate on the sensors or how they work.  The crane system appears to use known gearing and technologies, merely incorporated into a UAV.   If this patent is granted, I predict the claims will be fairly narrow.

The second application that published is U.S. Patent Publication No. 20170081029, “Package Release System for Use in Delivery Packages, and Methods of Delivering Packages.”   Claim 1 reads as follows:

1. A mechanical package release system, comprising: a package release hanger configured to couple with and suspend from an unmanned delivery aircraft; and one or more tension supports each configured to secure with a package and to releasably couple with the package release hanger wherein a decrease of at least a threshold amount of a force being applied by the weight of the package on the one or more tension supports induces a mechanical release of the coupling between the one or more tension supports and the package release hanger resulting in a release of the package from the unmanned delivery aircraft.

This application focuses more on the detecting when the package contacts a delivery surface and subsequently releasing the package.  This patent is more detailed than the first describing the releasing mechanism with more detailed figures to support the specification.

The last application is U.S. Patent Publication No. 20170081043, “Portable Unmanned Delivery Aircraft Launch Systems, and Methods of Delivering Products Utilizing Aircraft Launch Systems.”  As the title suggests, this patent is directed to the take-off or launch phase of drone deliveries.   The launching mechanism includes a package deck (element no. 104 in Fig. 1 reproduced below) and a drone deck (element no. 106).  An interesting incorporation into the application is using the drone deck as a charging station to recharge the delivery craft.  The system is also modular, which may enable it to be scaled up or down based on the size of the cargo.

These patent applications are a great start but seem to lack true ingenuity to add a competitive edge to an unmanned delivery system portfolio.  Walmart is also late entering the game.  Based on a pure Boolean search of the USPTO granted patent site, Amazon has over 50 issued patents relating to drone delivery.  A perusal through the issued patents reveals Amazon’s prolific research and aggressive patent strategy to making drone delivery a reality.  In contrast, Wal-mart has maybe 10-15 published applications venturing into the same space.  More patent applications may be pending publication, but Wal-mart still has a steep uphill battle to catch its competitors.

FAA Testifies on Public Policy of UAS

Last week, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation heard a full committee hearing.  Several witnesses were present including Earl Lawrence – Director of the Office of UAS at the FAA, Diana Marina Cooper – VP of Legal Policy Affairs at Precision Hawk, Ben Fowke – Chairman, President, and CEO at Xcel Energy, Brendan Schulman – VP of Policy and Legal Affairs at DJI, Dr. John Villasenor – Professor of Engineering and Public Policy at UCLA; and Dr. Emilio Gonzalez – Director and CEO at Miami-Dade Aviation Department.  Below is a brief synopsis of their testimony.

Much of Mr. Lawrence’s testimony was a recap of the efforts taken to improve public safety in response to the increase of drone usage.  Clearly, the industry is trending towards beyond line of sight flying (think Amazon drone delivery among other applications).  Mr. Lawrence introduced two initiatives currently underway at the FAA during his testimony.  The first is a Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC).  The LAANC will automate the process for UAS operators to notify Air Traffic Control of flights within five miles of an airport.

Both Ms. Cooper and Mr. Fowke testified to the use of UAS in industry.  Ms. Cooper, for PrecisionHawk, highlighted the use of her company’s products in multiple industries and focused on her company’s contributions to the agriculture industry.  Mr. Fowke, for Xcel, testified to the use of drones in inspections.  He highlighted the benefit of drones for enhancing safety, infrastructure inspection, and improving storm recovery.

Dr. Villasenor opened his testimony with three points dictating his summary.   Dr. Villasenor opined that the ability of drones to violate privacy does not mean new legislation is required.  Rather, he argued any new UAS drone legislation should not infringe the First Amendment rights of responsible UAS users.  His third point was legislating drones and the ever increasing technologies that may also impinge privacy always come with a risk of unintended consequences.   While his points may be valid, he supported them with confusing arguments involving the Fourth Amendment.

Dr. Gonzalez countered Dr. Villasenor’s opinion by testifying about the importance of drone regulation, specifically from the viewpoint of airports and air travel.  His testimony was littered with numbers and the importance of maintaining a no-fly zone around airports.  While I believe his testimony has merit with the safety of our airports, I don’t believe federal legislation is necessary to achieve that goal.  The FAA Part 107 already restricts operations of UAS near airports.

Mr. Schulman also focused his testimony on the application of drones, including using the technology to collect whale mucus.  Mr. Schulman made a valid point that the current FAA Part 107 rules are not well equipped to handle the market.  As he states, currently, a 2-pound drone and a 53-pound drone adhere to the same regulations.  He recommended a micro-category of drone regulation focused at the smaller drones.  Mr. Schulman’s testimony calls for balancing public safety and security with the safety and security provided by drone usage.

Reading through the testimony provides an interesting and varied perspective on the nature of drone usage and balance public safety and privacy concerns.

Police in Ohio May Need a Warrant for Drone Use

The 132nd General Assembly of the Ohio Senate introduced S.B. 60, “Regulate drones used by law enforcement officers.”  The bill, sponsored by Senator Skindell (D) and Senator Thomas (D) requires police to obtain a search warrant based on probable cause prior to utilizing a drone for evidence collection.   The search warrant is not to exceed forty-eight hours.  The search warrant can be extended, but in no circumstance is it to be extended beyond thirty days.

(Picture Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

The proposed bill allows three instances of drone usage without a search warrant.  The first allows drone usage to prevent serious injury or death.  However, within forty-eight hours, a search warrant must be applied for to validated the drone usage.

The other two instances are unrelated to search warrants.   Police may use drones to survey a crime scene or a traffic accident.  Police may also use drones to search for missing persons.

The bill additionally prevents the weaponization of drones and provides for public notice.  As currently drafted, police must publicly report

  1. The number of times a drone was used by or on behalf of the agency, organized by the types of incidents and the justification for each deployment;
  2. The number of criminal investigations that were aided by the use of drones by or on behalf of the agency, including a description of how the drone was of assistance to each investigation;
  3. The number of times drones were used by or on behalf of the agency for reasons other than criminal investigations, including a description of how the drone was of assistance in each instance;
  4. The frequency and type of data collected through the use of a drone by or on behalf of the agency about individuals other than the target or about a home or property other than those of the target;
  5. The total cost to the agency of its drone program.

The bill was introduced February 16 and currently has not been voted on.

Weekly Drone Patent – Lasers!

In reviewing last week’s published patent applications and issued patents was a clear winner.  LASERS  Immediately, I thought of Dr. Evil.

After all, who doesn’t like a good laser post? Therefore, I bring you U.S Patent No. 9,587,915 to Hagen & Gedek titled “Airborne Laser Weapon System” Claim 1 reads as follows:

1. A laser weapon system, comprising: at least one laser generating unit; at least one output stage element; a beam optics element; a ground-based part; and an air-based, fully moveable part; wherein the ground-based part is configured at least to generate energy for the laser weapon system, wherein the air-based part is configured to acquire a target for the laser weapon system, wherein the beam optics element and the at least one output stage element are arranged on the air-based, fully movable part, wherein an optical fiber is configured to transmit energy from the ground-based part to the air-based part and convey communications between the ground-based part and the air-based part.

Figure 3 is shown below.

As seen in the claims, the invention uses a ground-based static part and an airborne movable platform.  The ground-based system generates the energy required for the laser and the airborne platform redirects the energy to the target object.  As simple as this may seem, the redirection is not without risks.  If part of all of the laser beam is not redirected, it may continue along its original path in perpetuity into space.  This may disrupt air traffic and satellites.

This technology is interesting but is a reminder of the weaponization of drones and its implications in society.

Proposed Oklahoma Bill Lets People Shoot Down Drones

Oklahoma Senator Shortey has proposed Oklahoma Senate Bill 660 proposes to allow people to shoot down or otherwise destroy drones in certain situations.  The language of the bill reads, inter alia, as follows:

Any person owning or controlling real estate or other premises who voluntarily damages or destroys a drone located on the real estate or premises or within the airspace of the real estate or premises not otherwise regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration or where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, shall, together with any successors in interest, if any, not be civilly liable for causing the damage or destruction to the property of such person.

The Bill proposes two independent requirements where destroying a drone may be legal.  The first is within airspace or premises not regulated by the FAA.  The second is where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

Several problems exist with this bill.  First, it is a federal crime to shoot at an aircraft, and FAA regulations currently define a drone as an aircraft.  Second, the FAA claims jurisdiction over airspace from the ground up.  This includes drones whether or not they are flown commercially or recreationally.  Third, the expectation of privacy takes the view of the person destroying the drone.  It does not require proof of what the drone payload may be and does not require compliance with other regulations, such as firearm regulations.

Third, the expectation of privacy takes the view of the person destroying the drone.  It does not require proof of what the drone payload may be and does not require compliance with other regulations, such as firearm regulations.  If a neighbor is flying a hobby drone without any payload (any camera, surveillance, etc.) it still authorizes the neighbor to destroy if the neighbor has a “reasonable expectation” of privacy.

While the origins of this bill are not baseless, the bill itself needs to be reworked and brought into compliance with FAA and other regulations.  It also needs to guarantee the safety of the property of the drone owner and put limitations on the destruction of the drone.


Army Drone Mysteriously Flies 600 Miles

According to multiple reports, an armyAAI RQ-7 Shadow drone, estimated worth at $1.5 million, took a 600 mile joyride in late January 2017.  The drone, which has a 77 mile range, lost contact with its base and went wayward on January 31.  A hiker in Colorado found the drone in a tree 10 days later.  Some are puzzled by the travel distance of the drone.  Given strong winds and its fixed wing configuration, it is not overtly surprising that given proper conditions, the drone could maintain elevation and clear mountain ranges.

What is more disturbing is the Army’s lack of tracking over a drone that may, at some point, contain classified information.  This information could potentially include its launch location, data procured during flight, and connection data.   Why wasn’t there an automated self-destruct feature?  What if the drone was lost in Afghanistan or Iraq?  Why did it take 10 days to locate the lost drone? It seems as though the Army has bigger concerns than simply a lost drone.