A drone for every home

Drones are becoming the latest military technology to find a home as consumer technology.

The present of military technology has always been the future of civilian technology. From jet engines to GPS and the internet, things invented for war have often found a new lease of life repurposed to make the world better, and drones are no exception.

The first foray into the consumer market is barely recognisable as a drone at all. The Parrot, a 60cm-square "flying toy" that retails for £300, doesn't look a huge amount like a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle. It isn't armed with cruise missiles, for one thing, and it's quite a bit smaller. It's also not based around a plane-type design but is instead a "quadricopter": four rotors, which can spin independently so that the drone flies with a fair amount of stability. But it's an unmanned, fly-by-remote-control aerial vehicle. Definitely a drone.

The Parrot has two cameras, pointing forward and down, which let it be controlled by a smartphone or tablet over wifi. It streams video back to the "pilot", who uses simple onscreen controls to move it around within its 50m range. Out of the box, it is largely a toy. But all that changed when the hackers got hold of it.

Take the Joggobot. By modifying the software which controls the Parrot, a pair of game designers in Australia have created a robotic pace-setter. The drone flies ahead of a runner, keeping an eye on a pattern printed on their t-shirt, and maintaining a steady speed. The creators argue that their creation prompts questions:

Should the robot be a pacemaker for the jogger? If so, can this be motivating? Or should the Joggobot be more like a dog, reacting to the jogger like a pet companion? How does this affect the interaction, and in particular, the exercise experience for the jogger? Will joggers run faster or longer because of the robot? And, maybe more importantly, will the jog be more engaging?

The Joggobot is limited, however, by what the Parrot can do. Although the drone is undoubtedly impressive for consumer technology, it has a battery life of just 20 minutes – barely enough to break a sweat – and can't carry anything beyond its own weight, which means that it can't lug around a change of clothes while you run. 

For real breakthroughs, its not enough to use a toy based on military drones: you have to get hold of the real thing. That's what this Polish protester did, filming a three-way clash between the police, neo-nazis and anti-fascists from the sky:

The widespread availability of UAV technology raises the possibility that the surveillance state can be turned back on itself. Already, sites such as Fitwatch apply the police's logic of Forward Intelligence Teams (squads of officers dedicated to documenting the presence of known "domestic extremists" at protests) to the police themselves, publishing "spotter cards" to warn protesters of police with alleged histories of violence and so on. With civilians in charge of the tools of surveillance, hopefully the sort of mysterious CCTV blackout that, it was claimed, happened when Ian Tomlinson was killed, ought to become rare.

New technology always raises new issues. And there's no better demonstration of that than the Tacocopter.

A sort of half-joke, half-proof of concept, half-genuine business plan, the Tacocopter "combines four of the most prominent touchstones of modern America: tacos, helicopters, robots and laziness", as the Huffington Post's Jason Gilbert puts it. The idea is simple: hungry San Franciscans launch an app, which checks their GPS and bills their iTunes account before launching a drone carrying a taco to whereever they may be.

It doesn't actually exist, of course. But the founders insist that they are serious, with only the minor hurdles of the plan's illegality and impracticality holding them back. The company's co-founder, Star Simpson, told Gilbert that:

Current US FAA regulations prevent . . . using UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, such as drones] for commercial purposes at the moment. Honestly, I think it's not totally unreasonable to regulate something as potentially dangerous as having flying robots slinging tacos over people's heads . . . [O]n the other hand, it's a little bit ironic that that's the case in a country where you can be killed by drone with no judicial review.

The practical concerns, described by Gilbert as "minor", as still pretty tricky:

Navigating the treacherous terrain of an urban environment, keeping the food warm, finding a city map precise enough to avoid crashes 100 per cent of the time, avoiding birds, balconies and telephone wires, delivering food to people indoors, delivering food to the right person, dealing with greedy humans who would just steal the Tacocopter as soon as it got to them, etc.

The legal hurdles are what have been focused on heavily by bloggers such as the Economist's Ryan Avent. It's more fun to think that evil big government is keeping us from our robot-delivered street food than it is to handle the fact that it's quite tricky to automatically fly a quadricopter through a city. But as Avent says, "It's a short leap from the ridiculous to the transformative."

Right now, though, most of what we can do with drones is staying firmly in the former category. The pinnacle of consumer drone technology remains the Orvillecopter:

This week's edition of the New Statesman features a cover story on drones, and is on stands now.

A Parrot drone is displayed at CES. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The moonwalkers: what it's like to belong to the world's most exclusive club

"The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space."

It’s been almost 50 years since man first walked on the moon – and there were only a grand total of six missions.

From 1969 until 1972, as humanity reached out into space, these men – and they were all men – were at the forefront of scientific research and discovery.

But in 2017, the six survivors – now with a combined age of 505 – are the rare members of an exclusive club. The other six moonwalkers have already passed away.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was on Apollo 11, Charlie Duke was on Apollo 16 and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt was an Apollo 17 moonwalker. For the first time, at the Starmus festival in Trondheim, Norway, the three have come together to discuss their experience.

The three share “a special relationship, no question about it”, according to Duke. He tells me: “Our experiences are different but they’re the same in so many respects.”

Aldrin – unable to appear in person due to doctor’s orders – quips on camera from his home in Florida that President Dwight Eisenhower was advised that they should send a philosopher or maybe a poet up. His response, possibly apocryphal, came: “No, no - I want success."

As a result, it is up to these scientists to find the words to describe the off-Earth adventure which is the defining event of a moonwalker's life. 

A poetic description comes from Texan resident Duke. First and foremost a test pilot, his interest in space was piqued by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. He joined Nasa in 1966.

Now 81, Duke served as mission control support throughout many Apollo missions, most notably as the voice of Capsule Communicator when Neil Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969.

He tells me: “Once we left Earth’s orbit, we turned our spaceship around and there was the whole Earth 40,000km away.

“The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space. That contrast between the vivid blackness and the bright Earth – this jewel of Earth I like to call it - was right there.”

Aldrin started his career as a mechanical engineer, before joining up as a jet fighter in the US Air Force during the Korean War.

His gung-ho spirit and enthusiasm for space have not deserted him even at the age of 87 – he appears onscreen at the festival wearing a "Get your ass to Mars" T-shirt.

The most memorable experience for him came when he congratulated Neil Armstrong, the first of the team to walk on the moon (he died in 2012). But in the lunarscape, memories get confused – the men remember the moment differently.

“After the landing, I looked over at Neil, and we smiled. I remember patting him on the back and he remembers shaking hands. So here were two first-hand witnesses and we couldn’t agree on what actually happened when we got there.”

For Aldrin, the significance of the moonwalk was looking at the moon’s surface from close-up – the lunar soil, or regolith – and what happened when an astronaut's boot stepped onto it. 

“It was so remarkable, the way that it retained its exact form,” he marvels, 48 years on.

Aldrin's fascination with the moon's surface was shared by Schmitt, the 12th, and so far, last, man to walk on the Moon. A trained geologist, he was also the first scientist to do so.

In Schmitt's case, the rocky surface of the moon was enough to draw him into lunar research, which he still conducts at the age of 81.

“The commander told me as soon as I got out I had to look up and see the Earth," he recalls. "I said ‘Well, chief, you’ve seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all’."

In truth, having spent three days looking at the Earth from his craft, Schmitt’s priority was in looking down at the new surface under his feet.

After landing in a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, his chief concern was just getting to work collecting samples in a lifesize laboratory.

While the moment on the moon may be the initiation into an elevated celebrity, it is followed quite literally a fall back to earth. 

In his post-Moon life, Duke found God.

“A lot of us have a letdown [afterwards]," he admits. Duke was 36 when he landed on the moon in April 1972. By December, the Apollo programme was over. "In January ’73, the thought occurred to me, ‘what am I going to do now?’"

Achieving his life's ambition before hitting middle age turned out not to be as satisfying as he expected. "Because you’d climbed the top, you got to the ultimate high when you were still a young man - and the drive that took you to the ultimate high was still there," he says. "That was a struggle."

In the years since, Duke has looked at his experience as a religious one. Yet he insists God wasn’t present for him when he touched down on the lunar body.

“The Moon flight was not a spiritual experience," he says. "I didn’t understand the wonder of God’s universe. I was enjoying the beauty and the excitement of this mission.”

The three men agree that Mars is the next step for the future of humanity, but there are safety and speed concerns.

“There is potential important work to be done in better physiological understanding of human exposure to long duration space flight which is going to happen whenever we go to Mars,” says Schmitt.

“Anything we do as human beings that’s productive and worthwhile carries risk, either physical of psychological. Radiation, physiological exposure to weightlessness for long durations, and the danger of landing on a distant planet where the atmosphere is not going to be much help - but you do accept the risk that it might end up as a one-way trip.”

But after all of that - the life, the death, the heartache - Duke says he would go back up there if he could.

“At my age now I wouldn’t volunteer to go to Mars - but I would volunteer for a round-trip to the Moon again.”

Starmus Festival runs in Trondheim until Friday June 23. For more information, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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