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Question of the Week

This weekend I saw Ex Machina, an excellent, dark and provocative new sci-fi thriller that I recommend to you all. The movie adheres to some of the familiar dystopian themes we’ve seen in recent science fiction, chief among them the fears raised by the prospect of the arrival of truly intelligent machines.

But we make intelligent machines. Solo is the world’s first smart drone, and its intelligence makes it more advanced, more reliable, more safe and just a better overall experience. Solo does more so that you have to do less. Almost paradoxically, the fact that Solo is more automated allows you to get shots that are more human — Solo’s fine-tuned mechanical dexterity translates into your freedom to be a creative and nuanced aerial filmmaker. And its intelligence is democratic, rather than autocratic: Solo allows anyone to get great shots and fly with confidence. You could argue that the advancement of smart technology in Solo — and in many high-tech products and robots — is necessary to make our interactions more natural and more human.

So there’s the case for intelligence. Yet in the tech field, as this piece from the NY Times points out, it’s hard to ignore the doubts — especially when Elon Musk, the celebrated tech entrepreneur and founder of SpaceX, gives $10 million to the Future of Life Institute, an organization that seeks to “mitigate existential risks facing humanity” from AI. In the news you see echoes of this same fear — especially the news about drones. More and more articles — including some in this week’s Download — point out how we’re responding to intelligent machines with critical art, including films like Ex Machina.

But this week drones saved people from drowning in Texas. They’re sampling volcanic ash and using air for fuel and helping kids learn STEM subjects.

So my question to you is an abstract one: How smart do you want your drone to be? How smart is too smart — if there is such a thing? What do you want your drone to do? What don’t you want it to do? Do you worry about intelligence in your skies, or do you welcome it? Why?

Leave your comments below — last week’s discussion was pretty phenomenal. Excited for this next one.

And now, the links that matter:


Last week the Justice Department published guidelines that would bar them (including agencies like the DEA and the FBI) from using drones to monitor activity protected under the First Amendment — things like speeches and nonviolent demonstrations. The DOJ also said it would follow the same constitutional principles that require law enforcement to get warrants when conducting surveillance or other activities in which people have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” At the bottom, however, it acknowledged that these guidelines aren’t exactly legally binding yet. (The Hill)

It’s flooding down in Texas — but a drone helped rescue workers save lives. Outfitted with a spotlight, the drone enabled responders to identify a pickup truck at night, caught in a rushing river and otherwise invisible. The same drone also delivered a rope to a stranded family. (Motherboard)

Air Force Academy cadets win DARPA’s annual research contest with a design for miniature drones, deployable in swarms. The miniature aircraft could help first responders quickly map wildfires, radiation leaks or chemical attacks. (The Gazette)


The Atlantic on why we’re growing culturally and artistically obsessed with drones.

Interesting interview with Chuck Tobin on why he thinks Florida’s new drone privacy law is unconstitutional. “Florida law, as with other states, already protects people’s privacy. The problem with this particular law is that it restricts from a journalist’s standpoint the First Amendment rights to gather news, and the public’s First Amendment rights to receive news. You can take the same picture on your own property standing on a ladder, you can take the same picture by helicopter. It’s just that with the use of this particular technology in all situations that makes it unlawful, and that’s a problem.” (Saint PetersBlog)

“The very rich are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald is reported to have remarked to Ernest Hemingway. “Yes,” replied Papa. “They have more money.” With which to buy more drones, I’m sure he added. But the mega-rich are now worried about those cameras turning around on them. (Motherboard)

High Tech

A folding drone that fits in your pocket and unfolds itself automatically for flight. “The arms are made of fiberglass and inelastic polyester, and when the propellers at the end of each arm turn on, the force of the rotors pulls each foldable arm out into its extended position where it’s held in place by magnets.” In order for the arms to unfold correctly, however, two of the mini-quad’s blades need to be spinning the wrong way — but they reverse in milliseconds and you’re in business. Viable applications for first responders. (Popular Mechanics)

This drone runs on air. Battery life has long been the bane of drone users (though to me 25 minutes of flight time is actually a little too much). Batteries can only provide so much power, and adding more and bigger batteries increases the weight and gives you diminishing returns on flight time. But a company called Horizon Unmanned Systems seeks to solve this problem with hydrogen fuel cells. The “Hycopter” promises four hours of flight time without a payload, and 2.5 hours of flight time with a 2-pound payload. Hydrogen obviously doesn’t add a lot of weight — the total weight of the gas used is just 4 ounces — but Horizon claims their fuel cells provide as much power as 105 ounces of lithium ion battery. (Popular Science)

An interesting and worthy Kickstarter project: SkyBot, a DIY drone kit for K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students. SkyBot is a small and simple build, plus it’s inexpensive and 3D printed — meaning kids can customize the CADs and design and build their own drones anywhere there’s a 3D printer.

Want to protect your SkyBot from your kid? Here’s another Kickstarter for a drone parachute system. Hurry, though — time’s running out on this one and they’re still a little short.

But how do we know it’s safe to fly the drone? The NavSonde drone samples particles in the air to test when it’s safe to fly a manned plane by a volcano. In the future the technology will also likely also be applied to help plan manned flights around dust storms, pollution and forest fires. (Wired)


From Nat Geo, these Sudanese pyramids have stood in the desert for 3,000 years. (Gizmodo)

3DR Aviator Dieter Humpsch landed himself on the cover of Wakeboarding Magazine — check out the great aerial video he shot while wakeboarding in the fog.

Drone video of a bridge washed out in this weekend’s devastating Texas floods. The jello is completely forgivable if you want to have an appreciation for what water can do. (Mashable)