Reality Computing and the State of Image Sensing

The tools required to measure and sense remote places and objects, in three dimensions, are at your disposal.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor

With the emergence of Memento and other imaging software that anyone can use without special training or experience, combined with the falling costs and growing capabilities of UAVs—plus, the fact that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is inching toward setting regulations that will clear up the fog around where and when UAVs can be legally used for commercial purposes—the time is ripe for companies to consider ways in which they might benefit from having a set of eyes in the sky.

The FAA's proposed rules would require a UAV operator to receive some special training, to not allow the device to move outside that person's visual line or sight, and to operate the UAV only during daylight hours. There are a number of additional requirements, but those are the key factors.

Bill O'Connor, a co-chair of law firm Morrison & Foerster's unmanned aerial systems practice group, said that in the future, the FAA may need to create some type of air traffic control to manage the proliferation of UAVs in low-altitude airspace. The agency has exercised discretion, he added, by not enforcing the rules regarding UAVs as commercial entities have used them to date. That, he said, is because they have, by and large, been used responsibly.

O'Connor's advice to attendees, while the FAA works out its final rules, is that "If you don't want to worry about the FAA, don't do anything unsafe" with a drone. Operating the device while it is outside your visual line of sight would fall under unsafe behavior, for example.

Chris Anderson, 3DR's co-founder, told me that he and his clients are pleased with the FAA's proposed rules, as they are in line with what was expected and match the rules listed in the exemptions that the FAA has granted to some firms (including 3DR and Skycatch), allowing them to use UAVs while the FAA is developing its regulations for commercial UAV use.

Anderson also believes that the ability to sense and avoid objects in their path will make operating UAVs at night, or when they're outside an operator's visual line of sight, completely safe. Once this is proven over time, he predicts, the FAA will drop those restrictions.

Peter Blake, who leads fleet operations for Skycatch, concurs. "We see autonomous operation [of UAVs] as the way of the future," he says. In fact, he adds, the technology needed for safe UAV autonomous operation is here today—within limits. Moving around a construction site? Sure, that's possible. Sending your drone to the next town to make a 3D scan of an office building? Not quite. But someday—and probably sooner than we can imagine—it will be.

Mary Catherine O'Connor is the editor of Internet of Things Journal and a former staff reporter for RFID Journal. She also writes about technology, as it relates to business and the environment, for a range of consumer magazines and newspapers.

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