Drones and privacy–will you allow it, or shoot them down?

There’s quite a bit of talk these days about drones, or unmanned aircraft (UAS).  These have several problems, when you get right down to it.

  1. Noise pollution – it’s annoying enough when Sherrif’s helicopters fly overhead and loiter for awhile, but while a UAS would probably be quieter, it’s still not silent.
  2. Safety – If one of these malfunctions or the remote pilot makes a mistake, they can crash, doing damage to persons and property
  3. Privacy – are you comfortable having cameras over your home or business, watching you and recording what you are doing?  If you are, perhaps Russia would be a better place for you to live.

I am mainly concerned about #3, though the first two certainly are things to think about.  As time go by we (as a nation) are slowly giving up our privacy by allowing our lives to become more public (we post personal stuff on Facebook or Twitter and then wonder how stalkers know about us for example).  Todays youth has grown up with this pervasive social network and doesn’t even give a thought to how their personal privacy is compromised by participating.  It seems it’s only us old farts who grew up before this became prevalent who look at it and say “wow, that’s not good, nope, I’m not doing that”.

Unmanned drones are another thing that is starting to take off (ok, sorry, couldn’t resist that).  If we sit idly by and allow this to happen, then there will be no concept of privacy, even in your own back yard.

One town in Colorado has a proposal drafted by resident Phillip Steel to do something about this, in a very American manner.  According to Steel, “We do not want drones in town.  They fly in town, they get shot down”.  Excellent!

The proposal was to sell $25 hunting licenses, and offered a $100 reward to anyone who shot down a drone “known to be owned or operated by the United States Government”.  Wow, how cool is THAT??

The FAA of course (in their traditional role as spoilsports) takes issue with this, stating “Shooting at an unmanned aircraft could result in criminal or civil liability, just as would firing at a manned airplane”.  They claim that they are responsible for airspace and safety and that a damaged aircraft could crash and hurt somebody or damage property (hmm… kinda like my #2 above even without the gunman, but I’m sure they feel THOSE risks are acceptable).

Personally, I think that if everybody took the attitude that Mr. Steel has, that the FAA would find it difficult or impossible to enforce on a large scale, the government would find that they are spending a LOT of money to replace these expensive planes, and the whole thing would fizzle, much to the delight of privacy loving folks everywhere.

Here’s another entertaining alternative, borrowed from WWII.  The Germans had flying bombs which had no pilot and would fly across the channel, run out of Petrol (it’s England, folks), then crash and explode.  They were quite terrifying as weapons because of their random targets and because you could hear them and knew you were safe… until the engine stopped.  Very Hitchcock-esque from a terror standpoint, but I digress.  The allies came up with a good solution.  They’d fly up next to these things, put a wingtip under their wing and then roll their plane.  This caused the bomb to bank, veer off course, and crash in the channel.  Wouldn’t it be fun to do that with a Drone?  Of course I never would do such a terrible thing, and I would never recommend that anybody else do such a terrible and rebellious act, but it’s fun to think about isn’t it?  I bet there are a number of other fun scenarios that don’t involve something as direct as shooting a drone down.  This could be a fun video game!!

Here’s a short article in AVWEB about this amusing Colorado proposal.

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PAL-V ONE–an interesting entry in the flying car realm

PAL-V Europe NV started in 2001 to design a roadable aircraft.  What they came up with is very interesting indeed.  It’s a two-place (two seater) gyroplane which behaves like a souped-up 3 wheel motorcycle on the road (yes, it leans!)

There are always compromises when trying to come up with a machine that works both in the air and on the road.  Historically, companies working in this area emphasize the air, and give you a “roadable” machine which has pretty lousy performance, but gets you from your garage to the airport, and that’s about it.  PAL-V, on the other hand has really worked on the road part of the equation, producing a vehicle which delivers high performance (112mph), has good range, and seems like it would actually be fun to drive.

As far as the airborne side goes, an gyroplane is an interesting approach.  It is a rotary wing craft, but the wing is not powered, it rotates from forward air pressure.  This means you can’t land or take off vertically, but it is a lot simpler and cheaper than a helicopter’s rotor mechanism.  It is quieter than a helicopter as the blades spin much slower, it takes off and lands at low speeds, and can’t stall.  In the event of an engine failure, it can be auto-rotated to a safe landing.  It’s designed to fly below 4,000 feet in uncontrolled VFR (visual flight rules) traffic.  They say it will do 112mph in the air as well as on land!

Roadable high-performance gyroplane

Terrafugia flying car–getting closer to reality!

Terrafugia has been working on some interesting things in the flying-car realm.  I wrote about them a couple of years ago, but now we are getting closer to being able to actually go out and buy one of these.

Driving to flying, and back to driving again

Here’s some interesting inside-the-cockpit footage:

Inside the cockpit

Now, they have announced that they are working on a hybrid-electric VTOL car!  At the moment, it’s at the concept stage, but it certainly would be really cool if they can get it off the ground (er, sorry, I couldn’t resist)

VTOL hybrid gas/electric

Aviation Trust Fund to be used to keep control towers open

According to Forbes: After a week of mounting pressure from airline lobbying groups and air travelers outraged at flight delays caused by across-the-board Government spending cuts, Congress fixed the problem by preparing legislation (which the President said he would sign) to allow the transfer of revenue from the FAA’s Airport and Airway Trust Fund to cover air traffic controller salaries and prevent the closure of control towers.   Contrary to what many commenters have said, this action was not a rescue of the aviation elite at the expense of social welfare programs.  And no money will be diverted from DOT’s budget for other programs, such as highway improvement or bridge safety.  The Airport and Airway Trust Fund is never used for these other programs and it’s misleading for commenters to imply that there will be a negative impact on these other programs by this transfer of funds.

I applaud this decision, and I believe it is a good stop-gap to allow control towers to remain open and preserve the safety and efficiency of aircraft traffic.  Assuming this legislation passes, it is good that an accident did not have to occur before something positive was done about the situation.  However, this fund was not set up for this purpose, and it seems to me that it would be wrong to continue to redirect funds in this way for the long term.  This should give the FAA time to re-evaluate and to propose cuts to meet their new budgetary requirements without compromising safety, the way their reckless and irresponsible tower closing proposal did.

FAA tower closing plan–Irresponsible and Inane!

With the government budget sequestration, many departments in our government have been forced to make budget cutbacks and adjustments (and not before time, if you ask me – governmental spending has been out of control for years).

As a private pilot, I find one department’s response to be particularly disturbing.  As soon as sequestration looked like it was probably going to happen, the FAA released a petulant sounding 5-yr-old statement staying that it intended to close most of the contract-based control towers at airports in the USA.  Really? Is that the best they could come up with for things to trim with a budget reduction?

Now that sequestration has happened, the FAA is standing behind this bizarre and irresponsible approach to budget cutting.  They are planning to close 149 active control towers nationwide (out of 238 total)!  According to Craig Fuller, president and CEO of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) “The White House does not understand the consequences of these actions, or they do and they simply do not care,” Fuller said. “Either way, this approach is dangerous and should not stand.”  Speaking to a group of more than 100 pilots at an AOPA town hall meeting at DuPage Airport outside of Chicago, he goes on to say “We are on the eve of one of the most unfortunate and unnecessary actions ever taken by the Federal Aviation Administration,” Fuller said. “The FAA should use the flexibility it has to avoid a deep, across-the-country closure of air traffic control towers based on a flawed formula that shuts down towers because they serve general aviation.”

I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Fuller.  The FAA is behaving completely irresponsibly in this matter.  There are other things for them to trim other than control towers which are directly responsible for traffic safety into and out of our airports.

This is a picture of the brand-new control tower at Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland.  It was opened last May with $5.3 million in federal government funds.  Now, this is just one of the towers on the chopping block by the FAA.  This seems the height of absurdity to me.

What does the FAA say about all this?

The FAA says it is facing an untenable situation. By congressional mandate, it must cut nearly $600 million from its nearly $48 billion budget this fiscal year. Because the majority of its 47,000 employees are air traffic controllers, it is impossible to cut its budget without affecting controllers, the agency says.

The FAA is furloughing employees, eliminating midnight shifts at some control towers and reducing maintenance on non-critical facilities. In an effort to affect the fewest travelers, the FAA said it is targeting lower-volume airports — those that have fewer than 150,000 operations a year (a takes off or landing is an operation) and fewer than 10,000 commercial operations.

The 238 towers fall under those thresholds, including 49 FAA-staffed towers and 189 contractor-staffed towers. The FAA cuts to be announced Friday focus solely on the contract towers. 

This is not surprising – contract towers have never been well liked by the FAA and they aren’t considered “part of the family” by the agency.  Typically contract towers are less expensive and more efficient than FAA staffed towers (is that much of a surprise?)

The FAA claims that these tower closures will not impact safety. ROFL! Oh, there will be an impact, but most likely it will be the crunching of metal as two planes collide, causing loss of life and property.  The FAA plans to reduce flight volumes to help, which means that flights to major cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco could experience delays of up to 90 minutes during peak hours.  This will of course have a ripple effect across the country.  If you delay one airport, then you delay the airport where the flight originates also.

It is time for the news media to get this into the public eye.  It makes no sense at all, and something dire is going to have to happen before these buffoons are exposed.  This does not have to happen!  We cannot allow such irresponsible actions on the part of the FAA.

Martin Jetpack–finally for sale $100,000

The long-awaited Martin Jetpack has finally been made available for civilian purchase.  The ducted fan “backpack” has a running time of 30 minutes, and can reach heights of 5,000 feet.  They also have an unmanned version for $180,000 which is useful for search and rescue applications among other things. Click picture below for full story:

The Martin Jetpack, developed with UAE institutions, at Idex yesterday. It can travel at 100kph and reach heights of 1,500 metres. Sammy Dallal / The National

Personal Helicopters – aka the real geek’s Beanie Hat

So with the latest disappointment from Moller, I did some poking around to see what other people are doing.  I turns out that quite a few folks are working on VTOL, but in a different way!  It’s a shame that none of these products, even though some appear to work quite well, seem to make it to market.  Especially ‘cause I want one!

Here’s one for motorcycle enthusiasts that’s downright sexy, the Malloy Hoverbike:

 

This is a rather interesting approach, and being a motorcycle rider, I like it!  It’s being developed in Sydney, Australia and has a target price of approximately $45,000 AUD.  Projected specs are: Airspeed – 150KIAS, Service ceiling – >10,000 ft, Dry weight – 110kg, Max gross weight – 270kg,  Total thrust – 295kg.  Development is funded primarily by Chris Malloy himself, with some donations.  So, it’s a slow development process as a result.  According to their website (no idea when the last update was), it has only been flown tethered, but they say it seems to be very stable.

Moller Skycar M400X demonstration postponed

Today is the day Moller Interational was supposed to demonstrate untethered, manned flight with their Skycar M400X prototype.  There have been no announcements on their website, and the blog section where this (among other things) was being discussed has been taken down, supposedly due to abusive fake postings by people impersonating Moller employees.  Hmm… doesn’t seem like it would be rocket science to secure THAT, now does it?

After doing a bit more digging today, I unearthed an article in Yahoo! Finance which states that the demo has been postponed.  This was released Sept 27, 2011.  I find it very curious that Moller’s website does not have any of this information.  One would think that platform would be an obvious way to communicate with the public and investors, and that from a PR standpoint, transparency would be a good idea.  But hey, what do I know, eh?

According to the Yahoo! press release: “The new flight date will be announced once the final approvals have been given from the FAA, event sponsors, Moller's flight preparation team and an acceptable weather window can be identified.”

There’s lots of spin on there, but they say the rescheduled demo will be conducted at Lake Minden, a private 41 acre lake resort located 20 miles north of Sacramento International Airport.

The date, of course has not been set.  Dumb, dumb, dumb.  You’d think that Moller would want to regain a bit of credibility by setting a date (soon) and then actually (gasp) going through with it.  But again, what do I know, eh?

I tend to agree with one of the followup posters on the above article: “Surely 35+ years is enough time to successfully overcome the relevant challenges. It might be time to let a more practical, results oriented leader take the reins. I suspect Burt Rutan could get the thing up and running in about 20 minutes.”  Let’s give him a couple of months so he can do a really bang-up job!

Terrafugia flying car

Another company has joined the development effort to produce the elusive flying car.  As I mentioned in a previous post, this isn’t a new concept, and there have been several attempts over the years to address this market.  The “Transition” by Terrafugia is probably one of the better looking and more interesting ones though.

image

The wings unfold at the push of a button in less than 30 seconds.  You do your preflight and redirect the engine’s power to the pusher prop instead of the wheels, and you are ready to take off.  Here is a video of the prototype’s first flight:

In contrast, one of the early and better known original flying cars is the Taylor Aerocar.  This vehicle (below) has a “pod” which attaches to the back of the car containing the wings and propeller assembly.  This pod is manually detached and left at the airport when the car is converted to road use.  This conversion reportedly took 30 minutes.  Clearly, pushing a button and staying in the comfort of the cab is much more convenient, especially in inclement weather.

File:Taylor-Aerocar-III.jpg
The Taylor Aerocar

The Fulton Airphibian AF-3-101 had a similar design:

File:Fulton Airphibian FA-3-101.jpg

The Maverick (the subject of my earlier post) flying car is interesting, but as it’s basically a ram-air parachute wing attached to a rather goofy looking sand buggy, it doesn’t win style awards in my book.  Also, conversion takes time:

File:Maverick Flying Car.jpg

The only other variant I am aware of is the PD-1 Roadable Glasair being developed by Plane Driven.  This one has an engine pod below the center of the fuselage which is slid on rails toward the tail of the plane, then the wings are manually folded against the sides for road use.  The conversion is more manual, but doesn’t seem to awkward.

Of course, I’m not forgetting about Moller’s Skycar (see my posting here).  That vehicle is a radically different design due to it’s VTOL capabilities.  It’s quite pricy, but very swoopy looking:

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There are many others, of course. Check out the Wikipedia article.  I chose the ones above to talk about because they seemed the most practical and actually affordable.  There are several interesting units being developed, but their pricing is ludicrous.  Take the Urban Aeronautics’ X-Hawk for example.  This has a projected price of $3 million.  Maybe that’s OK for government search & rescue use, but it is obviously not useful to the general public.

Skycar Manufacturer Moller International Announces Scheduled Test Flight

DAVIS, CA — (Marketwire) — 04/18/11 — Moller International (OTCBB: MLER) ("The Company") is pleased to announce that they have scheduled a demonstration flight of its ethanol-fueled M400 Skycar volantor. This invitation-only media event is scheduled to take place on October 11, 2011 in Vacaville, CA. Over 250 members of the domestic and international press have already indicated an interest in attending this historic flight.

I really need one of these.  Forget about all the other toys I have said that about, I’m serious about this one.  Really.

image

Actually, if I can’t have one of those, then their hobbled (it is limited by computer to 10ft max ground clearance) Neuera (pronounced “new-era”) would be fun, but not quite as practical for commuting:

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