Embracing drone use for public safety
By Lou Fancher
Unmanned aerial drones and robots are third-generation offspring of the PC. After unlimited data and global communications flowed through personal computers, they jumped to mobile devices.
Arguably, the exploration of hands-free technology has traveled fastest in military and public safety sectors.
Members of Lamorinda CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), tech experts and officials involved in disaster response and recovery heard about robotics, satellites, drones and other new technologies at a recent presentation at the Orinda Library.
The Moraga-Orinda Fire District is in the early stages of developing the program for their newly acquired DJI, Inspire 1 UAS (Unmanned Aerial System), a quadcopter with a camera capable of recording 4K videos and shooting 16MP images.
The drone was purchased at no direct cost to the fire district through a grant from the Rescue One Foundation. CERT’s interest in drones and robotics moves in tandem with the MOFD’s: both organizations strive to be proactive when it comes to public safety.
According to Dennis Rein, MOFD emergency preparedness coordinator, possible departmental use of the quadcopter includes creating firefighter training videos, documenting district assets and events, and assisting with fire investigation documentation.
Additional uses may address vegetation mapping for hazard reduction sites and other applications.
“At this time, there is no intent to utilize the equipment as part of an ongoing emergency operation (or) use it to fly over private property,” writes Rein in an email.
At the presentation, guest speaker Rick Palmer, president of Contra Costa VOAD (“Volunteer Organizations Active in Disasters”) brought project management experience and component manufacturing knowledge from his 40-year career in the aerospace, pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries.
After retiring 15 years ago, Palmer became involved with the Red Cross and other volunteer disaster response agencies.
Before explaining new technologies and outlining projections of what disaster response will look like 10 years in the future, Palmer referenced a “60 Minutes” broadcast, “The Coming Swarm.” It featured Perdix, an autonomous microdrone that Palmer said is “the future” and indicates a direction in which disaster relief agencies are moving.
Perdix was developed by MIT Lincoln Labs and demonstrated on the broadcast at China Lake Weapons Station in California.
A swarm of 100 drones traveled at such velocity that high-speed cameras were needed to film them. They flocked and flew in tighter formation than was possible for pilots of the three F-18 jet fighters that launched the swarm — and communicated seamlessly with each other, despite being physically unmanned.
Like the robots being used and developed further by the military to detect and dismantle explosives without putting troops at risk — and Sea Hunter, the Navy’s autonomous ship that is run by 36 computers and has no crew onboard — problem-solving without loss of life is new technologies’ central goal.
Along with improving capabilities for surveillance comes a loss of privacy, as one person in the audience called “ the overarching issue” and asked Palmer to address.
“It’s huge,” Palmer agreed. “It’s in everything we’re talking about. Trying to regulate tech: How do you do that? They’ve got to figure it out.”
Included with privacy matters are concerns about safety, he said, providing an example of packages dropped by drones into backyards where a dog might be injured.
Although people worried about privacy often illogically share unequivocally on social media platforms, Palmer said that even experiencing a disaster doesn’t shift people’s perception that a loss of privacy due to drones is concerning.
Disasters also don’t reduce — and likely increase — public interest in the new technologies, if the “oohs” uttered by people at Palmer’s presentation are taken as evidence.
From drones capable of lifting 35 pounds to the 1.2 million (unregulated) drones sold during the 2016 holiday shopping season to those interfering with disaster rescues but also providing medical supplies to isolated clinics, Palmer illustrated the technology’s good-bad equations.
“Disasters are impetus to develop new technology,” he said, introducing Big Dog, a four-legged robot that carries supplies and runs uphill at 29 mph.
There are improved GPS systems and apps that track water levels and alert people to impending floods; a human-model robot originally created for DARPA’s Robotics Challenge that drives a utility vehicle, opens doors, operates valves and tools and walks through rubble; and satellites whose cost is plummeting.
“Everything is driving to better, cheaper, faster,” he said.
The next frontier for new technology will be developing laws and standards, according to Palmer. Without proper regulation, an updated saying applies: We are in danger of the unmanned cart running well ahead of the horse.