The Technology That Everyone Thinks Is Evil Can Do Good in Cities

Forget War and Surveillance, Drones Have Better Things to Do

Story by Craig Guillot

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A woman is walking alone to the subway after meeting a friend for dinner in an unfamiliar neighborhood. She is slightly lost and staring down at a slow-to-load map on her iPhone, trying to figure out which way to turn. Her eyes are trained on the screen glowing in her palm as she approaches a busy intersection, seemingly unaware of the cars speeding around her.

Now imagine that same scenario but instead of staring down at a phone, the woman is walking briskly toward a train station, eyes focused on the street ahead. A few paces ahead of her, a winged electronic device only slightly larger than a paper airplane flies toward the station too. After a few minutes, the woman reaches her destination and the device descends, helicopter wings softly whirring to a closed position. She places the device in her purse and takes out a MetroCard.

In 2007, it was easy enough to scoff when Steve Jobs called his first iPhone a “revolutionary and magical” product that would irrevocably change the way we live.

Seven years and many billion in iPhone sales later, it’s safe to say that those who dismissed Jobs misunderstood the point of Apple’s seductive device — more wearable information network than phone. Smartphones have transformed our basic human operations, from the way we communicate and navigate our daily travels to the way we meet our romantic partners, monitor our diet and get where we are going.

Smartphones are reshaping how we interact with cities on a structural level too. We have recorders with us to capture interactions with police and apps to hail a cab or let us know when the bus is coming. The next seismic shift is coming with the impending legalization of the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone — the smartphone’s smarter autonomous cousin.

Yaniv Jacob Turgeman leads research and development at the MIT Sensable City Lab. In 2013, he and researcher Chris Green worked with a small team of MIT researchers to develop Skycall, an autonomous drone capable of guiding a person through a complex unfamiliar urban environment. The idea came from a conversation with a friend about navigating New York alone.

“A friend living in New York once asked me to develop a personal drone to watch over them and keep them safe while walking through the big city. It was a joke between us, nevertheless it raised both ideas and concerns about the use of drones in cities,” Turgeman said. “After sharing this story with Chris and Professor Ratti, the director of the lab, we set out to explore more optimistic uses for drones as programmable and autonomous parts of the city. SkyCall was our first step in investigating how people might interact with these flying robots, and how they might help us interact with our built and natural environments.”

Most of the time when we hear about drones, it is in the context of war, surveillance or dystopian movies featuring cyber-thugs with jackboots and gleaming digital weaponry. Turgeman is interested in what happens when we imagine this technology being used to transform the relationships between people and their environments. It’s a question that he believes holds special relevance for cities, our densest centers of information, opportunity and movement.

Already, in cities around the world from Toronto to Beijing, drones are being used to inspect power lines and buildings. A UAV can fly to the top of a 300-foot radio tower or climb over a 23-story building and hover there while mapping with a thermal sensor or taking photos. The technology allows workers to stay safe on the ground and at the same time, detect problems far more efficiently than in the past.

“By their very nature, drones can go to places that people can’t. They can do things faster, more efficiently and safer, and they can provide valuable information,” said Michael Cohen, president of Industrial SkyWorks, a drone company headquartered in Toronto and fully licensed to operate its commercial UAVs in Canada. The company uses flying cameras to model development, survey land, inspect buildings and infrastructure, and help with disaster planning.

In other rapidly urbanizing parts of the globe, they’ve been used to map sprawling informal settlements and detect environmental threats or hazards. Law enforcement agencies are using them to monitor traffic and respond to emergencies, and a growing number of early-adopting tech geeks are revolutionizing street photography with their high-flying capabilities. Falling prices and auto-pilot systems now offer virtually anyone an easy and effective way to put a camera hundreds of feet in the air.

The epicenter of non-military drone technology is China, where drones fly over traffic-choked city streets to deliver birthday cake and hover over notoriously polluted cities like Beijing, Shanxi and Hebei, detecting chemicals in the smoggy air. In testing now are drones that would respond to smog by spraying air-cleaning chemicals as they fly.

Skycall guides a student through MIT’s campus. The autonomous drone was built to navigate complex urban environments. (Photo credit: MIT Senseable City Lab)

Here in the United States, the laws are still catching up with the technology. Though hobbyists are allowed to fly the aerial tech toys, the Federal Aviation Administration is still working out how to regulate commercial use and even using drones for public or research purposes can fall into a gray area. Researchers like those at MIT must get approval for all their outdoor experimentations with the aerial bots, a process the FAA is now carefully evaluating.

Despite the legal road — or sky — blocks, there are already hundreds of UAV companies operating in just about every major American city, including Houston, Miami, Cleveland, Phoenix, New York, Atlanta and San Francisco. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made big news with the company’s ambitions to make deliveries with drones, but there are more practical applications already in use. High-tech entrepreneurs are working on ways to make the airborne devices emit Wi-Fi signals and San Francisco startup Qui Qui plans to soon start delivering prescriptions with them.

Back at MIT’s Senseable City Lab, Turgeman, Green and fellow researchers are collaborating with a team at the University of Toronto directed by Angela Schoellig, a leading expert in autonomous flight controls. Together, they are developing a fleet of sensor-equipped swarming drones designed to scan lakes and rivers to detect water quality. The UAV application, called Waterfly and currently a semi-finalist in the UAE Drones for Good international competition, was developed with the idea of being deployed across Boston’s Charles River to monitor cyanobacteria, a toxic algae found in the river that can be dangerous for people and animals exposed to it.

Researchers Chris Green ( right), Yaniv Jacob Turgrman (center) and Antoine de Maleprade (left) working on Waterfly. (Photo credit: MIT Senseable City Lab)

By the year 2020, the FAA estimates there could be up to 30,000 drones flying across American skies.

But before that can happen, there are important decisions to be made about the best way to integrate drones to the urban environment.

“If drones go the way of advertising, our cities will be polluted with tiny robots, the way they are now with billboards and ads,” Turgeman said. “We have to be critical and patient in how we go about integrating such technologies, but if we do it right, there is a real potential to share the city with these flying robots and do it in ways that can improve the sustainability of our human-made environments.”

“The opportunity is too great to ignore.”

“As Common as Pigeons”

Liam Young calls himself a speculative architect. He spends much of his time thinking about how technology is reshaping our world. He has no doubt that UAVs will one day soon be a “ubiquitous form of nomadic infrastructure” not terribly different than the smartphone jammed into your pocket. That security drone Turgeman’s friend joked about?

“They’ll eventually become as common as pigeons,” Young said.

Already, a number of big-city police departments, including those in Los Angeles, Houston, San Jose, Miami-Dade, Seattle and Arlington, have either obtained a drone or applied for a license with the FAA. Police argue that drones can monitor traffic, survey crowds, document crime scenes and perform undercover surveillance with less risk and expense than on-the-ground officers or manned helicopters.

In all of the cities, the move toward drone policing has provoked controversy. Seattle’s police department gave away its drones to counterparts in Los Angeles after there was a loud public outcry and City Council proposed an ordinance that would have severely restricted the use of the machinery.

“They just got eaten alive,” Los Angeles Police Department Lt. Phil Smith said of Seattle police in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “They said it’s not worth the political pressure and the negative word that’s going out on them.”

With that public relations nightmare in mind, the LAPD has opted to keep the drones out of commission until the city, with public input, approves a plan for their use.

Brooks Rainwater, director of city solutions and applied research for the League of Cities, expects that local laws and attitudes will decide just how large a role drones are allowed to play in U.S. cities. While some governments may welcome the technology and use it for city services, others may ban the machines altogether or severely restrict use.

“It’s one of those emerging technologies where I think you’ll see certain cities serving as labs for innovation and change,” Rainwater said. “Cities will adopt them in different manners.”

Just across the bay from tech-happy San Francisco, Berkeley is one of the few cities to have already come up with a regulatory plan for drones. The city’s peace and justice commissioner, Bob Meola, says that as the technology developed beyond the scope of existing laws, citizens wanted a way to protect privacy and civil liberties. Berkeley eventually held a town hall and put together a 28-page report highlighting concerns and a plan for regulating UAVs.

“It seemed like it would be better to have a policy now and easier to regulate drones before they flood the skies and there are too many of them,” Meola said.

It’s not surprising that famously liberal, war-protesting Berkeley has emerged as a first city to say no to drones, but that doesn’t mean the technology’s rollout can be predicted by partisan lines.

Lincoln, Neb., Syracuse, Calif., and Charlottesville, Va., all have either legislation or executive orders banning the use of drones by law enforcement. The ACLU has been keeping tabs on legislation regarding drones and as of late June, it found legislation had been introduced in 36 states, active in 22 states and enacted in 13 states, some red and some blue. In 2013, Idaho and Texas instituted bans on publishing photos from drones without permission from every person pictured plus permission from the owners of every building pictured. (The bans were a response to public fears that have grounding in reality; recently, a woman attacked a drone pilot on a Connecticut beach for allegedly taking photos of her. In Seattle, a woman called the police when she spotted a drone outside of the window of her 26th-floor apartment.)

But while the Idaho and Texas laws are responses to concerns about privacy, most other local and state laws have so far focused on law enforcement, with almost all requiring police to get a probable cause warrant before using a drone in an investigation. Some legislation is also taking into account what to do with information that is collected, how long law enforcement can store drone-collected data, and how to deal with government access to information collected by third-party drones.

The ACLU recommends that drones only be deployed with a warrant for surveillance and in emergency situations, and should never be used to collect intelligence on people unless there is suspicion of significant criminal activity — a position that should please urban rights advocates who fear drone policing could result in unjust surveillance in neighborhoods that have high crime rates. That outcome could aggravate existing disparities and lead to increased incarceration in low-income and minority communities.

“The trouble is we haven’t set out a regulatory or legal framework that will protect First and Fourth Amendment rights to freedom of speech and from unwanted spying,” said Kate Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty program at the ACLU of Massachusetts.

ACLU members aren’t the only ones concerned about drones. A 2013 study released by Duke University’s Institute for Homeland Security Solutions found that only 43 percent of the American public expressed support for “everyday use” of UAVs without a specific purpose. And while 61 percent supported the use of drones in commercial applications, 67 percent said they were also concerned about the potential for unwanted monitoring.

Yet for cities, the civil liberty concerns may not be so easily resolved. Peter Sachs, an attorney and publisher of the Drone Law Journal, says local laws aren’t enforceable because only federal authorities can legislate airspace. Local laws can only regulate “ground activities” such as where a drone takes off or lands.

“States cannot regulate things that are in flight. These laws, in my opinion, are unconstitutional and would be struck down if challenged,” Sachs said.

Ben Gielow, general counsel for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, says recent rulings against the FAA demonstrate that neither the agency nor local jurisdictions can regulate them until official rules are written. Gielow says such laws have “no teeth” and will continue to be challenged as those laws are enforced.

There are few, if any, cases of such state laws being enforced against individuals. Even many law enforcement organizations appear to be employing drones without certificates of authorization from the FAA.

“Until the FAA writes the rules, people are going to continue to fly either knowingly or unknowingly in an unregulated manner. And the longer that happens, the more the FAA loses credibility,” says Gielow.

In 2012, Congress ordered the FAA to establish a roadmap for safely integrating UAVs into the national airspace by September 30, 2015. But an audit report by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general warned that the FAA is “significantly behind schedule” in meeting that deadline.

Young believes that it will be one or two powerful tech companies with money and political clout that will truly open up the skies. If Amazon were to eventually obtain FAA authorization to experiment with urban delivery drones, it would likely need to invest in an infrastructure to support it. Google recently acquired Titan Aerospace, a startup that manufactures high-altitude solar-powered drones.

“I think that’s how it will happen. Others will piggyback on that existing infrastructure and system, they’ll connect and that will start the cycle of development and [widespread deployment],” he said.

More Evolution Than Revolution

Last fall, a small drone crashed on a sidewalk in East Manhattan just feet away from a pedestrian navigating rush hour. The man who retrieved it saw from footage stored on the device that it had taken off from a high-rise terrace and flown 400 feet above the crowded sidewalks of Midtown before clipping the side of a building and plummeting to the ground below. Thankfully no one was injured but the drone owner, who was fined $2,220 for reckless flying of his expensive toy.

That story should be instructive to anyone wondering how soon drones will be buzzing above our sidewalks, says Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab at Duke University and a former fighter pilot. Cummings builds interfaces for UAVs and researches the ethical and social implications of technology. She says it will take at least another decade for cities to work out how drones can be integrated into a crowded urban fabric and even then, the impact will be gradual. “It’s more of an evolution than a revolution,” she said.

“Think about New York. There are tall skyscrapers that create wind tunnels that can disturb flight paths, not to mention human beings. You have to remember that a slingshot could take one of these drones down,” she said. “We are still working on air traffic control concepts that could work in an urban environment.”

A key safety feature still missing for drones is a “collision avoidance system” that could help prevent the machines from crashing into other aircraft or buildings in urban environments. Experts say drones won’t be able to be deployed en masse in cities until such a system is developed. “We aren’t there yet,” said Cummings.

Cummings was recently at a conference on drones and seated near someone who worked for Starbucks and someone else from Amazon. “I said ‘you two need to get together and think about how the Starbucks on every corner could become a safe site for drones to land and people to pick up their packages,’” she recalled.

“The hard part is designing these technologies in a way that has a meaningful impact to our human experience.”

Getting together they are. It is all but certain that the Amazons and Starbucks of the world will one day soon figure out how to use drones to make money, whether by turning them into autonomous baristas that can also deliver packages and advertise pumpkin spice lattes or doing some other thing we can’t even yet imagine. What cities and the people who live in them must decide is whether or not they will be satisfied by yet another gadget that promises conveniences on demand.

Turgeman, for one, says no. “Anything that makes our lives more convenient is something that technology readily fills in. The hard part is designing these technologies in a way that has a meaningful impact to our human experience.”

As an example, he illustrates how Waterfly improves the way we study water quality by enabling the collection of high resolution spatiotemporal data, but also aims to extend our sensitivity to an otherwise imperceptible issue.

These new hosts of sensing technologies become meaningful when they connect people to such large-scale challenges in tangible ways, offering us ways to make choices and make a difference.

In most of the world, for instance, the average person doesn’t know the quality of the air they are breathing in and thus, air pollution becomes an environmental problem that is easier to push aside.

A water-probing UAV designed to detect water quality. (Photo credit: MIT Senseable City Lab)

“These are tools that can gather data and facilitate the interaction between the human and natural environment in unprecedented ways,” said Turgeman. “They can make people sensitive to large systemic phenomena. Awareness enables people to act. It’s bottom-up sustainability.”

For too long, environmental knowledge has been confined to the realm of experts and scholars and stern-faced professionals in white lab coats. Slowly, that seems to be changing and that change couldn’t be happening at a more opportune time.

In 2011, after landslides destroyed homes and took lives in the sprawling favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, young people working with UNICEF and local organizations began to map their community in hopes of identifying environmental hazards before another disaster struck. They attached cameras to kites to capture aerial footage. Next time, they will likely use UAVs and the photos will be higher quality, the geotagging more precise.

Already, maps made from the aerial footage have convinced the community of Morro dos Prazeres to clear garbage that had collected in high-risk areas. Moving the garbage will help to prevent landslides and help reduce the spread of harmful bacteria.

“Sustainability,” Turgeman said, “can emerge as we become more sensitive to how our choices make a difference to the world around us.”

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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