DIY / Homebrew Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) Enter the Mainstream

Amateur UAVs

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are no longer relegated to military and police forces.  Amateurs and hobbyists, working in close-knit online communities, are fusing old RC airplane concepts with modern technology to create UAVs that rival commercial offerings.  Recent efforts suggest that an amateur UAV, complete with on-board cameras, wireless video downlinks, operator heads-up display, autonomous waypoint navigation / autopilot control, and ground tracking stations can all be had for less than $2,000 (read on for details)!  Unfortunately, the FAA (aviation regulatory body in the United States) already treats commercial UAVs as regular planes, requiring aircraft registration and 60 day pre-flight plans.  While the regulations for hobbyists seem to be more lax, I personally believe the FAA should embrace amateur UAV builders in the same way that the FCC embraced ham radio operators of yesteryear.

The video below gives an indication of amateur UAVs' sophistication.  This video shows a UAV with onboard camera that is being tracked ($90 tracking rig from ReadyMadeRC) to provide a solid video downlink to a ground-based operator wearing a heads-up display.

 

A combination of autopilot, waypoint navigation, wireless telemetry, GPS, and IMU can be had for sub-$300 through the DIY Drones ArduPilot and UAVDevBoard.  For example, here is a photo of Chris Anderson's flight telemetry data using the ArduPilot to fly in 100m diameter circles, with deviations due to wind.

Amateur UAV Waypoint Navigation

That leaves ~$1600 for an RC plane and video display, for which there are plenty of off-the-shelf candidates.  Coupled with Google Earth and other map services, hobbyist aerial tours could be just around the bend!

UAVs have also proven helpful during times of crisis.  A Global Hawk UAV was the first responding craft from the United States to arrive and perform damage assessment in Haiti following their devastating earthquake.  Perhaps a concerted effort between amateur UAV builders could provide useful capabilities in emergencies, much like ham radio operators?

Unfortunately, most UAV deployments are military in nature (pictured below). 

Global Hawk UAV Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
 
Fire Scout UAV Unmanned Aerial Vehicle

 

Which brings me to one of my biggest concerns:  government regulation of amateur builders.  The FAA  already treats commercial UAVs as regular planes, requiring aircraft registration and 60 day pre-flight plans.  While the regulations for hobbyists seem to be more lax, I personally believe the FAA should embrace amateur UAV builders in the same way that the FCC embraced ham radio operators of yesteryear.  Besides, building UAVs is a great family bonding activity that promotes engineering. 

But... the same economies that make UAVs appealing to hobbyists also make them appealing for asymmetric warfare.  While I am not familiar with any incident involving UAVs and nefarious organizations / persons, it is pretty evident that asymmetric economies are at play.  It is certainly a slippery slope, but let's just hope the FAA remains lax on hobbyist experimentation -- after all, there is no ban on cellphones despite their use in IEDs.

 

I'd like to give props to DIY Drones.com -- my favorite hub of amateur UAV information.