Cheap UAVs

by on May 29, 2007 · 8 comments

One of the most exciting things about technological progress, from a libertarian perspective, is that as technologies get cheaper, they get harder and harder for the state to regulate. The prolific Chris Anderson has the latest example: he’s built an unmanned aerial vehicle for under $1000. He explains his motivations here:

The main aim of this project is to both make the world’s cheapest full-featured UAV and the first one designed to be within the reach of high school and below kids, as a platform for an aerial robotics contest. Like the Lego FIRST league, but in the air.

But there is another aim, which I ended being asked about a lot at Maker Faire. At the moment the FAA regulations on UAVs are ambiguous (we believe that by staying below 400 feet and within line-of-sight we’re within them). But there is a good deal of concern that as small and cheap UAVs become more common, the FAA will toughen the rules, making activities such as ours illegal. I hope this project will illustrate why that approach won’t work.

By creating a UAV with Lego parts and built in part by kids, we haven’t just created a minimum UAV, we’ve created a reductio ad absurdum one. If children can make UAVs out of toys, the genie is out of the bottle. Clear use guidelines (such as staying below 400 feet and away from tall buildings) would be welcome, but blanket bans or requirements for explicit FAA approval for each launch will be too hard to enforce. The day when there was a limited “UAV industry” that could be regulated are gone.

Government regulation almost always works by controlling intermediaries—usually large companies. As more and more technologies come within reach of individuals, using off-the-shelf parts, it will be harder and harder for the government to control them. I say bring it on.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    I have to agree with Vox Day’s prediction that the increasing power of small technological devices to be used for military purposes (especially as things like WMDs become easier to make and package in small form factors) that the result will not be a bigger transnational government system, but a modern feudalism. When it becomes feasible for a man to buy a $1,000 UAV to carry a nuclear bomb that he bought for $50,000 from a shop in Mexico, central governments will be screwed.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    I have to agree with Vox Day’s prediction that the increasing power of small technological devices to be used for military purposes (especially as things like WMDs become easier to make and package in small form factors) that the result will not be a bigger transnational government system, but a modern feudalism. When it becomes feasible for a man to buy a $1,000 UAV to carry a nuclear bomb that he bought for $50,000 from a shop in Mexico, central governments will be screwed.

  • Anonymous

    MikeT comment provides a good entry point into one of my pet peeves. The military spends too much for expensive solutions. Think of it this way, military equipment is expendable. Consequently, it needs to be easily (quickly) made, must require minimal maintenance, and be relatively cheap. We are currently in a situation were some cheap technologies, such as the UAV being analyzed could easily cripple the military. Sinking one of our aircraft carriers will nearly bankrupt us and would requires years to rebuild.

    PS: Many years ago Forbes reported on an Israeli company that had built a military spy drone (UAV) that was cheaper and better than what the US defense folks built.

    PPS: Yes Adam, there are times when I will agree with you that private organizations can do it better.

  • Anonymous

    MikeT comment provides a good entry point into one of my pet peeves. The military spends too much for expensive solutions. Think of it this way, military equipment is expendable. Consequently, it needs to be easily (quickly) made, must require minimal maintenance, and be relatively cheap. We are currently in a situation were some cheap technologies, such as the UAV being analyzed could easily cripple the military. Sinking one of our aircraft carriers will nearly bankrupt us and would requires years to rebuild.

    PS: Many years ago Forbes reported on an Israeli company that had built a military spy drone (UAV) that was cheaper and better than what the US defense folks built.

    PPS: Yes Adam, there are times when I will agree with you that private organizations can do it better.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14019452 Steve R.

    This one is more to the point about advanced technology now being reproducible by the “average” person and below the regulatory radar. Discover Magazine (March 2007 Issue) reports: “In 2006 Thiago Olson joined the extremely sparse ranks of amateurs worldwide who have achieved nuclear fusion with a home apparatus. In other words, he built the business end of a hydrogen bomb in his basement. The plasma “star in a jar”—shown at the left—demonstrated his success.”

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14019452 Steve R.

    This one is more to the point about advanced technology now being reproducible by the “average” person and below the regulatory radar. Discover Magazine (March 2007 Issue) reports: “In 2006 Thiago Olson joined the extremely sparse ranks of amateurs worldwide who have achieved nuclear fusion with a home apparatus. In other words, he built the business end of a hydrogen bomb in his basement. The plasma “star in a jar”—shown at the left—demonstrated his success.”

  • http://www.limnthis.com Jim S

    Kind of reminds me of cheap lasers. My uncle is an airline pilot and has been lazed twice now that every nimrod with a $1000 can buy one. Now I guess he’ll get to dodge Lego UAV’s too. Remind me; why is regulating the use of air space a blanket statement bad thing? Or more to the point, why is it a good thing if technology makes it impossible to regulate?

  • http://www.limnthis.com Jim S

    Kind of reminds me of cheap lasers. My uncle is an airline pilot and has been lazed twice now that every nimrod with a $1000 can buy one. Now I guess he’ll get to dodge Lego UAV’s too. Remind me; why is regulating the use of air space a blanket statement bad thing? Or more to the point, why is it a good thing if technology makes it impossible to regulate?

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