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Sadly there is no reasonable path to doing this legally. We are in the real estate photography business and the FAA started cracking down on people using helicopters and other UAV's for commercial purposes. It's not allowed. You can only fly drones/helicopters/etc remotely (or autonomously) as a hobby.

more info: http://photographyforrealestate.net/2012/01/24/warning-faa-s...




FAA, county health department, municipal regulations on restaurant delivery... Tacocopter is up against a nearly vertical hill of red tape, but the utterly fantastic thing is that we're having this conversation. It's happening, it's here, there's nothing even close to a legal framework for it yet, but this is just one new facet of a massive shift we're witnessing. Like the internet, drones and autonomous vehicles may have been born of the defense world, but they'll truly come of age in the civilian world.

This is just another little taster of the wild ride we're in for.


I'm pretty certain there'll be many an unexpected incident when/if people start up something like Tacocopter. Specifically, how many drones you're going to lose to seagulls and hawks tackling them for food.

You'd be talking custom made machines, because you just know some idiot is going to hook a box of chow mien noodles onto the skid of a robocopter and it'll get dive-bombed by a pigeon and land on someone's wind shield in the middle of rush hour traffic.

The problem that robotic helicopters, and other flying devices, are going to face is that they're legally liable for anything they damage below them if something falls. When you're 50' up, you don't want to be dropping a single thing over a roadway or side walk. It also brings up the questions of insurance, registration (to ensure all UAV's flying are insured and maintained) and more, because any accidents have the potential to be equal to a motor vehicle accident in terms of personal injury claim.

Operators literally have to have no choice to make sure there's the ability for them to get sued for accidents/drops, otherwise municipalities will quickly outlaw them and once that happens it's going to be decades before those municipalities change their minds.


> I'm pretty certain there'll be many an unexpected incident when/if people start up something like Tacocopter.

so what? there are thousands of car accidents and deaths every year that doesnt stop majority from riding. What OP did is open my eyes on something I didnt think of before. Imagine a crowded city, like NY where 5 feet above your head there are hundreds of drones like bees flying everywhere and delivering goods: food, small mail, lighweight groceries, etc. That would be great win for problems with traffic in big cities. Mother Earth would appreciate that too. Awesome idea OP.

EDIT: you could also have personal delivery done this way, something like "electronic mail pigeon". You attach your lighweight package and you send it across the city. Of course we would need to minimum probability of accidents. Most likely software used would have to be governmet-approved/tested and you would have to have a license to be a part of "lightweight transportation channel" that flows above the city. But this is totally doable!


> Imagine a crowded city, like NY where 5 feet above your head there are hundreds of drones like bees flying everywhere and delivering goods: food, small mail, lighweight groceries, etc.

Excellent visualization. You've nailed the kind of socio-infrastructural change this shift could lead to.


Ah, I knew I was missing a few more things. Yes, as much as the slow-moving regulatory world may raise a lot of well-deserved, techno-libertarian ire, I think we can all agree what you're describing is good red tape.

Licensure, state registration, federally-mandated commercial drone manufacturing standards, and liability insurance may sound like a damper on the future, but by ensuring a baseline of safety and reliability, it will ultimately open up the market to all sorts of innovation.


THere was a superbowl commercial of giant carrier pigeons used for package delivery. Lovely example of the risks.


What's the most amazing is that the legal framework is what's holding it back. The technology is already here.


Bureaucrats are just not ready for robots. If you thought it was funny to watch an old "powerful" man reduced to a fumbling idiot by simple computer technology, you're going to love the robot revolution. I just hope they don't do too much damage bike-shedding a world where even the simplest precepts are impossibly far beyond them.


I think algoshift brought up some very valid concerns in his post. The government and its bureaucrats have legitimate reasons to put in safety regulations surrounding unmanned commercial aircraft before allowing for their widespread use.


Absolutely unfortunate. I watched a short film last night, shot with an omni-copter -- and my mind just spun with the possible opportunities for the creative filmmaker -- let alone other industries this could impact.

The film: http://vimeo.com/36341233


It's funny, at several points while watching that video, I felt that I was looking at a 3D animation -- precisely because virtual cameras aren't constrained by the motion range of physical equipment, so animators sometimes end up keyframing camera trajectories that feel unrealistic.


Congress passed a new law in February to partially legalize the use of drones: http://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/07/congress-...


Slight correction, Congress passed a funding bill for the FAA. As a condition of funding, they require that FAA comes up with regulations for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) within 3 years.

As of today, the only legal way to fly a UAS in the U.S. requires case-by-case authorization.


It's high time to start up a local chapter of T.O.R.T.I.L.L.A.: The Organization for Robotic Taco Innovation, Liberation, (Literacy?) of America


The Organization for Robotic Taco Innovation, Liberation, Libations, and America


I'm in. Where do I pay my dues?


To the Brotherhood of United Robotic Raftsmen, Innkeepers and Taco Overlords.



Sadly? You realize how freakin' dangerous this is, don't you?


Do you realize how dangerous automobiles are? You're piloting several thousand pounds of steel around a populated area at high speed.


Although I have up voted you, it is known that humans are more prepared to face new dangers than software applications. And a quad-copters flying over a city is exposed to a multitude of unknown dangers that its software may not expect, thus it's plausible that in the same situation of danger a human may find better solutions than a quad-copter.


You are right that humans are better when it comes to adapting to new situations. But that doesn't matter. What matters is risk vs reward. For automobiles, we have about 40,000 deaths each year. But as a society we accept that cost because the utility of cars is worth even more. The same thing will eventually happen with UAVs. The utility will offset the cost.


I'm not saying that I don't want to see UAVs flying over my head. I'm just saying that maybe a bit of over-prudence is justified here.

Should we start testing UAVs for commercial applications? Yes. Should we allow 13 years old kids to code on them and build their new cool pizza delivery service? Not yet, I think. Just my $0.02.


What would you like to see in terms of regulations? (this is a sincere question)

At the moment, a 13 yr old could fly a radio controlled F-15 legally, so long as it was for recreation and not for commercial usage.


Currently, the deaths associated with a great many UAVs appear to be a bug, not a feature.

I'm talking, of course, of the 'killer' app - assassination!

e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Predator_drone


The solution to that is good regulation, not complete banning. While software has the disadvantage of being unable to adapt on the fly, it has the advantage of never making mistakes - if it's written correctly, it will not randomly fail. That's decidedly not the case for humans, as we see every day with automobile accidents.


Software is only a part of it. I deal every day with software that doesn't randomly fail -- we write damn good code -- but the hardware it controls has failure modes that can't always be predicted, or are so unlikely that no one thought of it.

Realize here that we're not talking about software running on a server in a nice temperature controlled room. This is software controlling hardware that is under constant vibration, will get sticky, or bend, or break, or ice up under variable conditions - hot, dry, rainy, wind gusts as it goes from behind a building to crossing an intersection. There is a mind boggling number of things that can go wrong when you're controlling a device in the 'real world.'

Even if the software is perfect there is still a large number of variables to account for and most of them can't be controlled. There's a case for UAVs and I would love to get involved with them, but building a reliable UAV and properly maintaining it would almost certainly cost too much to have it deliver tacos. Unless you're willing to spend $250 to avoid walking a few blocks.


If it's written correctly [...]

No one argues this is not true, it's the premise that's unlikely.


Well, virtually all modern cars have software running critical systems. How is that regulated? I don't think it would be too difficult to adapt those regulations to flying "tacocopters".


One of the most basic safety measures cars take is to reboot critical systems several times an hour and have mechanical backups so the breaks both work and can overpower the engine. You can't exactly do that with a drone.


I am not aware of a single automotive subsystem controller (or any other embedded system for that matter) that reboots as a preventative mechanism. For handling an unrecoverable error, yes, that's standard practice. But rebooting in an attempt to prevent errors? That screams bad design.

Can you offer more details?


I'd have to wonder if you couldn't find a senator or someone to take it up as a "The government is against small business" style issue.

Also, Zerocater could be all over this :)


It'd be interesting if you could find a loophole. Maybe the tacos are technically free and it could be argued that flying them somewhere could be done as a hobby, and you're required to give a donation to a separate entity for the order to go through.


You have users pay for the taco and a rental of the toy helicopter which they "fly" to themselves (with taco) –– include a webcam on the copter and bam! Hobby/toy.

(I wish it were that easy... tacocopter clearly qualifies as something I absolutely never knew that I really really need right now)


Watching a taco make its way towards me in real-time as the UAV battles the wind and rain would be fabulous.


Heck, the for the first order or two, the taco may just be a bonus feature until the novelty of seeing my neighborhood/city from a new perspective, in real-time, wore off.


For awhile, people who did aerial photography with rado-controlled helicopters tried to use a loophole. The invoice would itemize that the only fee was for post-processing (photoshop) of the images. FAA ignored it until recently. Lately, they've been really cracking down on any commercial usage whatsoever. Even Utah Highway Patrol got in trouble with the FAA for flying without the proper authorizations.


There's a reason that there's no path to doing this legally.

1) Have you ever flown an RC plane? Do you know a) How difficult it is? b) How little control you have? c) How dangerous it is if not controlled? That's why (sane) people fly their planes in big fields away from people, trees, power lines, clotheslines, satellite dishes, etc.

2) More broadly, we are only beginning to have good algorithms for awareness of automobile traffic conditions. (Google's work with driverless cars, for example.) This is basically 2-D work on roads, which are specifically designed to avoid interference from external sources. None of these apply to drone aircraft. In addition to the obstacles above, how do avoid all the potential objects (other drones, birds, party balloons, etc) in proximity? We're nowhere near close to solving these problems.

3) Yes, there are accidents by delivery drivers every day. But it's clear who's responsible for any damage: the human driver(s) who are presumed to be carefully monitoring the entire process. Are mom and pop taco houses (or any other sized business) prepared to take the full liability of an autonomous flying thing? I doubt it.

All the videos we've seen (and I admit some are breathtaking) have been created by people firmly at the controls, whose full attention is focused on the task, and who are prepared to take the responsibility for any problems they cause.


Quadrotor robot control is pretty good already and getting better quickly. You can buy these things off the shelf with GPS waypoint navigation. Completely autonomous. Not perfectly reliable in all conditions, but already usable on a calm day. Thus the control difficulty is not an issue in the medium term.

Many people have enjoyed the quadrotor videos from labs such as UPenn's GRASP lab. No one at the controls. Though the miniature flyers at Penn do use external localization and pre-computed trajectories, others are completely autonomous and react in real time.


Do all countries have similar regulations?


No, I've operated UAS in Norway with blessings from their Government.


Commercially?


Yes. We were filming a snowboard competition.


What kind of cameras did you use? Was it a live stream?


We had standard def camera live streaming video via an L3 video transmitter. Also had an HD camera that recorded to onboard media.


I know of someone (here in Norway) trying to build up a business doing precisely this (filming things, such as snowboard and ski events) via a remote-controlled helicopter.

It sounds like a cool project.


I read an article about the U.K. testing the waters with looser regs: http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/military-robots/...



Does anyone know if something like this would be legal in Canada? That seems like a really cool startup idea.


Yeah, the growing police state wants to keep that privilege for itself.


Or they just don't want large hunks of metal with sharp spinning things possibly falling out of the sky onto people and things, and so would like to regulate the use of large flying things.


How about a mechanical fail-chute? The UAV could be equipped with a dead-man switch style parachute/inflatable life raft contraption that would trigger if the rotors stopped turning and if the device was flying high enough, it could float harmlessly to earth cocooned in a pocket of sturdy material buffered by some quantity of air. If you could figure out how to make it work, you could be in about as much danger as getting hit in the head by a beach ball...


Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. It's probably not going to be implemented across the board without some level of regulation, though. If they get to the point where they're passively safe, and require little skill to operate safely, the govt. might get to the point of fairly relaxed restrictions on them, like drivers licenses now.


This is not valid reasoning. Under this logic, we could feasibly be just as alarmed by balconies of any sort or platforms at any height greater than one story.

[Edit]: Which is not to say that there are hurtling objects on these things, but that this is talking about What Happens Least, and there is just as much risk of something falling from a balcony or second+ story area as there is a drone falling mid-flight.


There's a reason many sidewalks in NYC have sidewalk "sheds" covering them. Balconies usually aren't directly over places where people walk, for a reason. I'm guessing that this is due to laws.

To drop something really dangerous off of a balcony usually requires malice or gross negligence, and that generally goes straight down. The operator of a drone with crappy safety systems might simply have to leave it flying for too long without noticing the fuel gauge is nearing empty.

Once the FCC hashes out things like how drones should act automatically in safe ways such that untrained pilots can't easily kill multiple people with them by being slightly negligent or stupid, then I'm all for civilian drone flight.


I'm not sure I like the a priori nature assumed by the regulatory bodies. Why don't we legislate based on actual occurrences instead of just hypotheticals? I'm not sure why a law like this wouldn't work: "Any individual found to negligently operate a drone in a way that caused harm to persons or property will face jail time and fines".

Isn't that effectively the same as regulating the machine specifically, but without all of the overhead, corruption, and limitations on creativity, and wouldn't the law actually have the same effect if persons found to operate drones in an unsafe manner were actually prosecuted? Wouldn't the market only accept safe drones due to the possibility of jail time?

Just curious. Been kicking that line of thought around a lot as I've been in some creaky elevators recently.


As I see it, this is similar to food safety or mass-produced vehicle certification processes.

Unfortunately, modern markets are empirically fairly poor at optimizing for long-term outcomes with all externalities accounted for (example off the top of my head: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill).

When a major malfunction or accident does happen, no penalty or fine is really sufficient to bring about any meaningful sense of justice. (Think again the oil spill, or a tainted staple food poisoning tens of thousands of people, or to use a really cliché example, a malfunctioning UAV crashing into a group of kids playing at recess.) As the accidents are often due to incompetence or attempts at cost-cutting rather than outright malice, the deterrence factor of the penalty doesn't really apply – to those guilty, it just looks like they're taking the good kind of risk optimizing their systems until it's too late. The guilty corporation simply can go bankrupt and out of business, and finding and then charging personally responsible employees isn't always easy.


And yet Deepwater Horizon still happened. If the regulations that all rigs must use equipment bit x, y, and z, certified by industry conglomerate w, weren't in place, then maybe new, much safer technology would have been developed that would have made the spill not happen. If the market needs permission from bureaucrats, who may or may not be corrupt, or needs a new law passed, to adapt or develop better solutions to its problems, then it's no wonder we are stuck on obsolete tech that is 50+ years old and that the revenue in regulated markets is entirely dominated by a small oligopoly that holds everyone by the balls (see also phone companies).


Maybe, maybe not. What is the market motivation for developing and more importantly using technology which is safer on a 50-500 year scale? How high would you like the penalties for criminal negligence, manslaughter, etc, to be? Is it feasible for them to be higher than the potential savings on process optimization or cutting corners? Do you hold corporations or people, or both, responsible?

While government regulations might not be the most efficient, they do not cloud a picture of exactly how safe a plant is and will remain that would otherwise be perfectly clear. Short of each investor evaluating safety of each plant, oil rig, and factory themselves, the situation with government regulation removed would boil down to an analogy to the S&P credit rating business. We've seen how for-profit independent third-party rating business has worked out.

If you'd like an example from a market with little regulation, look no further than Bhopal.

I'm not going to argue that the current regulations we have in place are amazing. They're not and they can certainly be improved. I will, however, argue that they do a better job keeping us safer than the free market, as it has been implemented worldwide over the last century, would.


The FAA has always operated more like a white-list rather than a black-list. By default, nothing is allowed to fly in the national airspace. Then, regulations are added to allow a specific vehicle or a specific class of vehicles. At the moment, UAVs have not been white-listed, hence they are not legal.


Well that works fine until you're the one that's killed because of a failure. People after you are protected by the legislation passed, but you're SOL!


I don't think you understood -- I'm not suggesting we pass specific legislation detailing the cause of each accident after it happens. I suggest that we put in place generally applicable statutes for criminal negligence, manslaughter, etc. that would apply in case of malfunctioning industrial instruments. The law wouldn't change, but the market would automatically adapt and keep safe practices autonomously because the deterrent from the punishment was not worth the risk of cutting a few corners.


The difference is between being reactive and proactive.

Having a law in place is a start, but it has little effect against those who would cut corners. I believe the saying is that "laws only keep the lawful honest." There will be a lot of manufacturers building TacoCopters who will cut corners because it's cheaper, and others who simply don't care because the don't expect to get caught.

However, if the FAA mandates (e.g.,) complete engine teardown and rebuild every 200 operating hours along with an annual FAA inspection, they can actually verify that those procedures are being followed. The law will still be in effect, but verifying that it is being followed happens well before someone is killed and will take the vehicles most likely to kill someone out of the air.

That's what they're trying to accomplish.


>This is not valid reasoning. Under this logic, we could feasibly be just as alarmed by balconies of any sort or platforms at any height greater than one story

This is why we have building codes and regulations. Since the FAA did not have these regulations in place, it was disallowed (commercially.) Congress recently said "make the regulations" because it seems like there is enough demand to justify the increased burden on the taxpayer.


Which we are by way of building codes and regulations...


That's exactly what I'm getting at, here. The accusations of this being because there is an ominous police state is ludicrous when we could just put expectations of responsibility in place.


Apart from other good points mentioned in comments, there's also this thing that in free-fall scenario (h = how high you object is above the ground, v = velocity, Ek = kinetic energy),

v(h) ~ sqrt(h)

thus

Ek(h) ~ v^2 (h) ~ h

Which means, the higher something starts, the more it will hurt when it hits your head.


They're perfectly happy for the police to use these drones so that's not the problem here.


Who is perfectly happy?

Police in Mesa County, Colorado received the first authorization ever for police to fly UAS. That was last year. Since then, a county in Florida received authorization. Police in Texas toyed with the idea, but decided it wasn't in the budget. So i know of precisely two police precincts with legal authorization. It's possible there's a couple others I haven't heard about, but the total number is still very small. Even the Utah Highway Patrol got slapped down by the FAA for flying without authorization.


Have the DENIED any requests from law enforcement? No. Perfectly happy.


Can you substantiate your claims? I can.

M. Wilson at the FAA has denied applications for certificates of authorization (COAs). Without his signature, the popo doesn't get to fly.


I think the FAA also states that the drone must be within visible range at all times.


"Sadly there is no reasonable path to doing this legally."

There is, and that's to get "everyone" to do it. I recall the recent HN-linked article [1], which called for a large number of people to demand a trial, rather than take a plea deal, because that would collapse the system. Or, if everyone carried a gun, openly, and without a permit, the government couldn't stop the practice because it wouldn't have the resources to disarm an entire, determined population. The same is true for these tiny flying machines. The main problem, though, is the expense, as it would be a lot easier for any given person to acquire a gun than to acquire one of these, but the principle is the same. That leads to the observation that the expense is there because of lack of innovation in the field, and said lack exists due to laws restricting the use of anything which could be built. The answer is to simply ignore the laws, while pursuing the best technical answers, such as, for example, applying the recently-developed techniques of self-assembly, from the creators of the Harvard Monolithic Bee [2], in an effort to drive down costs and democratize the process of construction and ownership of tiny copters, so that, in fact, pretty much everyone who wanted to could possess one.

[1] http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3690481

[2] http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3606394




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