Thursday, April 2, 2015

How They Do Drone On

We have spy drones, police drones, well-armed attack drones, pick-up and delivery drones, aerial movie drones, snoopy drones and even model airplanes. It’s clear that wars of the future will have more unmanned aircraft than pilots in super-jets. Their mega-special technology advantages will self-destruct when they are captured or shot down, but video-game-trained “ground pilots” and computers (that artificial intelligence thang that Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking keep warning us about) will control the future of combat and spying. Little teeny weeny drones, floating like bees in the air, will look up to their monster “ambulance” drones transporting the injured across heaving traffic to the nearest hospital.
But there are some “desperately necessary” drones that the March 16th wants to remind us about. Here are two applications, farming and environment enforcement, that might actually make your life better:
Farming: “It's 2020. Drones are flying over the tomato plants, taking constant quick snapshots of the field to look for problems. A stream of ultra-accurate weather data informs crop decisions, while a handheld pathogen detection system sets off alerts for diseases in the field in a matter of minutes. The whole farm is hooked up to a massive outdoor wireless network, to ensure that no swath of land is ever left unconnected. Somewhere around here is a farmer…
“Agriculture is a huge industry in the U.S., and precision agriculture—the practice of using sensors, software, analytics, and drones to micro-manage crops—is a growing part of it, with a market size estimated to be up to $2 billion (and rising fast). Entrepreneurs and big companies alike are salivating; Monsanto recently bought San Francisco-based weather analytics company Climate Corporation for $1 billion, and a number of agriculture technology startup incubators and funds, including Farm2050, have started popping up in the [Silicon Valley]…
“Patrick Dosier, an agronomist and mentor in the RoyseLaw incubator, thinks he can bring farmers and entrepreneurs together with that age-old Silicon Valley ritual, the hackathon. But he's not advertising the Apps for Ag event, which will be held in April, as such. [He’s just trying to find California farmers open for the change. They often see ‘just another salesman.’]
“While startups are developing tools that can offer precise crop data, down to the individual tree, farmers are by and large still managing dozens of acres of crops at a time… And so, while the young generation of [the California] Central Valley growers seems interested in Dosier's hackathon, he ‘hasn't gotten a whole lot of commitment’ yet…
“It's not as if farmers are getting any younger. Over the past 30 years, the average age of farmers in the U.S. has climbed from 50.5 years to 58.3 years, according to the USDA. This is a trend that's unlikely to change, especially if land costs remain as high as they are now. Even so, the promise of money-saving technology, no matter how unfamiliar, could be hard to ignore—that is, if it actually ends up saving money.” Will technophobe older farmers balk or see the value. Is the next generation of farmers ready for the change? What about farming in under-educated developing worlds?
Environmental Enforcement: “For decades, lawyer Ray Purdy worked in academia, examining the ways that satellite data could be used as legal evidence and as a law enforcement tool, with a special focus on environmental law. But his work never stayed in the academic world for long: just about every month, he would get a call from the police, an environmental agency, or a health and safety executive complaining that they wanted to get a hold of satellite imagery but found it hard to find and even harder to interpret. Purdy sensed an opportunity…
“Satellites are getting smaller, cheaper, easier to launch. A growing number of startups, including Planet Labs and Skybox (purchased by Google in 2014) are operating fleets that send back imagery from all corners of the planet, taking pictures sharp enough that you can see a manhole cover, though not a face or a license plate. To capitalize on this new glut of images, Purdy and Ray Harris, a geography professor at University College of London who has dedicated his career to Earth observation, teamed up in 2014 to launch Air and Space Evidence, a consultancy that specializes in using satellite and drone imagery as evidence in insurance and legal cases. The two Rays, who act as middlemen between satellite companies and people who want to use satellite data, call their business the world's first ‘space detective agency.’...
“Hiring a space detective agency isn't always necessary to find serious environmental crimes. Global Fishing Watch, a partnership between Google, Oceana, and SkyTruth—a nonprofit that uses mapping and remote sensing to track environmental destruction— that was launched in the fall of 2014, is an interactive online tool that lets anyone watch potentially illicit commercial fishing activity in the ocean, via a feed of fishing vessels that are tracked by satellite and identified by their onboard systems.
"‘Everybody’s jaws kind of drop when they see what kind of commercial fishing activity happens in the ocean. Patterns emerge where you see fishing efforts up along the border of marine protected areas,’ says John Amos, the head of SkyTruth. ‘It's a way to get people to start asking questions. In many cases, fishing is a large corporate activity. You could find a chronically bad actor.’
“SkyTruth has a record of finding those bad actors. Amos, a geologist by training, says the small nonprofit's ‘biggest episode’ was the BP oil spill, when it used satellite data, aerial images, and remote sensing to prove that the spill was much worse than BP was acknowledging…SkyTruth's report on the spill's size went viral, ultimately leading to a situation where the federal government had to up its own estimates… In addition to Global Fishing Watch, SkyTruth is also working on a tool called FrackFinder, which is crowdsourcing data about fracking infrastructure as the industry booms so that researchers can examine the health and environmental implications.”
Intrusive? Oh yeah, but if we are going to have to live with this privacy destroyer, no matter what we might think, at the very least we need to get some pretty terrific direct and immediate benefits for all of us along the way.
I’m Peter Dekom, and if you can’t beat ‘em, have ‘em work for you at least.

No comments: