COLORADO SPRINGS, CO (SPAR Int’l 2014) – Autodesk invited the press to the Garden of the Gods to watch them make 3D models of using some of the Reality Capture applications being shown at SPAR.
The plan was to have cameras mounted to a couple of toy aircraft circle the rock formations and convert the resulting photographs into 3D models.
Scarcely had the first aircraft gone up when a passing local registered her alarm.
“Is that a drone?”
Such is the prevailing fear about drones in domestic airspace. Never mind that the aircraft in question were each about 10 lbs of hardware equipped with nothing more harmful than a camera. Never mind that the potential uses would bring down cost of aerial photography, add terabytes of useful land data for a variety of uses (some even for the public good) or that Amazon could use them to get us our next Apple device sooner than next day. Never mind that hobbyists have been flying radio controlled aircraft without so much as a public whimper since as long as I can remember. Instead there exists a fear of overhead unmanned flying objects that could, at best, crash down on our heads and at worst blow us up in our sleep with missiles. Like they do overseas -- which is ok because they are blowing up terrorists, right?
While Autodesk has gotten away with flying the UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) over the San Francisco bay area and now over the Garden of the Gods, most of the UAV fleet in the US remains essentially grounded. Trimble’s slick UAV is being sold only to government agencies and the occasional university for research.
University of Colorado at Denver, present at SPAR, is lucky enough to have appropriated a few of the Trimble UAVs and have embarked on a variety of projects to demonstrate their usefulness.
Among the assembled press, there was a lot of questions and confusion about what was allowable and legal. What constitutes a drone – as opposed to a UAV or model plane? It is a matter of stick control by an operator on the ground vs a pre-planned flight. Was it the altitude at which they operated, say 400 feet? Was it the size of the machine? Was it its use, business or pleasure, free or commercial. Even some at Autodesk were not sure.
The concern and debate of drones/AUVs threatened to take over what would have been otherwise a really cool demonstration of technology. After something like a half hour of flight with some cheap point-and-shoot cameras on top of off-the-shelf $750* toy choppers, Autodesk would be able to create a impressive, full color, accurate enough 3D model of a massive geologic formation. Could it be done by an ordinary person any other way? Could a small firm pay a LIDAR equipped airplane for a similar model of the terrain for their next project?
Autodesk may have shown how UAVs couples withe their software can bring costs down to earth. By a couple orders of magnitude. If it can be heard over public hysteria.
*Autodesk was using 3D Robotics 3DR IRIS Multicopter, which lists for $750