Face it, people: We’re entering a world of robots, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
Recently, the folks at the North Dakota Chamber of Commerce were nice enough to fly me to Grand Forks so they could heap praise on their drone infrastructure to national news reporters.
Now I had long considered myself a staunch anti-drone activist, both here and abroad, due to concerns for privacy and debatable war tactics.
The researchers, veterans, and students in Grand Forks, however, may have started to change my mind. Highly professional and dedicated, they are committed to the idea that drones — excuse me, “Unmanned Aerial Systems” — can improve everything from agriculture to telecom to, yes, surveillance and war.
Here at the University of North Dakota University Center for Aerospace Sciences these indoor tubes connecting buildings stand as tacit admission of the unflinching cold.
It is one of the leading aviation schools in the world, hosting pilots from several different countries.
Grand Forks itself has played host to the Wright brothers exhibition team as well as America's Minute Man nuclear missile defence silos.
Recently, the FAA launched its roadmap to UAV integration, which included a pledge to select six official test sites, among at least 25 applicants.
North Dakota -- the professionals, professors and government executives argue -- doesn't need to build new infrastructure for this coming innovation ...
Still, students like Kaci Lemler are excited about using drones for things like solving world hunger through 'precision agriculture.'
Elements throughout the media tour remind me how close these people are to their land and their state.
With vast swaths of flat, cold ground, miles of crops can be ruined by water or runoff or misplaced resources.
The argument goes that drones with specialised 'sensors' could easily help farmers pinpoint where crops need help.
... more like this six-rotored robot Regenhard built out of RadioShack items and a few hundred dollars of electronics.
He tells a crowd of other journalists how tools like these are essential and inevitable parts of America's future.
And they don't have to carry bombs or x-ray cameras. The students explain how stratospheric, long-term drones could replace cell phone towers in the future of mobile.
Nonetheless drones like this can and will take to the skies to support both private and public endeavours.
There are, of course, legal and ethical kinks to work out prior to putting thousands of drones in the sky.
That infamous red button is not much use here though. One pilot tells me, 'We'll go weeks without seeing anything, then all of a sudden ... moose.'
Meanwhile, on the ground, several people can monitor flights around the world while simultaneously watching Fox News.
The small city is also home to several outfits of U.S. Army reconnaissance as well combat drone units.
It's really hard to believe I'm this close to one, and off to the side, I hear pilots referring to the media visit as a 'petting zoo.'
This behemoth is the Global Hawk, responsible for some of the world's most cutting edge aerial intelligence and reconnaissance.
The Air Force has made moves to ditch the Global Hawk in favour of the cheaper U-2 spy plane, but some, notably lawmakers backed by the defence lobby, are fighting to keep them.
We all beg for a chance to fly the predator simulator, which we're told is 'almost exactly' the same as actual flight.
Verdict: actual flight of a predator is incredibly boring. Most of the flying is done with buttons actually. I couldn't wait to move on.
Here's what it looks like with its scalp pealed back. Basically that dish is what keeps it connected to guys on the ground.
Operators tell me that they practice here, but when they fly a mission, deployed operators will first take off, then hand the link over to operators in Grand Forks.
Most of the operators prefer that no one knows exactly what 'planes' they fly, so friends and family usually just think they're Air Force 'pilots.'
On the front of the drone is what's called a 'horse hair' -- it's how pilots can tell 'if they suck' during landings. The black circle behind it houses a camera that monitors the movement of the hair as pilots take control of the plane.
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