Christmas at Fry's

December 22, 2015

Eager-December 22, 2015

Walking through Fry's Electronics a week or so before Christmas is, for a techie like me, like walking through Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Fry's, if you don't already know, was the first of the big-box electronics stores, carrying computers,TVs, disk drives, and appliances. Everything an engineer might need, from silicon chips to corn chips. They have a number of superstores, mostly in California. The one near me is large, but manageable, not like some of the others where I've found myself in the middle of the store, wondering which way to head to find the exit, hidden somewhere in the distance.

I wasn't looking for Christmas presents, although I really should have been. I was looking for a network card for my desktop workstation. The built-in network chip was freezing at just the times when it was needed most, when downloading large files. But it's always interesting to see what new items Fry's was pushing in the displays near the entrance. Sometimes I find something interesting to buy. Which, I suppose, is Fry's intent on setting up the displays.

I found a couple NIC cards, although I wasn't sure which would be compatible with my motherboard. While leaving, I turned down an aisle which had R/C airplanes and cars. And drones. Lots of drones from many manufacturers, many of which I'd never heard of, each with multiple models. Tiny drones which would fit in my palm. Larger ones which have cameras. I was amazed by the number of drones, all with very reasonable (many under $100) prices. I stopped counting when I hit thirty different models, with more down the aisle and on the end cap.

Newspapers are reporting predicitions that a million drones will be found under Christmas trees this year. The FAA is trying to get ahead of the swarm of drones and establish regulations and registration for what they call Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). You can find info about registration here, and the $5 fee is waived until January 20, 2016. Any drone over 250 grams (0.55 lb) needs to be registered. This includes drones purchased before the FAA issued its new rules. Your registration number may be used for multiple drones.

I probably should have anticipated the number and variety of drones (or quad-copters, UAS, UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), or whatever you want to call them). At CES last January, there was a football-field-sized area with exhibits from drone manufacturers. Another exhibit hall had more. There were the well-known companies, such as DJI, Hubsan, 3DR, and Parrot (which had a wonderful demonstration of a dozen quadcopters flying in a synchronized aerial ballet), and many companies I had never heard of.

There are the small “toy” drones, palm-sized and larger, controlled by WiFi and limited in how far they can travel. A number have tiny cameras which record to an on-board SDcard. We move into the “hobbyist” realm with drones that transmit video back to the controller. There are several which carry a GoPro camera (or equivalent). Another step up and they add GPS to the drone, either to allow it to be programmed to follow a set path, return to “home” when it flies out of communication range, or programmed to fly over you, staying at a set distance, recording your every movement as you break your neck while biking down a mountain or schussing down a slope. Deep into the commercial market are a few models which were huge, several feet between wing-tips, with ranges in miles and flight times to match, designed to carry a standard DSLR camera.

I came back from CES and bought two toy drones, together less than $100. One is a palm-sized for indoor use, which is quite capable of careening out of control and knocking glasses off the coffee table. A larger one for outside flight which will, I hope, give me enough experience controlling it that I'll be comfortable buying a more expensive drone with a high-resolution camera.

Drones will revolutionize some industries. Why fly an expensive helicopter to perform a visual inspection of a electrical towers or an oil pipeline when you can fly a drone? Not only will there be 360º degree video of the interiors of homes for sale, there will be a round-the-house video. Taking aerial photos is already common, making it possible for anyone to produce an “Above San Francisco” or “Above New York” book (although it might be difficult to match Robert Cameron's talent). Speaking of San Francisco, when the next “big one” hits, I expect that drones will look for people who might be trapped in rubble, which will be much faster and safer than searching one-by-one through dangerous buildings.

What does all this have to do with Open Source? Many of the companies manufacturing drones, like 3DR, use open source software to control their aircraft. OpenPilot is a community and project which develops software for flight control, including flight plan scripting. Dronecode is a project sponsored by The Linux Foundation developing ope source software.

When the technical and regulatory kinks are worked out, I'm willing to bet that Amazon will be doing two-hour product delivery using drones, not cars. More than likely, using Open Source Software.


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