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UAVs, Forrest Fires, and Idiots [VIDEO]

Every summer, I have a front-row seat to hell. I live at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, just east of Los Angeles. During this time of year I can walk out of my house and see hills pockmarked by flames, as if they were covered by the campfires of an invading hoard.  All night, the fire engines scream as they rush uphill, while the air smells of cinder and ashes (I keep waiting for a TV weatherman to announce that the air quality for the day is “extra chunky”).  Most ominous are the gargantuan columns of grey smoke that dominate the sky like a bad day at Mordor.

As I watch 747s and helicopters circle the mountains like angry mosquitoes, dropping endless amounts of flame retardant and water, I have the same thoughts that anyone who works for a company that makes control units for unmanned systems would have, “Gee all those planes look expensive. Would it be cheaper for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to do that work?”

Firefighting is expensive. One estimate is that for the state of California alone, the costs topped $212 million for 2015.  Furthermore, the fire season is growing longer and resources are being stretched thin. Since humans are not winning the war against wild fires, could robots do better?

So far, firefighters are using UAVs for the same reason everyone else is using them, i.e. as an eye in the sky. Many agencies categorized them as disaster relief equipment and seem to be using them strictly for situational awareness. As far as I can tell, efforts to use unmanned systems in a more active role, such as dropping water, are rare and not well developed.

It’s not that UAVs don’t have a significant role in firefighting. It’s that their role currently is extremely negative. Consider this alert that I received from the Monrovia Fire Department:

“One area of concern that has developed recently is the fact that there are privately operated drones that have been violating the air space within which fire response teams are operating. Yesterday, on June 25, 2016, we had to suspend air operations due to private drones flying in the path of firefighting aircraft. It is vitally important to note… fire officials cannot deploy firefighting aircraft when private individuals are flying drones in the fire response locations.”

I was stunned to read this alert. People are flying their hobby-level UAVs into firefighting operations? If you have never lived near a wild fire, it’s hard to describe just how stupid this is. Wild fires are terrifying and the pilots who fight them are genuinely brave. To interfere with them in anyway requires a substantial lack of good sense.

I called up Andy Doyle, 27 year veteran firefighter of Los Angeles County to get his opinion.  “It happens every single fire,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before someone is killed.”

According to Andy, when someone flies their private UAV into a firefighting campaign, all air operations cease. Without the thousands of pounds of flame retardant and water being dropped from the sky, land is burned, houses are destroyed, and lives are endangered.

UAVs are exceptionally dangerous to firefighting planes, because of the unique stresses manned aircraft experience. Firefighting planes fly low, slow, and carry huge weights. A helicopter typically carries 300 gallons of water (just over 2500 pounds). To get an idea of how dangerous this is, see video below:

The difficulty of piloting a firefighting plane is further compounded by the need to compensate for updrafts and the poor visibility caused by smoke and ashes.  Furthermore, the pilots need to be extraordinarily precise where they drop their loads of water and flame retardant; lives depend on their accuracy. While an poorly piloted UAV may endanger a normal aircraft, they are exceptionally hazardous to fire-fighting planes.

My talk with Andy illuminated the reason why UAVs are not being used as air tankers to fight fires. UAVS are notoriously difficult to fly, because of poor visibility. There was even a famous incident in which a pilot unknowingly flew a Predator UAV upside down.  This makes UAVs ill-suited to accurately drop water and flame retardant. Furthermore, it is well-established that UAVs are not as sturdy as manned airplanes; they crash more often. The current generation of UAVs may not have the durability necessary to withstand the stresses that aircraft undergo while fighting fires.

However, these are technical problems, which eventually will be resolved. I am less optimistic about the fixing the essential stupidity of people who use UAVs to recklessly imperil firefighters.

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Hack Your Car Legally [VIDEO]

The Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) is having an impressive string of victories in its fight to reform the government’s interpretation of the “anti-circumvention” Section 1201of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Arguing fair use, the EFF has had success in removing restrictions for access to DVD & Blue Ray “ripping,” cellphone “jailbraking,” as well as videogames and abandoned multiplayer servers.

One of the most interesting EFF’s victories is the right for an owner to hack their own car’s computers.  For a brief summary about this decision, see video below:

Originally, integrated automotive computers rose to prominence in response to demands for tighter emissions standards and fuel economy.  Now, computers manage air conditioning, radios, air bags, alarm systems, anti-lock braking systems, traction control, ride control, cruise control, and automatic transmissions. A typical 1970 car had only $25 worth of electronics. Currently, a new car’s computers may be worth $6,000 or more.

The ever-growing computerization of automobiles had its dark side. For a person with a lot of sweat, but few resources, car repair was a traditional way to gain a respectable livelihood. The kid who fixed his neighbor’s cars in his family’s garage could dream of eventually owning his own repair shop.

Computerization, with its proprietary systems and software, was an obvious attempt by the automobile manufacturers to dominate the repair market.When automotive computers were introduced, they were exotic, expensive, and required extensive specialized training. In the mind of car manufacturers, the friendly neighborhood car repairman would fade into obsolescence, replaced by dealer service employees in white jackets.

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And the guys who worked weekends detailing and souping up their own cars? Well, they could tell stories to their grandkids about how once upon a time, people could actually work on their own cars.

But then a funny thing happened. Computers became a lot less exotic, and much easier to use. Even uneducated people started walking around with them in their pockets. Tinkering with software became as familiar as cleaning a carburetor.

More highly trained than before, and needing more expensive diagnostic tools, the small-time mechanic has endured. Despite the designs of large automobile companies, he is not a quaint anachronism. Furthermore, guys still work on their own cars, viewing the computers as simply more parts to modify, upgrade and play with.

Proprietary laws still protect the rights of manufacturers, but the recent wins by the EFF have breathed new life into the great American car obsession.  The EFF state the recent decisions “…. represent a victory for the public that will help independent security researchers evaluate automotive software, will promote competition in the vehicle aftermarket, and will support vehicle owners who wish to learn about or improve on their own cars.”

(Note:  EFF’s efforts target integrated automotive computers. I am not sure, but I do not think the recent decisions apply to Mobile Display Terminals (MDT). Often used by Law Officers and other First Responders, AMREL has supplied laptops and tablets for this application for decades. We will keep a close eye on how future decisions impact MDTs)

EFF’s request to the Librarian of Congress (who interprets the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and its subsequent enforcement), specifically requested the freedom to “tinker.” The “freedom to tinker” is an issue that goes beyond cars and has caused technological giants, such as Google, to worry about America losing its scientific edge (see War on Inventors).

In the 1930s, when people jumped into their car’s guts, and rearranged things, the hot rod was born. I wonder what will get created now.

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Top Tech Trends in 2015 [VIDEOS]

I recently viewed a lot of “Top Tech Trends in 2015” videos and I am depressed.  Not because the videos lacked typical tech-evangelist optimism. No, I am dispirited, because of sad similarities that afflicted so many videos.

Most “Top Tech Trends” videos can be categorized into 2 types.  One type is blatantly self-serving. “Everybody will be doing cloud computing. Quick, buy my suite of cloud products or all the other Chief Information Officers will call you names and make fun of you.”

The second type of video is what I call “buzzword bingo.”  The goal is not to communicate, but rather to establish the speaker is cool and hip by cramming as many faddish words as possible into a single sentence. “When you buy a taco, facial recognition will establish your identity, derive your preferences from algorithms that data-mine your social media, download the appropriate taco template from cloud storage, fabricate it with a 3-D printer (which is connected to the Internet of Things), and pay for the food with New Field Communication(NFC) from your mobile.”

The following are not necessarily the best “Top Tech Trends in 2015” videos, but rather the ones that I found the most interesting.

In spite of erroneous predictions about the timing of the iPhone 6 release and the unverified claims about its display’s durability, I liked this video below from the folks at Epic Technology.  Unlike so many other videos, I got the impression that the producers actually put some thought in what they were saying, instead of just repeating empty phrases.

Trend Hunter’s video is less about technology than about how consumers’ behavior is changing due to adoption of innovations.  More fads than technology.  Still very interesting.

The next video got my attention not because of what is said, but rather who is saying it. Futurist Jack Uldrich gives 100 lectures a year, mostly to business groups seeking guidance on navigating the rapidly-changing tech environment.  I have no idea if his prediction of gas prices dropping by half will come true. What I do know is that a lot business people will take his prediction seriously and plan accordingly.

Of course, you can ditch the videos altogether and take a look at these written forecasts from IDC and Gartner.