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The Drone Catcher: How A Michigan Robotics Lab Hopes To Keep The Skies Friendly

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nir

Plenty of people are deeply enthralled with drones: hobbyists, scientists, engineers …. criminals. From disrupting sporting events to making assassination attempts, a range of nefarious actors have been showcasing the dangers of this burgeoning technology. 

 

Naturally, one potential response has emerged in the form of more technology.

 

Mo Rastgaar, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Michigan Technological University and director of the schools’ Human-Interactive Robotics lab (HIRoLab). As a part of his work in that lab – which is typically centered on innovative robotic prostheses – he’s developed a device called the “drone catcher.”

 

A drone itself, the drone catcher shoots a net to capture and retrieve rogue drones, a strategic move meant to improve outcomes.

 

“If the threat is a drone, you really don’t want to shoot it down,” Rastgaar said in a Michigan Tech blog post, “it might contain explosives and blow up. What you want to do is catch it and get it out of there.”

 

If bomb-laced drones detonating upon destruction are an aspect of the impending drone ecosystem you hadn’t considered, buckle in. Any analysis of drone-catcher viability invariably exposes just how many regulatory loopholes and legal quandaries remain to be solved before unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are a more commonplace part of society.

 

The Drone-Catcher Quandary 

 

Cars have license plates and can be pulled over by police. Aircraft have tail numbers and can be directed by air traffic control. Drones are just out there: While UAV regulations exist, there are very few opportunities for enforcement.

 

“I would think a lot of state and local entities would like to use a drone catcher, but there’s probably some concern about the legality of the method it uses,” said Bryan Budds, transport/safety section manager and aeronautics commission advisor for MDOT Aeronautics. “There’s an old regulation that says it’s basically contrary to federal regulation to impact or destroy or restrict an aircraft that’s in flight.”

 

That’s right: Drone catchers are necessary because not all drone operators will follow regulations; but because of regulations, drone catchers can’t be used. Even if a drone is known to be nefarious, and it’s, say, right outside your bedroom window on your property, it would likely be illegal to do anything about it. This incongruity poses an obvious quandary for industry, academia, regulators and consumers alike.

 

“It’s very similar to the automotive world with connected and automated vehicles, where the technology is moving faster than regulation is keeping up with at the moment,” explained Tony Vernaci, president of the Aerospace Industry Association of Michigan.

 

Drone Catchers’ Prime Uses

 

The lag between regulation and technology, however, is one of the most powerful reasons to have a drone catcher around in the first place. Consider uncontrolled airports. At large airports, traffic controllers monitor the airspace and direct aircraft for safe landings and takeoffs. If a lost or rogue drone enters the airspace, air traffic controllers can alert pilots.

 

In small, uncontrolled airports, however, pilots communicate with one another. Because drones don’t communicate, they’re potential dangers in these areas.

 

“If the FAA relents a little bit and says there is some room to intervene with nefarious aircraft,” said Budds, “I think the drone catcher is a really strong contender to help address that issue.”

 

Other places where drones are restricted – for example, around prisons or near critical infrastructure – could also benefit from the protection of drone catchers. After all, those aiming to deliver contraband into a prison yard or blow up a bridge are unlikely to be restrained by regulations.

 

The Future Of Drone Catchers

 

Of course, there’s no reason to doubt that human ingenuity will overcome these complications. But that will take teamwork.

 

“I think it will take regulators getting involved with the industry so they can work in harmony,” said Vernaci. “Sometimes regulation can get in the way, and at the same time, unregulated technology can have unintended consequences.”

 

The more collaboration, the better. Organizations such as the Michigan Council on Future Mobility and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s PlanetM initiative bring together people from the public, private and nonprofit sectors to accelerate mobility solutions that will advance the industry from both technological and regulatory perspectives.

 

And no matter what path drone catcher technology takes into the future, one thing is for sure: It’s going to be a fascinating journey.

 

“I’m always intrigued by how fast this is all moving,” Vernaci said. “And no pun intended, the sky’s the limit for this type of thing. It excites me and I like to see things developing.”

 

Source

 

Edited by nir

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