The sky's the limit

Tiny unmanned craft can fly into danger - controlled by an iPhone - but raise privacy and security questions

UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLE (UAV) Missy Cummings and her team of MIT students are developing vehicles the size of a pizza box and equipped with cameras that can stream video of otherwise-inaccessible locations. The project has funding from Boeing Co. UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLE
Missy Cummings and her team of MIT students are developing vehicles the size of a pizza box and equipped with cameras that can stream video of otherwise-inaccessible locations. The project has funding from Boeing Co.
By Lindsey Hoshaw
Globe Correspondent / July 18, 2011

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If Missy Cummings seems anxious, it’s because she’s expecting an ambush. As the director of MIT’s Humans and Automation Lab, she has developed software to fly remote-controlled miniature aircraft with an iPhone.

“I have to keep my students super-busy because I know they’re going to fly over here and spy on me through my window,’’ Cummings joked during a recent interview at her office on the Cambridge campus.

Cummings was a Navy fighter pilot for 10 years, flying F/A-18 Hornets and A-4 Skyhawks. Now she and her team of a dozen students are developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) the size of a pizza box and equipped with cameras that can stream video of otherwise inaccessible locations. With funding from Boeing, they are devising controllers that are easy to use - even for untrained operators.

In the United States, automated vehicles are increasingly being used to do jobs that are unpleasant or unsafe for humans.

“The great use of UAVs at this point has been in the dull, dirty, and dangerous environments,’’ said Joshua Downs, a human factors specialist at Boeing Co. and technical leader of the Boeing-MIT research project.

“It could be a situation where the environment itself is toxic to a person, like what’s happened in Japan as a result of the earthquake.’’

These remotely operated aircraft are being used for tracking wildlife, scanning the skies for developing tornadoes, patrolling the border, and getting video footage after or during disasters - for example, to gauge the spread of forest fires in the Southwest.

“The whole idea is that you just need to get a little bit of imagery from an angle you couldn’t otherwise reach,’’ Cummings said. “By having your own vehicle you can really survey the world in a much more realistic way.’’

Unmanned aircraft almost always surpass humans in terms of performance because they don’t suffer from fatigue.

For the project, Cummings and her students are using a quadcopter - a mini-helicopter with four rotors - called the Ascending Technologies Hummingbird, which can fly up to 30 miles per hour.

They purchased the prefabricated vehicle online for $4,000 and added a $50 miniature camera so they could see the world from the UAV’s point of view.

The iPhone application takes advantage of an accelerometer built into the phone. Operators can move the phone up, down, left, or right, as if it were a joystick, and the vehicle moves accordingly. For less fine control, you can type in the GPS coordinates of the destination. Operators can watch video or look at snapshots taken by the onboard camera on the iPhone screen.

Cummings said operators are actually just nudging the vehicle along, since it knows how to stabilize itself and makes only small adjustments according to the directions it is given. Though Cummings developed the interface for an iPhone, the UAV can communicate with any smartphone that has a wireless or cellphone connection.

“The problem isn’t that commercial UAVs don’t exist,’’ Downs said. “The problem is they’re difficult to grasp and take as much training to fly as a traditional pilot would need.’’

Cummings said that with the new application, anyone could learn to fly a UAV with a smartphone and three minutes of training. To test this theory, she and some of her students flew to Boeing’s offices in Seattle, from where they were able to fly the Hummingbird back at MIT by using the iPhone they had with them.

“We even got people off the street to do it,’’ Cummings said.

There are a host of privacy and security concerns that accompany letting civilians fly UAVs, however.

“It’s definitely a bad part of a general trend,’’ said security specialist and author Bruce Schneier. “It’s one of many things we’re seeing: GoogleEarth takes photos of your house, Apple tracks your location through your iPhone. . . Being watched 24/7 is not freedom.’’

Cummings recognizes the risk but says the solution is open debate.

“People should be talking about this, we should be talking about the public policy ramifications,’’ she said. “I agree that if you can’t leave your house [without being spied on] it means you’re never safe.’’ As a tool, automated vehicles can be used for good and for bad, Cummings said, which doesn’t mean we should scrap the technology altogether.

The majority of UAV scrutiny takes aim at the US military and the CIA, which have deployed armed Predator and Reaper drones in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and now Somalia to launch missiles at terrorists. Critics say the attacks often injure or kill innocent civilians.

“I would argue that releasing weapons from UAVs is actually safer and less prone to error, since most of the video that UAV pilots see is also broadcast to a number of other command centers at the same time,’’ Cummings said. “Typically, a lawyer is on hand to approve almost every UAV weapons release. You do not have this luxury in manned fighters.’’

For commercial UAVs in the United States, there are heavy restrictions on who can fly them, “regardless of altitude or range,’’ said a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman, Les Dorr. Operators, civilian or otherwise, must receive a special permit.

“This is the world we live in now,’’ Cummings said. “The love of aviation doesn’t have to be just a dream anymore, because if you want to fly and operate these vehicles, you can.’’

Lindsey Hoshaw can be reached at