Autonomous Vehicles, Ground and Air

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Seed Documents

Alibaba begins drone delivery trials in China

This is Big: A Robo-Car Just Drove Across the Country

Where Can Drones Fly?

Amazon tests delivery drones at secret Canada site after US frustration

FAA drone approvals bedeviled by warnings, conflict, internal e-mails show, Washington Post (Dec. 21, 2014)

FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems web page

Faine Greenwood, "The FAA is completely confused about what constitutes “commercial” drone use," Slate Magazine

Stanford Cyberlaw wiki page on self-driving car laws

Joel N. Shurkin, "When Driver Error Becomes Programming Error", Inside Science

Corinne Iozzio, "Self-Driving Cars Get New Laws in California", Scientific American

Nick Bilton, "Disruptions: How Driverless Cars Could Reshape Cities", New York Times, July 7, 2013.

Driverless Car Market Watch (informative blog with many links)

Wells C. Bennett, "Civilian Drones, Privacy, and the Federal-State Balance" (Brookings report, September, 2014)

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, "Autonomous Underwater Vehicles"

Liquid Robotics web site

Near Mid-Air collisions

What happens when a drone hits a plane

Suggested Outline

Self-Driving Cars

What are they? Different levels of autonomy.

What technologies make them possible?

Sensor technologies

Communications and computing technologies

The near-term situation

What companies are involved and how advanced are they?

  • Google
    • Road testing has been in progress for years.
    • No recorded accidents that fault the driverless car.
  • Apple
    • Only rumors; nothing confirmed

Autonomous features already available or announced

Current licensing status (by state?)

The longer-range situation

Safety issues

Licensing and liability issues

International situation

Transition issues (mix old and new cars)

Federal intervention?

Social dimensions (Derenge)

Public perception

Infrastructure implications

Employment effects (taxi/Uber drivers? truckers?)

Mass transit vs. shared self-driving

Urban sprawl, commuting time

Better for the rich or for the poor?



Different types, weights, sizes, capabilities

Drones today go by several names: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or systems (UASs), and remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) or systems (RPSs). These terms currently cover any unmanned planes, helicopters, dirigible, or other type of flying vehicle. The FAA regulates all uses of these systems, which fall into three general categories: public (governmental), civil (non-governmental), and model aircraft for hobby or recreational use<ref>FAA Regulations on UASs</ref>. Regulation mostly covers public and civil operations; no express permission or documentation is needed to fly recreational drones<ref>FAA Regulations on Model Aircraft</ref>.

Generally accepted classifications for unmanned aerial systems include:

Class Max Altitude Max Range
Hand-held 2,000 ft (600 m) ~2 km
Close 5.000 ft (1,500 m) 10 km
NATO 10,000 ft (3,000 m) 50 km
Tactical 18,000 ft (5,500 m) 160km
MALE (medium altitude, long endurance) 30,000 ft (9,100 m) >200 km
HALE (high altitude, long endurance) >30,000 ft (9,100 m) indefinite
Hypersonic (high-speed, supersonic (Mach 1-5), hypersonic (Mach 5+)) 50,000 ft (15,200 m) or suborbital >200 km
Orbital (Mach 25+) low earth orbit indefinite
CIS (Lunar Earth-Moon transfer) a lot big

The United States military currently uses several different drones, ranging from hand-held systems resembling model aircraft to massive intercontinental jets capable of flying over 10,000 miles.

At the smaller end of the spectrum, soldiers use the hobby aircraft-sized RQ-ll Raven for reconnaissance. It carries a camera that can be used to view the surrounding area, see over hills, and provide other valuable information about the immediate vicinity.

The MQ-1 Predator is perhaps the most well-known military drone, having appeared in movies, video games, and terrifying news pieces about murderous robots indiscriminately killing innocent civilians. It and its sibling the MQ-9 Reaper fulfill both reconnaissance and "dynamic execution" roles, capable of traveling several hundred miles at subsonic speeds.

At the heavy end of the spectrum, the RQ-4 Global Hawk is larger than some manned aircraft. It fulfills reconnaissance and communications roles and has a range of over 10,000 miles.

Commercially, drones have a wide variety of uses, from the heavily anticipated Amazon Prime Air system that would use drones to deliver packages to customers to surveillance and mapping drones such as those produced by delair-tech. Drones are used increasingly in surveying, and agriculture as well.

Perhaps the most well-known use of commercial drones today is photography. Aerial shots that previously could only be taken from a helicopter can now be done for a fraction of the price and effort. Drones require none of the intensive training or logistical muscle that helicopters require to operate, and so are an increasingly attractive option for smaller film and photography companies.

What technologies make them possible (each size class)

The British Fairey Queen, a modified biplane, is the first example of a controlled unmanned aerial vehicle. The Royal Air Force used Fairey Queens for target practice as a way to give pilots realistic combat simulations without endangering a human pilot. This radio-controlled airplane first appeared in 1933, and the idea of drones for use as aerial targets enjoyed limited success through the Second World War in both England and the United States<ref>Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Robotic Air Warfare 1917-2007 - Ian Palmer</ref>

World War Two saw the entrance of UAVs into the public eye when Nazi V-1 Flying Bombs began falling onto London. The V-1 was controlled mostly by mechanical components. In-flight stability was maintained by a weighted pendulum and a gyrocompass, while overall navigation relied on the simple point-and-shoot method by which the V-1's launch ramp would be set at the right heading so that the bomb would pass over its target area. A mechanical wind-odometer measured air-distance traveled (so calibration for wind conditions on a given day was necessary), so that the bomb's engine would shut off after traveling a preset distance.

Drones continued to be either simple "aerial torpedoes" or remote-controlled aircraft until recently. Especially in the military field, "unmanned aerial vehicles are acquiring an increased level of autonomy as more complex mission scenarios are envisioned<ref>How, J.P. et al. “Increasing autonomy of UAVs.” Robotics & Automation Magazine, IEEE 16.2 (2009): 43-51. © 2009 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers</ref>."

The physical hardware used by drones is identical to that used by piloted aircraft; the differences arise in the software used. The simplest modern UAVs are simply radio-controlled aircraft. These transmit instrument readings and visual feed to the controller. This makes a controlled UAV nearly identical to a piloted aircraft, with the one difference being that the pilot isn't in the aircraft itself. Autonomous UAVs use the same sensors and visual input, but feed them into a decision-making algorithm instead of passing them to a human agent. The technology unique to autonomous drones in this context is in the form of the algorithms and techniques used to turn the collection of input data into real-time decisions. It is an area heavily dependent on the work of the artificial intelligence community.


What are their uses? (each size class)

Economic impact of uses today

Economic impact of future uses


Hazards to aircraft

Hazards to people/property on the ground

Use by criminals/terrorists


About the FAA. What are its authorities?

Current FAA Exemption process

FAA's Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

FAA's proposed process for larger sizes

Outside views of the FAA process

International comparison

Social Issues

Public perception and expectations

Privacy expectations

Law enforcement

Autonomous Underwater Vehicles




Legal or policy implications