November 21, 2014

Elyria
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County drone aspirations not a flight of fancy

ELYRIA — Matt Mishak doesn’t fear the rise of the drones.

In fact, the Elyria city prosecutor, businessman and instructor at Lorain County Community College said he thinks unmanned aircraft systems, as those who deal with the machines prefer to call them, are a boon to society.

“It’s an exciting, very capable new technology with the potential for such severe cultural change that everybody needs to be involved in the conversation,” he said.

The drones Mishak makes as a hobbyist, one of the teachers of LCCC’s class on drones and rocketry and co-founder of his own company, Drone-werx, are a far cry from what most people think of when the subject comes up.

The common image, of course, is of a Predator drone soaring over the mountains of Afghanistan or Pakistan gathering information and launching Hellfire missiles at enemies.

Mishak’s drones look more like futuristic radio-controlled helicopters than military hardware and he doesn’t see them as a threat.

He believes that drones have applications that can help people do jobs that are “dull, dirty or dangerous,” such as inspecting power lines or roofs. He also sees the possibility for law enforcement and search-and-rescue applications.

But beyond that he thinks drones have the potential to help revive Lorain County’s flagging manufacturing base.

Critics of drones in the U.S. cite privacy concerns and want to see limits placed on how the growing technology is used.

What’s a drone?

An unmanned aircraft system takes on a number of looks, varying between miniaturized versions of conventional helicopters and airplanes to more elaborate systems that look like they’re straight out of science fiction.

Radio-controlled versions have long been used by hobbyists, but those remain within the line of sight of the pilot, who must remain in control of the craft at all times.

More advanced versions now being developed and deployed can navigate themselves, carrying out preassigned tasks and adjusting their own controls to carry out their instructions, Mishak said. Cameras can be mounted on the machines, allowing a human operator to control the machines from a smartphone, tablet or a specialized controller, even if the craft is miles away.

Mishak said one system of cameras is so sophisticated that looking through a visor is almost the same as being right there.

He said the technology, the rough equivalent of a smartphone, that makes a drone more than a simply radio-controlled airplane centers on the computerized flight controls. Speed controls, a global-positioning system, a microprocessor and other technology is all that’s needed to control the drones.

“The craft basically flies itself,” he said.

The drones Mishak builds are made of precision-cut carbon fiber with the strength of titanium but at a fraction of the weight. Once the base is completed, the propellers, controls and battery are added.

But making the machines takes time — perhaps 40 manhours to fully assemble a drone — and aren’t cheap. Mishak said while there are cheap drones costing in the hundreds of dollars, a decent one costs around $20,000 to make.

Not a cheap proposition, when you consider that if something goes wrong in flight, the craft will plummet to the unforgiving ground.

Business class

In February 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Federal Aviation Administration Modernization and Reform Act, calling for the aggressive implementation of drones in national airspace by 2015.

Drones are limited for recreational use only under 400 feet and within eyeshot of the operator. They also can be used by colleges and first responders such as police and fire departments under current rules.

Mishak said he sees a day in the near future when drones are assigned to perform tasks such as inspecting and repairing wind turbines.

The plans to mainstream drones coupled with predictions from the Teal Group, an aerospace industry market analysis firm, which forecasted that the market for drones will grow from a $5.9 billion per year industry to $11.3 billion over the next decade, have encouraged Mishak and his co-instructor, math and science professor Marlin Linger, that drones may provide a key to the county’s economic future.

“Ohio already has all of the resources necessary for drone manufacturing and development,” Mishak said. “Carbon fiber, flexible electronics and transportation industries are already in place.”

With the use of drones on the rise, the FAA is seeking to establish six testing sites for drones in the United States, with a facility in Dayton high in the rankings.

Mishak hopes to create opportunities in Lorain County, not just in testing but also in the manufacturing of multi-rotor helicopter frames and the programming of the microprocessors, which allow the crafts to fly autonomously.

But Steve Fryburg, a U.S. Army veteran and retired police officer who heads up the group No Drones Ohio, said he thinks the business case for drones is being overstated. He said he lives in the Dayton-area, which has become Ohio’s drone hub thanks to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and drone programs at Springfield-Beckley Airport and Sinclair Community College.

He doesn’t think the drones will bring in enough jobs to justify the problems that accompany them.

“We could do more with producing green energy in Ohio and bringing green industry to Ohio,” Fryburg said.

Mishak said he wants to show that civilian use of unmanned aircraft systems will eventually surpass use by the military for waging war in the coming years.

That’s what the class, which starts Feb. 25, is all about, he said — building and programming multi-rotor helicopters to take off, fly and land themselves. While last semester’s class enjoyed a solid enrollment of 10 students, the students and professors were limited by equipment restraints and were only able to cover one aspect of drone control over the 10-week period — keeping crafts upright and level in the air.

Now, thanks to the acquisition of new microprocessors, students will be able to program their drones to account for everything from altitude to geospatial position with minimal control needed from the ground.

Another important feature for Mishak is the open-source nature of the new microprocessors. The programmer, for instance, will have the power to change any aspect of the code dictating the behavior of the drone.

“Students will be able to plot out the entire course of their craft from the computer and then watch the craft execute it exactly above their heads,’’ Mishak said. “If they want to tweak the programming, maybe build a hybrid air-and-land vehicle? No problem.”

Law applications

Lorain County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Dennis Cavanaugh said his office is interested in exploring the uses drones could have for law enforcement.

But he also thinks they will eventually fall under limits similar those placed on infrared technology, which allows police to peer into buildings and examine heat signatures. The courts have barred officers from driving up and down streets using infrared cameras to search for marijuana grow operations, for instance.

The Medina County Sheriff’s Office already has a drone its officers have been training with and Cavanaugh said Lorain County will likely be getting one in the next few months. He said the best use for the drones will be searching for missing persons or suspects in large areas with difficult terrain.

Drones would be able to fly grid searches over the area and relay information to those on the ground.

“We’ll have to try it and see how it works,” he said.

Controversy

Gary Daniels, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said while drones have useful and legitimate applications, they give the government and private companies a far greater ability to watch the public than most people would be comfortable with.

“Especially since 9/11, we live in very much a surveillance society,” he said.

Lorain defense attorney Zachary Simonoff, who took Mishak’s class last year, said he sees both sides of the debate.

On the one hand, he can see the good a drone can do. For instance, he said firefighters could use drones to scout a blaze to see if people are trapped in a burning building.

But he also understands the concerns about privacy and the potential for abuse by law enforcement.

“Do we really want to be watched 24 hours a day is really the question,” Simonoff said.

While the courts have said it’s acceptable for helicopters and planes to monitor roads to traffic violations or look for marijuana fields, they’ve limited police use of infrared cameras, he said.

Simonoff said drones could probably legally serve a similar function to traffic cameras but when they start flying around a neighborhood, they would be intruding on people’s privacy.

For instance, if a woman were sunbathing topless in a backyard that was surrounded by a privacy fence, would she be charged with public indecency if a drone flew overhead and an officer saw her, Simonoff wondered.

He also questioned what would happen to the images recorded by the drones, given the concerns airline passengers had about controversial X-ray machines at airports that digitally strip away the clothing of passengers going through airport security.

Fryburg said he thinks the technology is outpacing the law. He said the United States needs to put in place a legal and moral framework to guide the use of drones before deploying them en masse.

He said the government’s use of drone strikes, including the targeted killings of Americans deemed enemies of the state, sets a dangerous precedent and is costing the U.S. goodwill abroad. He sees the same thing happening with the privacy issue domestically.

“I feel that we need to look at this technology responsibly and not go at it full-speed ahead,” Fryburg said.

Mishak found himself at the center of criticism earlier this month when a flier disparaging his class began circulating around the LCCC campus.

“Join this exciting new course and find yourself part of the exciting new field responsible for cool flying gizmos that bring dread to countless innocent people worldwide — not to mention the deaths of countless innocent children!” the unsigned flier said.

It also said that students in the class would be able to sell their souls for jobs and “develop an ethical remove between yourself and villainized foreign innocents!”

“Help make instructor Matthew Mishak’s dream of localizing unmanned drone technology in Lorain County come true!” the flier concluded

Mishak said he was surprised and taken aback by the flier.

“I think that those distributing that flier are preying upon fears regarding technology to promote their personal political agenda,” he said. “The reason that this is unfortunate is because Lorain County needs to promote a culture of embracing and understanding technology. Fear of technology will only hurt our local economy.”

Chronicle intern Mark Allain contributed to this story.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.