Essential Pittsburgh
5:21 pm
Tue July 8, 2014

It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's A Drone...Is Pittsburgh Ready?

Credit unten44 / flickr

On June 26, cameras at PNC Park caught a mysterious flying object hovering over the field during a Pirates game. The object hung in the night sky with a blinking light and several propellers whirling.

It didn’t take long for the commentators to surmise that this UFO was actually a remote controlled drone, whose owner was soon spotted walking on the North Shore.

Police almost immediately forced the man to ground his flying camera, and the FAA launched an investigation the week after.

Drones are becoming a bigger part of the everyday lives of American citizens, especially in a city famous for its robotic creations. Joining us to look at the role drones will play in our future is Illah Nourbaksh, professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and author of the recently released book Robot Futures. He explained what made the drone over PNC Park different from the remote controlled toy helicopters we've seen marketed for years.

“One biggest difference between those two categories is price. Remote control helicopters that flew well, often cost thousands of dollars when I was a kid and they almost never had a camera. Drones, on the other hand, can literally be had for $100 or less nowadays … and anybody can fly it, so it’s cultural. The difference is that helicopter was available to a few people that trained really hard, so it simply didn’t impinge upon all of us in the way drones do. Drones are so simple, that you could go buy one tomorrow, and then you can fly over your neighbors’ homes and start snapping pictures of them without any prior training.”

Nourbaksh does, however believe drones can be useful.

“I’ve seen students at a local school outfit a drone with a VOC sensor and fly around fracking sites in Pennsylvania to measure how much methane is being offgassed. I’ve seen farmers use drones to actually map their land … so of course, drones have very positive uses as well.”