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Drone Country: See America From Above

Affordable drones are giving us a new—perhaps temporary—vantage on the world

When a drone looks at a thing, that thing has a way of looking like a target. People become silhouettes at a shooting range. Buildings look vulnerable, their roofs helplessly exposed and defenseless. Most colors disappear, and the remaining blacks, whites and greys evacuate the scene of all human meaning. What we see becomes data: body counts, damage reports, strategic value.

In these photos, shot as part of an ongoing series, Belgian photographer Tomas van Houtryve looks at America through the eyes of a drone, a small quadcopter he bought online and equipped with a high-resolution camera. “A drone seems particularly appropriate because it’s increasingly how America views the rest of the world,” he says. “I wanted to turn things around. What do we look like from a drone’s-eye view? Suspicious? Prosperous? Free and happy?” Every age brings with it new technology for looking at the world. Van Houtryve has embraced the technology of ours.

Drones are becoming an increasingly common sight in our domestic airspace. Pilots have started spotting them from airliners: the FAA reports up to 40 cases a month in which drones are seen exceeding the legal ceiling of 400 feet. As they get cheaper, more popular and more ­plentiful—one online community for enthusiasts, DIY Drones, has over 60,000 members—they are bringing with them a host of unanswered questions, and the White House is scrambling to bring regulatory order to the aerial chaos. In December, the Federal Aviation Administration delayed its long-awaited guidelines on drone flights, initially due next year, until 2017. The questions are about safety, but also about privacy: we’re a lot more comfortable looking through drones than suffering their all-seeing, all-judging gaze.

From this godlike point of view, teenagers playing lacrosse on a field look like lunar shadows of themselves. A housing development in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., takes on an abstract geometric beauty. Everything every­where looks silent and calm, still and waiting. Even scenes of economic and ecological chaos take on their own serene perfection. In California’s Central Valley, van Houtryve found order in rows of houseboats moored in a reservoir. Rings on the shoreline show how profoundly the water level has been reduced by months of drought.

Tomas van Houtryve photographs Lake Oroville Carl Costas

That same order is echoed by rows of RVs parked near an Amazon fulfillment center near Reno, Nev. (coincidentally, Amazon is where van Houtryve bought his drone). Migrant workers flock there in RVs for the extra jobs that materialize during the holiday season and then, like the water in that California reservoir, evaporate into thin air. In a strange way, the pitilessness in the drone’s stare inspires its opposite in human eyes: empathy.

Tomas van Houtryve is a Paris-based photographer, artist and writer. His reporting on this story was supported in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

Lev Grossman is TIME’s book critic and its lead technology writer. He is also the author of the New York Times bestselling novels The Magicians and The Magician King.

Myles Little, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at TIME.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: December 12

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Eel drones are the future of undersea warfare.

By Patrick Tucker in Defense One

2. This interactive map points the way to breaking gridlock in Washington and reconnecting Americans to the policy conversation.

By the Hewlett Foundation Madison Initiative

3. Fear of terrorism has radically changed America’s public spaces.

By Susan Silberberg in The Conversation

4. By dividing Muslims, ISIS might be sowing the seeds of its own destruction.

By Mark Mardell in BBC

5. Yesterday, the FCC boosted access to free, high-quality internet at America’s public libraries, opening the door to digital opportunity for all.

By Reed Hundt in the Aspen Idea

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME India

New Delhi Police Plan to Use Drone Cameras to Boost Public Safety

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Richard Newstead—Getty Images/Moment RF

The drones will be equipped with night-vision cameras

In the face of increased outrage and scrutiny over the safety of its women, India’s capital New Delhi plans to incorporate a new tool into its surveillance arsenal: drones.

The helicopter-like unmanned aircraft will be equipped with night-vision cameras and will be launched next month in the city’s north district, the Times of India reported.

Each drone will fly at a height of about 200 m and will cover a hexagonal area of 3 or 4 km.

The announcement comes about a week after a New Delhi woman accused an Uber driver of rape, an incident that has reignited the conversation around public security in a city known for being unsafe for women.

TIME technology

Industry Gathering Aims to Reshape Future of America’s Drone Business

Flying drone with camera
Getty Images

How Robofest—an informal meeting of aerospace industry veterans, government insiders, and Beltway think tankers—aims to reshape the U.S. commercial drone industry

At Robofest, first things first. First there’s the wine, provided courtesy of one of the Washington, D.C. area’s most influential aerospace consultancies. Once you’ve filled your plastic cup—this affair is more backyard barbecue than society event—there’s the meet and greet, an opportunity to check out the credentials of those around you: an aerospace industry executive, the economic development chief for a western U.S. state, a dean of engineering for a prestigious American university, several D.C. think tankers, lobbyists, lawyers. But the very first person you meet is Darryl Jenkins, chairman of the American Aviation Institute, consultant to airlines and aviation companies and host and creator of today’s event.

Jenkins is a well-known personality in the aerospace and aviation realms. He’s been in the room for more or less every major airline merger and bankruptcy restructuring over the past few decades. He’s spent his career lecturing to and on the aerospace industry, having taught for several semesters at George Washington University while publishing countless papers and research reports as well as one book on the industry. He’s the guy that goes on Bloomberg TV and CNBC to explain these things to the world. Jenkins knows a whole lot of influential people in the aviation and aerospace worlds. A lot of those people are here at Robofest today. They, like Jenkins, share a keen interest in the next generation of aerospace technology—the various unmanned aerial systems commonly and collectively known as drones.

It’s a pitch-perfect afternoon in late October when Robofest takes place. The setting is Jenkins’ secluded home in the Shenandoah foothills. This year’s event is the second in two years, already known as an off-the-record social date that is evolving into an industry movement that Jenkins hopes will pave the way forward for the burgeoning commercial drone industry. (Fortune obtained special permission to write about the event.) On the agenda: An open discussion on how to best move the industry forward, and—of course—a bit of drone flying. But first, there’s wine and then lunch. No one wants to reshape an entire industry on an empty stomach.

Last year’s Robofest was mostly a recreational and social affair, Jenkins says. This year—with some of the more influential minds within the industry, state and federal government, and academia all gathered on his back patio—Jenkins wants to do more than just talk about what can be done. The drone industry largely sees itself as hamstrung by an overreaching and underfunded Federal Aviation Administration. The industry believes it is increasingly outgunned by foreign competitors operating in more permissive regulatory environments. Jenkins and his assembled cast of industry veterans, lawyers, entrepreneurs, lobbyists, and government insiders want to change that.

“When I think about all the airline mergers and bankruptcies I’ve been through with this industry, I feel like an old man,” Jenkins says, calling his 80 or so guests to order. “When I think about UAS technology, I’m 16 again.” As his guests finish tucking into plates of fried chicken and pasta salad, Jenkins reminds his guests that the point of this gathering is not to sit around throwing rocks at the FAA, an activity that has become an organized sport for advocates of a commercialized drone industry. Today is about hammering out some concrete steps that the industry can take in the near term. It’s about keeping the industry marching forward despite bureaucratic inertia.

Jenkins turns the floor over to his keynote speaker, the former CEO of a major Fortune 500 aerospace and defense company and vocal supporter of the drone industry. His comments set off a spirited discussion about what the industry needs, how it can nudge the FAA in the right direction, and—most importantly—what the industry can do on its own without help from the FAA. (The theme of this year’s Robofest: “Doing it Ourselves.”)

No single voice or interest dominates the discussion. Among those that speak up are academics, former FAA officials, aerospace industry executives, drone entrepreneurs looking to build new companies around UAS technologies and services, local law enforcement, and U.S. intelligence employees. One is a lawyer who specializes in the nascent new practice of drone law. Another represents the newly formed D.C. drone lobby backed by Google and Amazon. There are even realtors interested in using drones for aerial photography, which is currently prohibited by the FAA, and a sailing coach interested in applying drones to maritime sport.

Above all, there is money present. Representatives of a $2.2 billion investment fund aimed specifically at drone infrastructure—such as air traffic control technologies to allow drones to safely operate alongside conventional aircraft in U.S. airspace—weigh in during the discussion. For more than an hour the discussion ping-pongs around Jenkins’ crowded, sun-dappled patio.

There is disagreement but also plenty of consensus. The large drone industry is well represented on Capitol Hill through the defense and aerospace industries, but the small UAS industry—representing aircraft that weigh less than 55 lbs.—needs to better organize and represent itself, the group agrees. Small UAS need size-specific regulations so that a five-pound drone flying at 300 feet is treated differently than a large drone. And most of all, the industry needs to work with the FAA, rather than rail against it—otherwise, little progress will occur.

Jenkins closes the discussion by informing his guests that this will be the last Robofest held at his home. Though it’s only the second such event, it’s already straining the capacity of his generous patio space. Jenkins says he’s working with universities in the D.C. area to formalize and host the next event sometime in early 2016. The plan: bring today’s agenda to a much larger audience. It would be a mistake to wait any longer, he says.

“We’re at an inflection point,” says one self-described serial entrepreneur who launched and sold four technology companies. He’s traveled to Robofest from Michigan to hear what others in the industry have to say and for the chance to swap business cards and make a few new contacts in the industry. Naturally, his latest startup is a drone company, one that would provide drone products and services as well as training and certification for pilots—as soon as standards for such certification are codified by the FAA, that is. “There’s still a lot of uncertainty,” he says. “But the time for this industry is now.”

The sun is getting low now and the breeze has died down—it’s finally time to fly. From car trunks and duffel bags and hard plastic carrying cases, out come the drones—from small quad-rotors to massive eight-armed octo-copters in varying shapes and sizes. The entire gathering looks on as one machine after another rises into the sky. In minutes, everyone is 16 again.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

TIME Ukraine

Watch Drone Footage Explore Chernobyl From Above for the First Time

The good news: brown bears are returning to the area

Areas affected by the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 are still frozen in time, as haunting drone footage of the empty city of Pripyat reveals.

The scenes of rusted ferris wheels and abandoned buildings, shot by British filmmaker Danny Cooke for a CBS 60 Minutes segment that aired last week, mark the first time Chernobyl has been seen by air, The Guardian reports.

“Chernobyl is one of the most interesting and dangerous places I’ve been,” Cooke said. “There was something serene, yet highly disturbing about this place. Time has stood still and there are memories of past happenings floating around us.”

Some things are changing in Chernobyl, however: Scientists have observed what they believe is the first evidence of brown bears in the area in more than a century.

Though researchers had previously suspected that the bears had returned, cameras set up in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone actually caught a bear on video, the BBC reports.

“There have been suggestions that they have existed there previously but, as far as we know, no-one has got photographic evidence of one being present on the Ukrainian side of the exclusion zone,” said Mike Wood of the University of Salford.

[The Guardian] [BBC]

TIME Aviation

Drones Are Beginning to Pose a Real Threat to Flight Safety Says FAA Data

Agribotix, a start-up in Boulder, manufactures drones for agricultural use.
The Kestrel Cinematix drone takes photos and video from the air. Agribotix, a start-up in Boulder, manufactures drones for agricultural use and hopes to grow the business as restrictions are lifted on their use. Kathryn Scott Osler—Denver Post/Getty Images

There have been 25 near-collisions with aircraft reported since June 1 this year

The small, remote-controlled drones that have recently grown in popularity are beginning to pose a significant threat to flight safety in the United States, according to new data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The data, released Wednesday at the request of the Washington Post and various other news outlets, reveals 25 near-collisions with airborne drones reported by commercial and private pilots since June 1. Many of these incidents reportedly occurred near New York and Washington, and several of them took place at major U.S. airports.

Drones, often mounted with cameras for aerial photography (although Amazon wants to use them to deliver goods as well), are becoming an everyday object. However, people who operate them often exceed the altitude limits set by the FAA, bringing them dangerously close to aircraft and helicopter flight paths.

“All it’s going to take is for one to come through a windshield to hurt some people or kill someone,” Kyle Fortune, a private pilot, told the Post. Fortune said he suddenly spotted a drone 100 feet underneath his aircraft during a Sept. 22 flight.

Other pilots said that drones getting sucked into engines, rotors or propellers could cause potentially fatal accidents.

[Washington Post]

TIME Gadgets

GoPro Might Be Making its Own Drones

Preview Of The 2014 Consumer Electronics Show
A DJI Innovations Phantom remote-controlled drone hovers above attendees during the CES Unveiled press event prior to the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2014. Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

The company's cameras have long been used in other drones

Action camera company GoPro is producing its own line of consumer drones, the Wall Street Journal reports. The remote-controlled, multirotor aircraft will be backed with a camera and be priced at $500 to $1,000, aimed squarely at the upper-level consumer drone market.

The move makes sense for GoPro — its lightweight but high-resolution action cameras have long been used by remote-control hobbyists looking to add photography and videography capabilities to their aircraft. Acknowledging that trend, top drone manufacturers like DJI have started producing their own cameras for their aircraft, potentially cutting into GoPro’s sales.

GoPro is among the top action camera makers in the world. Its high-end, $499 HERO4 Black records ultra-high-res 4K video and takes 12MP stills at 30 frames per second, while its new entry-level HERO model retails for $129.99 and takes 1080p video and 5MP stills at 5 frames per second.

[WSJ]

TIME technology

New Drone Rules May Require Commercial Flyers to Have License

Attendees Visit The Commercial UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) Show
An exhibitor adjusts a Sony Corp. digital camera mounted to a drone, developed by Flairics GmbH and Co., as it hangs on display during the Commercial UAV show in London, U.K., on Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014. Chris Ratcliffe—Bloomberg / Getty Images

Rules will require pilots to get licensed

The Federal Aviation Administration is set to restrict use of drones to within 400 feet of the ground and forbid flights beyond the eyesight of the operator, according to a new report, rules far less permissive than what companies like Amazon had hoped for.

The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources familiar with the highly anticipated ruling, reports that drone operators will be expected to obtain a pilot license, which traditionally require hours of flight training.

The rules will allow drones to be used in filmmaking, construction and farming, among other industries.

Read more at the Wall Street Journal

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: November 18

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. The worst ceasefire: Russia and Ukraine are both preparing for war as their uneasy peace slips away.

By Jamie Dettmer in the Daily Beast

2. With the rise of legal cannabis, the small-holders running the industry may soon be run off by the “Marlboro of Marijuana”

By Schumpeter in the Economist

3. From taking India to Mars on the cheap to pulling potable water from thin air: Meet the top global innovators of 2014.

By the writers and editors of Foreign Policy

4. Some charter schools promote aggressive policies of strict discipline, and that strategy may be backfiring.

By Sarah Carr in the Hechinger Report

5. As local police forces become intelligence agencies, we need sensible policies to balance privacy and public safety.

By Jim Newton in the Los Angeles Times

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Companies

Amazon Is Hiring a Pilot to Test its Delivery Drones

Strike- Amazon Leipzig
A drone with an Amazon package floats in front of the Amazon logistics center in Leipzig, Germany on Oct 28, 2014. Peter Endig—dpa/Corbis

Company is also seeking a flight safety manager

It seems Amazon is getting serious about delivering packages to its customers via drone.

The e-tailer has posted a job listing for a flight operations engineer on its Amazon Prime Air drone delivery team. The new job, based at Amazon’s Seattle headquarters, will involve working with regulatory authorities, planning out test flights and executing the flights themselves. Several years of flight test experience are required for the job.

The company is also seeking a flight safety manager to work on the same program.

Amazon first announced its intentions to begin a drone delivery program via a 60 Minutes episode about a year ago. The plan has been met with much skepticism because the commercial use of drones is heavily regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. However, the agency recently permitted the use of drones on certain movie sets, which could pave the way for wider use of the vehicles at businesses such as Amazon.

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