Saturday, November 7, 2015

Drone encounter

     Heading to the train Thursday afternoon, I noticed a white drone hovering about 15 feet above the center greenery of Wacker Drive, just south of Lake Street. A DJI Phantom drone, operated by a young man who toggled a joystick on a remote control box. 
     I shot a brief video of its flight. 
     Drones are buzzing around the public imagination, and not in a good way. Much in the news, and worrisome to people who assume they'll be peering through our windows and killing us randomly. Though as a student of the history of technology, if I know one thing, it is that every new advance is greeted as an unacceptable threat. As if we have this deep well of terror in our souls and grab out a handful to smear on every new thing that comes along. 
     Electric light, the telegraph, the telephone, TV, computers, all were the opening gong of doom.  Yet each was woven into the daily tapestry of our lives, no longer unacceptable, because each did change us, in ways great and small. What we didn't realize was, being changed, we were not the same people who fretted at their arrival. Even that most perilous of advances, nuclear energy, proved tamable in the long run, or at least didn't kill us all, as we once expected, and not without good reason.
        Right now drones are little more than expensive toys. The drone I saw costs about $1,000. I know that'll change, and soon. I can't imagine the air will someday be thick of them, hurrying on their business. But then I couldn't imagine we'd all carry cell phones either. 
      I know this. Yet every time I hear about Amazon wanting to deliver packages by drone, I still think, "Huh? How is that going to work?" A drone is going to take off from the roof of an enormous facility in Des Plaines, motor over to my place, to drop off a book?  That can't be. They still seem like their cousins, jet packs, as one of the will-0-the-wisps of the future that we pine for but never achieve. They'll be good for taking arial shots of real estate and not much else.
     Said the guy who hasn't ordered a ride on Uber yet.
     When the young man brought his drone down, I asked him what it was for. School perhaps?
     "We're doing a project right now, for something called Radpat," he said. I should have quizzed him more, but I had a train to catch, so thanked him and hurried to Union Station, assuming I'd be able to figure out what "Radpat" was. 
     All I could find is a project measuring background radiation, which makes sense, I suppose. That might be something a drone could be helpful with, though I'm not sure how. Maybe he meant "Radpad," a service for finding apartments. That could work too. 
     Anyway, Nov. 5, 2015 I saw my first drone hovering above Chicago. I figure, I might as well make a note of it, to look back on when they crowd the sky like migrating geese. 


  1. "Said the guy who once wrote that cell phones were a fad." You get a whole lot of mileage out of this monster miscalculation, and I don't blame you. Kinda reverse street cred regarding foresight of any kind. Hey, we're only human. It's not like any of us can really predict the future. Except for the effects of climate change maybe.

  2. I'm not really beating myself up over that, it's more of a mantra I used whenever I try to squint into the future. Nobody really has any idea, it's just that some people turn out to be right. If I predict that somebody is going to toss four heads in a row, I'm not a seer, I'm just lucky.

  3. "to look back on when they crowd the sky like migrating geese."

    I was thinking more like passenger pigeons, whose numbers once darkened the sky when they migrated.

    "The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose..." -- John James Audubon

    Will the drones lull our senses?

    1. Migrating geese still darken the sky, you should see the spring migration at Squaw Creek Reserve in Missouri. Millions darken the sky and the sound is deafening. It's not the flapping but the loud honking that certainly dulls the senses. I really can't see drones becoming that numerous or even close. High numbers of drones would only crash into each other, which admittedly would be pretty amusing.

    2. I think I was grasping toward passenger pigeons and ended up with geese. Though I have been to the Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin for the Spectacle of the Geese, prompting one of Edie's pithiest lines. We were standing around some Door County bog, gazing skyward. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Then one lone goose came honking by. "More like a speck than a spectacle," Edie quipped. I had just enough time to smile. Then the sky went dark with birds.

  4. All I have to say're a damn fine writer!

  5. My first thought was, "That has got to be illegal." Not specifically illegal necessarily -- I don't think the City Council has gotten around to drone legislation yet, but some sort of endangerment to the public. The perpetrator probably didn't think so, however, given that he apparently didn't mind being photographed, videotaped and interviewed. Certainly, if flying drones downtown becomes fashionable, it'll be banned. Wait until they start trying to control them from the 25th floor. Will large buildings put up signs on the sidewalk, "Watch out for falling drones."?


  6. New technology sometimes has regrettable consequences and is rightly perceived to be threatening, but for the most part it makes life easier. I like Alfred North Whitehead's anti Luddite statement: "Civilization advances by extending the number of operations we can perform without thinking about them."

    One unsettling aspect can be the moment, or more, of panic experienced when the device we've become accustomed to using fails to work. Driving to the Stratford Festival a few years ago we stopped for breakfast at Rosiie's, in Michigan City, and in leaving the car I clicked on my remote thingee to lock it. Nothing happened. Dead battery. Oh great, I thought. I will have to spend a week in darkest Canada without being able to lock my car. Then a light dawned. Just use the key like you did in those all those pre-remote days and years.

    Tom Evans

  7. A novel to read: The Peripheral, by William Gibson, the guy who invented the idea of "cyberspace." Drones and other contemporary new technology (3D printing) play an interesting role. He's also just a great writer.

  8. Where are the "Operable Bollards"?
    They look a bit the the ones that rose out of the street on Lower Michigan on both side of the bridge just before it went up.

    1. Clark, Check out tomorrow's blog post (or should I say "today's" :)


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