Of peeping drones, origami kayaks and constitutional rights

This month’s cover story, “Good drone, bad drone” (page 62), introduces the advanced technologies and highly capable flying machines that are rapidly transforming our skies. Whether to fight fires or take on criminals from an unassailable vantage point (or simply deliver a pizza), a swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles is poised to take off. Now comes the hard part: drafting regulations on pressing issues such as safety and privacy.

These concerns are of more than academic interest. Consider what could happen if you lose control of your drone and it crashes into a car travelling at 120 km/h. As for privacy, think about how you would feel if you’d just spent R150 000 erecting a 3-metre wall around your pool, and the kid from next door sends over his videocam-equipped drone to spy on your sunbathing girlfriend. (Frankly, anyone with that kind of chutzpah probably deserves a visual treat, but I suppose not everyone feels this way.)

More inventive excellence is showcased in our annual Backyard Genius Awards (page 26), which introduces eight unusual (read “slightly irrational but utterly awesome”) examples of creative excellence, lateral thinking and sheer bloody mindedness. From Jonathan Tippett’s force-feedback mechanical exoskeleton to Anton Willis’s origami kayak (fashioned from a single sheet of recyclable corrugated plastic), these people restore our faith in gonzo engineering.

PM’s Sean Woods added another accolade to his collection this month when he won the Energy Efficiency category in the annual Profile Awards, a Siemens-sponsored competition that recognises journalistic excellence in the field of science and technology. (It goes without saying that we’re proud of him.)

Sean was honoured for an article titled Fuelling the revolution, which described a locally designed technology for converting plastics into fuel. Commented the judges: “The story is written in an engaging manner and reflects deep research and understanding of the subject matter. The writer goes further by exploring the commercial potential of an invention that could have a huge positive environmental impact.”

Still with groundbreaking tech, we meet the TrackingPoint Precision Guided Firearm (page 46), billed as the first shooting system to integrate microelectronics and wireless technology for the purpose of targeting, tracking, networking and fire control. This disturbingly clever piece of equipment enables a marksman to achieve accurate shots at unknown distances quickly and effectively. It even calculates where a moving target is likely to be in the next fraction of a second, automatically “taking the shot” at the right time.

On a less threatening note, we offer up our usual crop of must-have gadgets (plus a few that fall into the “if money were no object” category). If you’re happy to cough up R8 000 or more, you could snap up a desirable Union Jack-branded turntable and really enjoy your vinyl collection. If you’re the outdoors type, you might like to invest in a compact camping stove that burns twigs to cook your food while simultaneously producing electricity for charging your tech gear.

As always, we remind you of your constitutional right to buy any gadget you want, without fear of retribution.

– Alan Duggan (aland@ramsaymedia.co.za)