Remember back when you could fly drones without having to pay the government money first, and when the only thing you had to worry about was a midair takedown by an antidrone hit squad made up of highly trained Dutch eagles? We’re sad to have to report that we probably won’t be seeing compelling videos of eagles handling rogue drones anymore, and also that the United States government has flexed its muscles and mandatory drone registration is now back on.

First, the bad news.

You probably remember how the FAA finalized its mandatory drone registration rules just in time for the holiday season in 2015. Any drone that weighed more than 0.55 pounds was required to be registered before being flown outdoors, a process that involved providing your complete name, physical address, mailing address, email address, and a credit card that was charged a one-time fee of US $5. In exchange, you got a unique registration number that had to be visible on all of your drones.

Lots of people were not fans of this, in particular model aircraft enthusiasts, who have been flying drones (that look much more like airplanes) for decades without having to tell the government about them. They took the FAA to court, and last May, mandatory drone registration was ruled unlawful and the FAA started giving everyone their $5 back. It’s not like this changed the FAA’s mind about whether drone registration was a good thing or not, so they did what the government does, and sneaked that mandate into the $700 billion National Defense Authorization Act, signed yesterday.

This means that the drone that you didn’t have to register and then had to register and then didn’t have to register, you now have to register. Get started here.

And last, the worst news.

The incredible videos of antidrone eagles snatching DJI Phantoms out of the sky on command was one of the coolest drone things we’ve seen in a while (if you’re worried, the eagles weren’t harmed, at least according to the bird experts hired by the Dutch police). But it seems that that program has been terminated. 

Although birds of prey are trainable, to some extent, and they’re naturally predisposed to grab things out of the air, using them to take out drones is very time-consuming, and according to recent news reports, the Dutch Police had some concerns about how reliably the birds would perform in an operational environment, in the midst of noisy crowds, and against drones that might behave adversarially rather than just hover. (The company helping the Dutch with its drone-hunting eagle program says they have other “international clients in the Defense and Law enforcement Industry.”)

Perhaps more significant, there just wasn’t a lot of demand for the antidrone eagle squad. Rogue drones haven’t been as much of a problem as predicted, and there are lots of other ways of dealing with them that don’t involve having to buy frozen rodents in bulk. As for the Dutch eagles, they have been taken to new homes, and we’re guessing that their new lives will be a bit more relaxing for them.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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