Wednesday, February 20, 2013

On the Road with Evolving Technology

Over the years, the technology I have taken with me has changed dramatically. The first "portable" computer I had was barely luggable and used so much electricity, it only worked when you plugged it in the wall. Batteries in computers were but a dream.

As I travel now, what I take varies in some ways, as follows:

Business: Here, I typically am all geared up with my laptop computer, smartphone, tablet and two WiFi hotspots — one on my phone and a separate dedicated one.

The reason for this is pretty straightforward. When I travel, I need to get work done. Each of these tools helps me stay productive. Sometimes, I even opt for the in-flight WiFi service if it's available.

Vacation: Even this I break down into two categories: camping and non-camping. I could separate it between domestic and international, but won't for this column. The item that distinguishes vacation from business travel is the fact that I bring cameras on vacations.

While I no longer carry both digital still and movie cameras because my Canon Digital Rebel T4i does both, I now have a GoPRO sports camera that is fun to take places I wouldn't take a much larger, heavier camera, such as on roller coasters, down a ski hill or even near a swimming pool.

For camping, I still take some tech items, typically at least a smartphone for GPS and some checking of email. I find it amazing how most campsites, public and private, have either decent smartphone coverage or free WiFi. If one starts backpacking before pitching one's tent, odds are you'll have smartphone service, but hiking does tend to put one out of smartphone coverage. Even so, having a good GPS device that doesn't require cellular coverage if one is going far afield can be a great tool.

For non-camping, typically a road trip or flight with the family, I end up with the most gear, since we're typically not "roughing it," the gear is pretty easy to pack and we'll be able to charge it all up on a daily basis.

The one benefit I've found for taking computer gear with me when I travel with my family is entertainment. During long rides somewhere there's not much happening, and the family seems quite content to have me power up my WiFi hotspot in the car and they can check Facebook, watch a show on Netflix or something else. We still stop for points of interest, but even I have to admit that when you're driving somewhere, whatever is outside is typically pretty boring. Having some technology on the trip with us makes it much more enjoyable for the whole family.

So, while I've changed the type of gear I carry with me on business and personal trips, it all seems to weigh about the same because I carry more items. But I do find that my gear not only makes me more productive for business trips, it makes the personal trips much more pleasant, too.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 20 February 2013.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

A Civilian Takes Controls of Drone Flight


Lately, there has been a lot of talk about drone aircraft, both military and civilian. Drone aircraft are generally described as unmanned aircraft that are remotely controlled. In the case of military aircraft, some of the drones are flown from thousands of miles away.

While the military aircraft are out of the reach of most, there are a number of consumer drones available to the general public. Last week, I had the pleasure of trying the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0.

The AR.Drone is a quadcopter. It's shaped like a big letter X with a motor and a propeller on the end of each of the four legs. At the center of the X is the brain, sensors, battery and cameras.

The AR.Drone comes ready to fly. You simply charge up the included battery, pop it into the unit and drop the cover on.

The AR.Drone doesn't come with a remote control. Instead, you use a tablet, such as an iPad or a smartphone. I used both an iPad and my Android phone very successfully. Parrot offers free, downloadable apps for both Apple and Android devices.

Starting the AR.Drone is very simple. Pressing the take off button on the tablet or phone, the device pops up to about four feet off the ground and hovers. From there, you can control the AR.Drone's height, rotation and forward, backward, left and right motions.

When you are ready to land the AR.Drone, you simply press the landing button on the screen and it sets itself gently down. If you think you're doing to crash, there's an emergency button that shuts down everything immediately.

The AR.Drone even comes with two built-in cameras that can record video to a USB memory stick, which you must provide.

There are much fancier -- and more expensive -- drone quadcopters out there, but Parrot has done a great job of making a very accessible, affordable product for about $300.

The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is available from Amazon.com, Brookstone, Apple, Toys-R-Us and even the Verizon Wireless store.

I shot two videos over the weekend that you can find on YouTube are "An 8-year-old boy flying the AR.Drone" and "Video from the AR.Drone".

Although I had to return the demo AR.Drone, I predict we'll have one in our home in the not-too-distant future.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 6 February 2013.