Last week, we kicked around the idea of why it’s very important to hire dedicated technical support staff for any business that relies on – or, can be harmed by degradation to –commercial computer technology. The seed of the idea (no pun intended) came from an article broadcast last week on APM’s Marketplace, about modern farming.
There was a second article on that show later on in the same week that discussed a recent public demonstration of how unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, a.k.a., remotely-piloted vehicles, or “drones”) can be remotely compromised by a hacker … with predictably unpleasant results. Compromising a server that’s screwed tightly into a rack in a locked data center is potentially expensive. Compromising a flying, fuel-filled, shrapnel-producing, missile can be downright terrifying …
The thing is, UAVs are cropping up (again, no pun intended) quite frequently in the agribusiness sector. As Chris Anderson wrote in the cover story for WIRED magazine this month:
“Some farmers now use drones for crop management, creating aerial maps to optimize water and fertilizer distribution.” 
That’s just the beginning for the drone market, really. The military uses UAVs because they’re a tremendously cost-effective force-multiplier. A relatively inexpensive, remotely-piloted aircraft can cover more ground for longer than most manned aircraft can, and can do it without putting a pilot in harm’s way. In the commercial world, a UAV can easily provide headquarters with high-resolution eyes nearly anywhere on earth where the company has assets, and can often do it for far less money than it would cost to send an employee down range.
For example … for about the same cost as buying a company car, a petroleum company could arrange to put live eyes-on all along their pipelines. A refinery could have a supplemental sentry hovering invisibly over their complex, watching for intruders 24/7 without ever getting tired or distracted. A farmer … well, a farmer can not only scrutinize crop development, he can also look for intruders, monitor seasonal workers, follow livestock, patrol for predators, detect erosion and runoff, drop pesticides, and an amazing host of similar manpower-intensive, time-intensive tasks … all without every having to leave the main compound. When you’re considering a farmstead that might run for thousands of acres, having the ability put eyes-on anywhere in your physical domain, night or day, in mere minutes is quite attractive. Quite profitable, too, if done smartly.
Which means, of course, that ambitious people are already doing it. Small UAVs are on the commercial market now, and several applications are being marketed directly to farm owners and operators. The applications are limited only by simple physics and the users’ imaginations. It’s going to be absolutely fascinating to watch this slice of the aviation market expand over the next decade.
My original point, though, was that whenever and wherever a business depends on technology to function, that business must employ qualified technologists to build, sustain, optimize and secure their critical IT systems. I advocate for this position strongly and often. If it gets to be a tiring refrain, then I apologize … but I don’t retract the opinion. Call it “Hubert’s First Law of Keeping One’s Business Solvent.”
When we talk about hiring an employee to maintain a high-tech farm’s IT support gear, we think of general-purpose IT boffins. Most often, that’s a person that can build a server, lock down its configuration, maintain a router and firewall, maintain a fleet of PCs, troubleshoot apps, detect anomalies and stay abreast of changes in IT ought to do the job fairly well for most implementations. When we add UAVs to our farm, though, the equation changes … greatly.
It’s difficult to support remote computing platforms on the best of days for the best of teams. When said mobile platform happens to have mass, velocity and altitude, the stakes are raised for everyone within the platform’s unrefueled maximum range cone. Once that UAV gets aloft, the phrase “server crash” can refer to a great deal more than purely economic damages. Real people can get really hurt if a component bluescreens at the wrong time.
I’m not trying to frighten anyone off from exploring the emerging commercial drone market; the technology is irrevocably here, and it gets more useful and less expensive with every passing day. The potential upside to this tool is staggeringly good. That said, what I am suggesting is that we need to add a proviso to Hubert’s First Law: “When hiring IT support staff, one must hire all the talent one needs to sustain all of one’s critical systems.” If you decide that you want to operate a UAV as part of your business, make sure that at least one of your staff boffins is trained up in radiofrequency communications, spectrum management, jamming mitigation, aeronautical systems, and so on, in order to ensure that the device being launched skywards is not just properly configured … but can also be properly recalled and recovered should things go awry.
That same principle applies to nearly everything in modern business. If you have a critical system online, make darned sure that you have the necessary support staff both on-hand and properly trained up to take control of it when things go poorly. Be that a SAN, a wireless network, a SCADA controller, or an IP-addressable espresso machine. Make darned sure that someone (preferably more than one someone) on staff is well-versed in how to bring it back under control.
Keil Hubert is a business, security and technology operations consultant in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo! Broadcast, and helped launch four small businesses (including his own). His experience creating and leading IT teams in the defence, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employees. He currently commands a small IT support organization for a military agency, where his current focus is mentoring technical specialists into becoming credible, corporate team leaders.