I’m calling drones a movement and not just a technology because a new video chip with enhanced refresh rates, say, is a new technology, but no one gets that excited. Drones, on the other hand, bring out positive and negative feelings as classic breakthroughs such as automobiles, flight, and nuclear power do.
The passion and potential were obvious, but some of the problems I uncovered were revealed unintentionally.
The passion started early with a presentation by Romeo Durscher, Director of Education for DJI, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of drones. Durscher, who worked in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) training for NASA for 13 years, called his presentation “2015: Year of the Drone.” He presented a history of aerial photography leading up to drones. He then visited an episode of the TV cartoon The Jetsons in which the Jetsons are ordering a pizza to be delivered by air. He then showed a drone making such a delivery today. The Jetsons’ maid Rosie, Durscher said, was the Roomba. His conclusion: The future is here. And he argued that this is the year that the public’s negative image of drones will start to tun around.
Why do drones have a negative image? It comes from those news stories of blowing people up in the Middle East, and the spying-through-your-window myth. The next speaker, Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics and founder of amateur drone operator community DIY Drones, emphasized that these are not the drones flying in your neighborhood.
Anderson, the author of three New York Times bestsellers, continued to stoke the passion in the opening keynote as he proclaimed that we are at a unique moment in history. “This is big,” he said, “and it reminds me of the birth of the Internet in 1972. At first it grew slowly, but by 1995, you could sit down at dinner and think of ‘an industry + internet’ and imagine how they would interconnect. Now, we should say, ‘industry + drone’ and imagine how can we make it work. That’s where we are now.”
Anderson referenced his grandfather’s invention of the pop-up sprinkler. He argued that someday drones will be just as ubiquitous.
Then he revealed one of the problems.
Anderson raved about advances in Linux and the Robot Operating System (ROS) being applied to drones. Then he said, “By 2016, any drone not running Linux on it will be seen as a toy.” Which non-Linux drones might those be? The ones produced by Durscher’s employer, DJI, and several other companies with proprietary operating systems who are competitors of Anderson. Open source vs. proprietary: I thought I was back at a programmers’ conference in the 1990s.
Charles Eide gave a class on “Starting an Aerial Photography Business.” He emphasized the importance of “professionalism” and went out of his way to ridicule “drone nerds” and amateurs. A short time later, I found myself listening to the Roswell Flight Test Crew. Their YouTube channel chronicles their adventures as they build, fly, crash, and repair home-made drone aircraft. They embraced their nerdiness and argued that it was the amateur who typically pushed the envelope in a new technology. This was not the last time I ran into professional/amateur head-bashing.
Bashing your drone into a tree was also an issue. Almost every speaker emphasized the importance of training. There is the “Know Before You Fly” program, and there are numerous apps designed to help keep drone pilots away from airports and other danger zones. Yet one of the advertising brochures included in the conference goodie bag states under the picture of a drone that it “is ready to fly right out of the box…mount the propellers, install the battery and you are ready to discover the sky.” The text was bolded in the brochure.
The fourth problem that surfaced, and ultimately the most serious, was government regulations or confusion about them. An example: You can take your drone to the park, fly it around, and take pictures of your kids, you, and anyone else in the park. That’s perfectly legal. The next day, go back to the same park, with the same drone, and take pictures of a wedding for pay, and you have committed misdemeanors and possibly felonies. If government regulations are justified by the need for “public safety,” then something is terribly wrong here. That was just one example of the inability of the legal system to keep up with and address this technology rationally.
But why bother? The examples were numerous.
Drones can go where helicopters can’t and operate at a minuscule fraction of the cost. This is a tremendous benefit to first responders. One example cited several times involved a missing-person event in Texas where authorities unsuccessfully searched for three days. A drone was brought in and the person was located in four hours. Drones can also inspect the roofs or interiors of burning buildings, potentially saving victim and firefighter lives.
More mundane, but extremely practical, examples include inspections of bridges, wind turbines and other public infrastructure at a fraction of what it costs now. Farmers can take aerial photographs of their crops using special filters which reveal weeds out of control, dry soil, and plants in need of fertilizer, saving costs and reducing harmful runoff. Other scientific applications involve endangered species, climate, geology, eco-tourism, and conservation.
Anderson, in his keynote, expressed a hope that one day drones would be thought of as just another data gathering device, or, as safety software developer Altitude Angel expressed it, part of “The Internet of Flying Things™.”
I spent the next two days digging deeper, or maybe I should say flying higher, to discover more about the drones.