You’re going about your day, maybe you’re on your way to work or at the park, when you notice a small drone whizzing by overhead; what’s your reaction? For a growing number of people in America, it’s fear.
The terminology differs depending on who’s speaking; including “quadcoptor”, “multirotor”, “UAV” (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), “UAS” (Unmanned Aerial System), “RPA” (Remotely Piloted Aircraft), and most commonly, “drone”. Technicalities arise based on whether the machine can fly without operator control (many can fly to pre-programmed GPS coordinates, for example), but constant advancement is blurring these lines, quickly making it a moot point. Multirotors range in size from the almost impossibly small Proto-X Nano to the truly massive Shotover U1. You can even build one yourself.
Amazon just released this sneak peek at their prototype drone for Amazon Prime Air this week. Considering that the “octocopter” (it has eight lift propellers) delivers a shoebox in the video, the prototype seems to be about the size and shape of a small bed frame. It travels at 55-58 mph, weighs-in under 55 pounds, and entices us with the promise of a 15-mile delivery range in less than 30 minutes. The use of former “Top Gear” host, Jeremy Clarkson seems to be a calculated move as well – possibly indicating an overseas target as Amazon is still pushing against proposed U.S. regulations that require a drone to fly only as far as the pilot’s line of sight.
With lowering costs and ease of construction, the technology’s ubiquitousness is raising concerns while landing drones in the limelight with increasing frequency. Videos captured inside of fireworks displays, volcanoes, and some of the most remote places in the world dot the web. Drones are being developed to deliver food to your home and even serve drinks in crowded restaurants. An Aerial Sports League (ASL) has formed which showcases such activities as “Drone Combat” and “FPV (First-Person View) Racing”. Martha Stewart penned an 800+ word tribute to drones in TIME, and last year’s South Park episode, “The Magic Bush” capitalized on mounting public fears concerning the loss of privacy.
In July of this year, Kentucky resident, William “Willie” Merideth shot a multirotor out of the sky that he claimed was hovering over his property, invading his family’s privacy. The drone’s operator, David Boggs, released a video showing what he claims is the UAV’s flight data, which indicated a different story. In October, the court found for Merideth, stating that the Kentucky man had a right to defend his home against unwanted surveillance.
Timeline of other notable drone news articles:
- 12.13 – Amazon.com announces plans to start a drone delivery service.
- 05.14 – Woman attacks teenage drone operator, Austin Haughwout.
- 07.14 – Drone helps find missing Virginia man with dementia.
- 08.14 – Google X announces “Project Wing”, their drone delivery service.
- 09.14 – Drone shot down in Lower Township, NJ.
- 11.14 – Drone shot down in Modesto, CA.
- 01.15 – Drone crashes on Whitehouse lawn.
- 06.15 – Maine firefighters use a drone to rescue stranded rafters – 12 and 18.
- 06.15 – California firefighters are hindered by two drone incidences.
- 07.15 – Austin Haughwout makes news again by mounting a handgun to a drone.
- 08.15 – Boeing designs a “laser cannon” to shoot down consumer drones.
- 09.15 – Drone crashes at US Open, teacher arrested.
- 10.15 – California bans paparazzi use of drones to spy on celebrity homes.
The media attention surrounding the Merideth case, drone interference with firefighting efforts, and the rising number of encounters around airports helped motivate the Federal Aviation Administration (FFA) to craft guidelines for a national registry, requiring all recreational and business drone operators in the U.S. to participate.
The FFA’s Know Before You Fly campaign launched this November, including guidelines such as:
- Fly no higher than 400 feet and remain below any obstacles when possible.
- Keep your UAS in eyesight at all times, and use an observer to assist if needed.
- Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.
- Contact the airport or control tower before flying within five miles of an airport.
- Do not intentionally fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles.
- Do not conduct surveillance or photograph persons in areas where there is an expectation of privacy.
With all of the various news stories hitting the nightly news and internet, it’s easy to see how misinformation can build up. Many people in the general population have a rough time keeping up with new technology as it is, and the need for most headlines to polarize opinion doesn’t help. If something strange is flying outside of a window and the person inside doesn’t know what it can or can’t do, fear is the most obvious reaction. Everyone may have heard of drones by now, but as Alexander Pope said, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Relentless, Inc. flies multirotors on a number of our shoots. Most of the time, the general response is one of curiosity, which quickly turns to awe when we show people the footage. They’ve been an excellent tool in our storytelling arsenal, giving us beautiful vistas and new perspectives to weave into our video and film productions.
Even when we have the space and permission, our activities can still draw unexpected attention. To help us integrate more effectively, we have a few informal practices whenever we fly:
Notify those affected
The worst part of any situation is the uncertainty of not knowing. We can’t assume that people have the context to reach the correct conclusion in every instance. The burden is on us. We are the ones introducing something new and unknown into their lives. A simple “hi” and a friendly “heads-up” can go a long way and even open a few unexpected doors.
Allow them to participate
No matter how much drones may be in the news, there’s still a “novelty factor” for a lot of people when we pull one out of the case, or they see one overhead. We don’t shoo them away, quite the contrary! Wonder is a beautiful quality in anyone, and we’ve found that our stories are much better when we bring other people in, even if it’s just for a glimpse. It can be nerve-racking to take that risk. During our shoot in Kasulu, Tanzania, one of the young children got the idea try to take down our multirotor with a rock. He had remarkable aim; with a one-hit kill, he brought our quadcopter crashing down! These things are tough, though; and we were back in the air in no time, getting great shots of children who smiled and played amongst us with ease. It was all ok. And if we couldn’t afford the risk, we’d never send one up.
This is the big one. We don’t have to lead every person we meet by the hand, but even an over the shoulder response to an offhand question can go a long way towards allying fears as to exactly what purpose multirotors serve and what they are capable of doing.
Occasionally, a kind person will donate their time to give our clients and us a chance to set up around their property. Many of our clients like to say “thank you” to them with some footage of their homes or businesses, including aerial shots. Sometimes, a good picture is one of the best things you can give back.
Whatever we call them (UAVs, multirotors, etc.), they have become an invaluable story-making asset. It’s hard to match the enthusiasm one feels when seeing that perfect aerial shot. Like all of our video and filmmaking techniques, that passion is going to push the technology even further. But, we have to challenge the current public perception in a productive way. Eventually, it becomes incumbent upon us to create an atmosphere of professionalism if we wish to continue using these tools unfettered.