Now Reading
Frontier in the Sky



— September 15, 2018

Frontier in the Sky

  • From racing courses to police chases, drones are finding myriad applications. We report on some that caught our eye and the issues surrounding their fast growth.
  • By Allan Richter

Thrills on the Obstacle Course

THE BUZZING IS LOUD, LIKE BEES HUMMING around dozens of hives. It is hard to pinpoint its origins. Another buzzing sound adds to the mix, this one near a food truck serving mac-and-cheese egg rolls. But this sound is nearer and isolated, without the echo or depth of many sources. It is close, very close. Seconds later, a drone that could fit in my palm casually makes its way past my knees in the erratic pattern of a dragonfly: it flies a bit, hovers, and flies again. Drones have a way of upending physics like that—in contrast to the way you see lightning before hearing thunder, you tend to hear drones before the visuals are clear.

In a corner of this 50 acres of desert dirt a half hour south of Las Vegas, a handful of drones will seem to defy science in other ways as they speedily dart above, below and around plastic flags, gates and other hurdles on a makeshift obstacle course. They are to fly in the Drone Rodeo, an exhibition race that aims to display the power and prowess of these flying machines. The drone pilots have aliases like Harmonic, Gambla and Altar Boy; often their monikers will end with “fpv,” as in FreddyFPV, for “first person view.” It’s a reference to the pilots’ visual perspective: Standing on the sidelines of the course, but with a view as if flying themselves. The course, 220 by 150 feet, has three main obstacles: A split S; an elevated gate, through which drones fly 12 feet off the ground before dropping through a lower gate; and a dive gate, similar to the elevated gate but on an angle. When the pilot’s race or practice at once, the swarm gets louder and higher- pitched, a sound driven by the intensity and speed with which they fly.

Adding to the clatter is the auctioneer-like banter of race director and announcer Joe Scully, whose background as a rodeo announcer suits him well as he calls the action with machine-gun speed. Scully is seated in front of microphones, a recorder to review races, a laptop with a scoring system and a display split into four screens so he can see—and announce—what the pilots see through their headsets as they make their way around three laps early in the competition: First of three as we go up and over with SFPV. Redline seems to be right with him as well. Redline just working his way around onto the elevated gates. You got SFPV, Redline, Harmonic on that lead lap. And here comes Altar Boy onto that lead lap. Don’t count him out. Green LED is doing that split S off to the far side. Everyone on lap No. 2. As we pick up here’s SFPV now. Two laps down for him. And he goes onto his final lap. White flags starting to fly. In today’s exhibition, the aviators pilot their drones in a handful of elimination races that will yield a champion. It is one of the early races, and the winner, SFPV, will still have to prove himself around the course. One pilot walks onto the course to retrieve his drone, which crashed into an obstacle. “That’s the walk of shame,” another pilot tells me from the sidelines.

The desert setting for the race is the Boulder City, Nevada, site of the fledgling Eldorado Droneport, a privately operated facility open to the public, supporting commercial and recreational drone operators. It will offer training for drones, provide Federal Aviation Administration pilot certification, and offer other educational and research services. When complete, the drone airport will include a 15,000-squarefoot terminal building, with additional structures totaling 860,000 square feet of research and development, warehouse, hangar and training facilities.

On my visit, Eldorado Droneport is still a dream consisting of one permanent and several temporary structures, and a few tents to house the teams of pilots and their drones. And there is dirt—a lot of it. A billboard depicting the drone airport stands by the adjacent highway, but it is easy to miss the dirt road entrance to the exhibition race, as I do. This near-barren landscape does not reflect the accelerated growth of drone racing, which is on a fast track from hobby to sport. In just a few years, 22,000 devotees among 600 chapters in more than 80 countries have turned MultiGP into the largest professional and amateur drone racing league. MultiGP hosts two big competitions. The International Open, held in Munsey, Indiana (headquarters of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which issues safety and other flight guidelines for drone pilots), drew 600 contestants, ages 6 to 80. Evan Turner, a 14-year-old from Maryville, Tennessee, who has been flying radio-controlled (RC) model airplanes since he was 7, won the latest Open. Pilots compete in regional qualifiers and finals before moving on to MultiGP’s other big event—its annual championship race, slated for December in Florida. MultiGP also serves as a farm league of sorts from which another league, the Drone Racing League (DRL), recruits star pilots for its ESPN racing show. This year’s winner of the MultiGP championship will receive a $70,000 contract with DRL and ESPN, and appears on an upcoming episode.

While drone pilots can earn thousands by winning races, most pilots are in it for the thrill—the headsets make them feel like they are piloting from inside the drone—without the physical risk of flying. “It feels like you’re shrunk down to about an inch, and you’re sitting in the drone— that is the adrenaline hook,” says Frank Costello, 55, a former pilot who runs Safety Third Racing, a New York based drone club for several hundred pilots, making it one of MultiGP’s larger chapters. When flying a drone, Costello adds, “you have all six degrees of freedom available to you, which we take advantage of when we set up our courses. It’s really an incredible feeling. You can go upside down if you want to. And if you crash your drone, you don’t go to the hospital like a Formula One driver.”

The six degrees of freedom Costello cites refer to the total number of basic ways an object can move through a three-dimensional space. Three of those represent rotational movement—yaw, pitch, and roll; the other three represent translational movement— that is, moving along the x, y and z axis. It is the language of geeks, garage-based tinkerers, and do-it-yourselfers who likely own a soldering gun and a miniature screwdriver kit—and appropriately so. The nascent drone industry—despite its applications in many areas—was helped along by hobbyists who put together makeshift drones from available parts and open-source, or free and available, software codes. Those pioneers included hobbyists like drone pilot SFPV, who, competing for team Fat Shark back at the Nevada desert droneport, is flying neck-and-neck with pilot Corey C near the nail-biting end of the Drone Rodeo.

Announcer Scully delivers the rapid-fire play-by-play:

It looks like your leader is going to be Corey C. He’s going to lead SFPV onto lap No. 2. It’s Corey C, and now SFPV pushes ahead of Corey C. Now Corey C dropped to the No. 2 spot. SFPV is right on him. Now SFPV dropping to second, Corey C leading. Now it’s all at the dive gate, first and second, SFPV through it first, then Corey C, and don’t count out Gambla. He’s running third. SFPV goes around that split S onto the final lap, one to go and Corey C right behind him, right at the dive gate. Your leader, SFPV, is right through that. Corey C right through the dive gate behind him. They’re only separated by 8 feet as we get ready to bring up the checkered flag. Let’s go around that split S. SFPV is your champion of the Drone Rodeo. Next is Corey C and third overall on our podium, that is Gambla. Great race right there. All three pilots finishing only 8 seconds apart. In third, Gambla. Four seconds ahead of him in second, Corey C. And 4 seconds ahead of him, SFPV, your Drone Rodeo champion; team Fat Shark at the top of the board.

Pilot SFPV is actually Colby Curtola of San Francisco, a lanky 32-year-old with a scruffy beard and jeans bunched up at the ankles, who competes in local drone races each month and several international events each year. This year Curtola placed second at the MultiGP National Qualifiers in Los Angeles for the Southwest region, propelling him to December’s big MultiGP contest in Orlando. Curtola partly attributes his success on the drone circuit to his passion not so long ago for Halo, a military first-person shooter game, and other video games that helped his hand-eye coordination. He doesn’t think he has an advantage, however, over drone pilots who actually had planes and other vehicles in the air by first flying RC models. “A lot of the best drone racers came from the RC helicopter flying world,” he says.

Before Curtola embraced drone racing, he was a sales administrator for a marketing company. That job and his zeal for video games made him a couch potato in front of a computer screen—a role he was tiring of. So, to get himself out of the house, he and his roommates bought some parts and built their first drone. That was about four years ago. “Back then you couldn’t really buy a ready-to-fly racing drone,” Curtola recounts. “There were only photography drones that you could buy out of the box. It was still pretty underground. Nowadays you can buy a ready-to-fly racing drone and go out and compete with the best.”

The parts for Curtola’s early drone came from several sources in China. “There were only a couple of retailers in the US,” Curtola says. “There weren’t a lot of options for parts. We had to get what was available and hoped they would work together. There weren’t any instructions because you bought all the parts separately. There weren’t guide videos online like there are now.”

Still, Curtola managed to assemble a drone that worked immediately. “It wasn’t very stable. It didn’t fly very well,” Curtola recalls, “but it flew.” Curtola has graduated from couch potato to the big leagues—he uses a Falcon Multirotor drone with a carbon fiber frame, based on his own design and built by Brain FPV, a husband-and-wife team in Oregon that resells the Curtola-designed frames. He says his design is easy to work with and fix. If one of its arms breaks, you can simply unscrew two bolts and swap another arm in its place in under a minute, he says. In drones with a single-body design, the whole frame must be replaced.

Curtola is not just succeeding on the race circuit. He is a flight engineer with drone delivery company Matternet, which is about to engage in unprecedented tests delivering medical samples between hospitals over long distances. What enables the delivery tests is that the Department of Transportation chose Matternet and nine other drone companies to be a part of its new unmanned aircraft systems integration pilot program. The program partners governments with companies to test certain drone flights currently banned in the US, including flying over long distances without the drone being visible at all times to its pilot. The 10 companies were chosen from among 149 companies and local governments that had applied.

For now, Curtola is happy to take a victory lap for his Drone Rodeo win. Announcer Scully calls it: And we go full screen for SFPV, right here going freestyle. Look at this as we work our way around the Fat Shark flag of your Drone Radio champion. And there’s a power leap up to the skies dancing with those gates right there.

Businesses, Hobbyists Tussle Over Drone Rules
Whether you’re a hobbyist who heads out to the park for weekend drone flights or a developer working on an autonomous drone that can carry heavy loads hundreds of miles, all stakeholders agree that some guidelines are needed to regulate airspace. But those stakeholders—hobbyists on the one hand, and commercial interests on the other—are in a bitter feud over just how much to regulate the skies for drones. At issue is a provision of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, known as the “Special Rule for Model Aircraft,” or Section 336. It exempts model aircraft, including drones, from new FAA rule making as long as the aircraft is flown only for recreation, weighs no more than 55 pounds and does not interfere with any manned aircraft, among other guidelines.
The Commercial Drone Alliance (CDA)—which includes CNN, Ford and Talong Aeronautics among its members—wants Congress to repeal Section 336, saying separate rules for businesses and hobbyists pose a safety hazard in part because the number of amateur pilots is growing so quickly. Hobbyists, along with the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which provides guidelines for them, argue that the repeal would stifle growth among their ranks and that the rules already in place are strong. In April, the House of Representatives announced that they had passed the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act, with one provision favoring commercial drone interests and another tilting toward the hobbyists. The DeFazio Amendment would give the FAA the right to regulate model aircraft and suggests that pilots would have to pass certain tests. “It’s essentially a repeal of [Section] 336,” says Tyler Dobbs, the AMA’s government affairs representative. The Sanford Amendment, however, says no FAA administrator shall require a drone pilot to “obtain or hold an airman certificate” or “require a practical flight examination” or “flight training program.” At the same time, the CDA said in a June policy paper that it wants the government to remove barriers from its operations: Limitations on drone flights beyond the sight lines of a pilot, flights over people and flights at night. “The policy making around drone use has lagged behind technology,” the group stated. In addition to seeking “basic rules of the road” for all drone operators in the US, the CDA wants protection of data it collects and that any new rule includes “a trusted operator system” similar to the TSA precheck system. “This information,” the alliance said in its paper, would “provide a means to inform members of the public that a particular drone is being flown by a known safe operator and that the drone’s mere presence should not be a cause for alarm or concern.” But the AMA’s Dobbs says any repeal of Section 336—even the threat of setting new rules—could hurt sectors of the economy by stifling those who might otherwise benefit from the drone industry. Retailers, for instance, could see sales drop if parents of young would-be hobbyists decide all the red tape is not worth the effort. Dobbs says some of the AMA’s rules are already more stringent than what the FAA calls for, accounting for a strong safety record among drone and model aeronautics pilots. “We take some of the burden from the FAA,” he adds.
For example, in some instances when a new drone pilot is training, the AMA calls for a buddy to be nearby and prepared to take over. “We have a spotter, and that spotter has to be close enough to the operator and take over controls if needed,” Dobbs explains, noting that the FAA requirement “is that the spotter is in direct communication with that flyer, and the ‘direct communication’ is a little vague. They can be at a distance where they’re not close enough to take over the controls.” The legislation works its way next to the Senate, and both chambers will hash out the final language.

Airborne Recruits Aid Daytona Beach Police

Early August. It is a humid, moonless night. Daytona Beach police are encircling a burglary suspect, but the pitch-black night makes him impossible to spot. They call in a police helicopter for backup, but the chopper is deployed on a medical emergency. In the middle of the night, a police lieutenant on the scene calls Timothy Ehrenkaufer, founder and supervisor of the department’s drone unit. When Ehrenkaufer arrives, he quickly sends up a commercial Matrice 210, one of five drones his unit operates. The $26,000 drone can fly for 45 minutes, is equipped with a daytime camera and—most important for this particular operation—a forward long infrared, or FLIR, camera.

Within seconds, the drone’s infrared camera picks up the suspect scaling a 15-foot fence before reaching a rooftop and relays video back to Ehrenkaufer on the ground. The suspect jumps from roof to roof, and with the help of the video, Ehrenkaufer relays his position to the lieutenant on the scene, who in turn, moves his troops in pursuit.

“I kept relaying it, and he had to come down,” Ehrenkaufer said of the 23-year old suspect. “He had nowhere to go. Every time he turned around, there was a cop standing there.” Ehrenkaufer says his department’s experience so far shows they are viable tools in an array of applications.

In four months of drone operations, the Daytona Beach Police Department says the unit had already paid off by aiding in the arrest of the rooftop burglary suspect and others, in missing persons cases and in a firefighting mission, among other operations. The department launched the unit a year ago but didn’t receive its drones, all made by the Chinese company DJI, with more than 70% of the drone market, until this spring. It has since demonstrated its drones to the FBI and trained its SWAT and hostage negotiator officers in their use.

Ehrenkaufer’s background is in digital forensics, tracking computer crimes against children, for example. Other than gaming, he had no drone or simulator experience. He and four other officers in the department’s drone unit received FAA certification to fly the machines.

Drones have advantages over helicopters: They are more agile and can fly at lower altitudes while still hiding from a suspect’s view. In contrast, a chopper can get a broader view and stay up longer, ideal in the case of, say, a fleeing car. In addition to the Matrice 210, the Daytona Beach PD owns two Mavic Pro drones; each can stay airborne for 35 minutes and costs $800. They don’t have nighttime cameras but do feature very-high-resolution video that helps police map traffic deaths or accident investigations by flying a grid pattern above a crash site and taking 250 photos from different angles. The result is a 3D rendering of the crash. “When we try to reconstruct what happened with traffic casualties, we measure skid mark distances and how far a pedestrian got thrown. That will help tell us what the speed of a vehicle was,” Ehrenkaufer says.

“Instead of a traffic investigator clearing traffic for an hour and a half to take measurements, we take eight minutes.” Among two smaller drones are a simple one available at most consumer electronics stores and one known as the Spark, a $400 model, and the department’s smallest drone. It is used for indoor work, like letting a SWAT unit outside a location know what’s happening indoors—the department’s canary in a cave. “We can put that inside a house if we think a burglar is there,” Ehrenkaufer says. “If it gets damaged, it’s not that big of a loss. If it comes back out, we’re all good.”

In a July fire at a Daytona Beach hotel, the smoke was so thick that firefighters could not properly aim their equipment to pinpoint the fire. The PD’s Matrice 210 used its thermal-imaging camera to relay photos of rooftop hotspots, so firefighters could cut through the smoke cloud. The thermal imaging is at its best at night, Ehrenkaufer says. “I didn’t anticipate it turning out so well and working so well with someone fleeing from us,” he notes. “The first time we used it, it was clear as day.”

Peeping Drones, Flying Drug Carriers Mar Industry
Utah police last year charged a couple with voyeurism after another couple saw a drone allegedly spying on them outside their bathroom window. Police tracked the owners of the drone after the man in the house chased the device in his pickup truck and grabbed it when it landed.
In 2015, the International Ski Federation banned camera drones from its World Cup races after a drone crashed on an icy slope and nearly hit Austrian skier Marcel Hirscher during a slalom in Italy. The crash came months after a New York City public school science teacher was charged with reckless endangerment and reckless operation of a drone for crashing a drone into the stands during a match at the US Open tennis tournament.
Officers at Handlon Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan, last year saw a drone descend near one of the housing units and drop a package containing marijuana, razor blades, cell phones and cigarettes. Drones have been seen dropping contraband into prisons in more than a dozen states. For all the commercial and public-sector drone applications that aim to make life more efficient and thrilling, some people are getting creative with the technology for more nefarious uses. Some of the threats and offenses are not intentional. A drone pilot, distracted by an off-leash dog, this year crashed his quadcopter and burned two acres of a field in Springfield, Oregon, for instance.
Intentional or not, the offenses with drones have created some legal wrangling, with the FAA acknowledging that, while it maintains authority over the use of airspace, it counts on local law enforcement agencies to enforce drone-related rules, observes the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. Drone use, the Center notes, is also under the umbrella of rules not set by the FAA. And with drone technology and adoption advancing so quickly, enforcement has been anything but uniform.
“So far we have observed that similar drone infractions often appear to yield a wide variety of legal outcomes,” the Center said in a research report. Recently adopted state and local drone laws have been applied in a small number of cases, it observed, while general charges such as reckless endangerment and unlawful surveillance have been used to charge offenders in most cases.
The Center identified offenses including invasion of privacy, smuggling, close encounters with manned aircraft and crashes. “Few cases involving drones have resulted in hard convictions, and only two cases [a drone crash in Washington State and a drone smuggling case in Maryland] have led to jail time for the operators,” the Center said at the time of its report, in April 2017. The small size of drones has helped offenders evade authorities. “We have also found that in a number of cases, particularly privacy-related cases, and close-encounter cases, law enforcement agencies have been unable to identify and charge operators,” the Center said.


Setting Sights on Deliveries, Amazon Scoops Up Scores of Patents

When it comes to business uses of drones, all eyes are on Amazon—for its sheer size and ambitious plans to roll out drones for deliveries to consumers. Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, described on a “60 Minutes” interview in late 2013 what at the time had seemed like science fiction. The drone behind the concept even came with a sci-fi name: Octocopter.

Bezos had predicted that consumers would be receiving deliveries of goods to their homes via drone within 30 minutes of ordering perhaps as early as 2015, but more likely by 2018. Nearly five years later, the concept seems less like science fiction as drones make impressive advances in many sectors. But consumer home deliveries is not yet one of them, not in any mainstream sense and certainly not for Amazon. Yet Amazon is steadfastly moving toward its goal. As of the middle of last year, Amazon has been awarded at least 64 patents for technologies relating to delivery drones, according to the Center for the Study of the Drone, a non-profit research group at Bard College. These include patents for aircraft designs, safety and security systems, methods for transferring goods from the air to the ground, and hive-like fulfillment centers.

“Over the period since the [Amazon] program was announced in 2013, the company has been filing applications for patents at what appears to be a faster rate than any other company working on drone technology today,” the Center said last year in a report. Amazon’s patents showed that the online retail giant seems to be preparing for both a variety of operating and regulatory environments, the Center’s founder and co-director, Arthur Holland Michel, noted in the report. Rather than investing in a single type of delivery program, the analyst noted, Amazon has been piecing together a number of individual elements that could be pooled in many ways.

Many patents speak to the difficulties the new delivery systems would have to overcome—how to get packages from the air to the ground safely, how to protect drones from hacking, how to keep the drones from crashing and how to design fulfillment centers to manage hundreds of drones at once.

The patents, Michel noted, also show that Amazon is already thinking about using its delivery drones for business uses beyond deliveries. Amazon and other online retailers collect details about consumer browsing and buying data—and Amazon may use its drones to the same end. In one patent awarded to Amazon last year, the retailer proposes a method for analyzing its drone video data of each destination to which its drones make deliveries. Drones would capture distinctive features at the addresses that could be used to generate product recommendations.

“A drone flying over a customer’s property might capture footage of some dying trees,” Michel said in his report, citing the Amazon patent. “A computer analysis system that is able to recognize the trees as being unhealthy would then generate a recommendation for a gardening product to solve the issue and the company would send that recommendation directly to the consumer.” One bump in the road to executing its plans: Amazon was not one of the 10 companies chosen this year by the Department of Transportation to be a part of its unmanned aircraft systems integration pilot program, which exempts some companies from FAA rules so that they can test new concepts.

Still, you never know. Got a cracked driveway? Don’t be surprised if shortly after receiving a home delivery via an Amazon drone the online retail giant pitches you some new driveway sealant.

If Michelangelo Had Drones

Drones are opening the skies to filmmakers, artists and, of course, photographers. They are also letting creative minds compete with pyrotechnicians who produce fireworks displays in the night skies. Swarms of drones—1,218 in all—formed the Olympic rings in the skies above PyeongChang as part of this year’s Olympic Winter Games in South Korea. Since then, the Shooting Star drones, created by semiconductor giant Intel, have flown at events in 10 countries, from the home entertainment release of “Wonder Woman” to the Singapore Day Parade. They have lit up the Las Vegas Strip and performed in a duet with the dancing fountains of the Bellagio hotel. They have rocked the skies over the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

In July, Intel, celebrating its 50th anniversary, broke its own Guinness World Records title for drone light shows by 2,018 Shooting Star drones over its Folsom, California, facility, setting the record for most unmanned aerial vehicles airborne simultaneously. Intel’s drone light shows are mapped out on and controlled by computer. If one of the LED-equipped drones strays or loses contact with the computer on the ground, it is outfitted with a GPS system to bring it to landing on its own. Intel’s Shooting Star light shows go a long way to help promote the company, but Intel says the benefits of its technology are more far reaching. Drones lack the safety and pollution concerns of fireworks and do not come with the explosive sounds that frighten farm animals, pets and children.

“Think of drone light shows as modern-day fireworks that are green, reusable and more precise, providing programmable control for a new generation of aerial artisans and technicians,” says Anil Nanduri, Intel’s vice president of the New Technology Group and general manager of Unmanned Aviation Systems.

Drones, able to perform maneuvers that more expensive helicopters cannot, are also finding favor among Hollywood studios. Drones were behind the action in films such as the 2012 James Bond vehicle “Skyfall,” for a helicopter chase scene; Martin Scorsese’s 2013 “The Wolf of Wall Street,” for an aerial shot of hard-partying investment schemers; the 2015 installment of the Jurassic Park series, “Jurassic World,” for a flying dinosaur’s eye-view of the prehistoric landscape below; and last year’s “Fate of the Furious,” to capture footage of cars in mid-air.

Tony Carmean, a founding partner of Aerial MOB, a six-year-old drone cinematography company, likens the advent of drones in Hollywood to the intro
duction of the Steadicam— which let directors stabilize cameras and shoot scenes that would have otherwise appeared shaky—in films in the 1970s. Drones let filmmakers use one device to get the effect of several, including dollies, jobs, and cranes, Carmean says. “It’s a major step forward,” he said of drones.

Drones are, of course, taking photography and video to new heights. Photographer Bob Gates took top honors in the Great New York State Fair’s 2018 Drone Film Festival competition for his aerial photo of cars in a junkyard, in which he turned the ugly into something beautiful. “We were struck by the idea of these useless vehicles making up interesting patterns and colors,” says Michael Massurin, managing director of the festival. Best in Show in the festival’s video category, Kingdom of the Wild, by Michael Bishop of California, let viewers run with herds of wild animals in Namibia.

The festival, in its second year, attracted 74 entries from around the world. It was created to help promote New York State’s investment in unmanned aerial vehicle technology and its 2016 creation of the drone corridor, a 50-mile area of Central New York and the Mohawk Valley, for drone-related research and manufacturing. The marriage of art and drones makes one wonder what Michelangelo would have done with drones at his disposal. Perhaps he would have somehow forgone the Sistine Chapel ceiling for the skies.

Bird-Herding Drone In the Works

In 2009, the “Miracle on the Hudson” unfolded in the skies above New York City. US Airways Flight 1549 struck a flock of geese just after takeoff, forcing pilots Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles to land in the Hudson River. The pilots’ quick thinking and deft maneuvering of the Airbus A320 saved all 155 passengers and crew aboard the flight.

Now, engineers at the California Institute of Technology say that, with the help of a single drone, they can see to it such mishaps are avoided. The Caltech engineers have developed a control algorithm that enables a drone to herd an entire flock of birds from the airspace of an airport. The US Airways flight— and the realization that not every pilot could pull off as safe a landing as Scully and Skiles—inspired the principal investigator on the drone herding project, Soon-Jo Chung, associate professor of aerospace in Caltech’s engineering division, to launch his research.

Airports control their airspace by modifying the environment to make it less attractive to birds. They also use trained falcons to scare flocks off and even pilot a drone to scare the birds. But Chung, who is also a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory research scientist, says these tactics can be costly. A hand-piloted drone can be unreliable, Chung adds because it does not take into account the nuances of bird behavior and leaves too much to chance. Deploying a drone to do the job successfully relies on instilling fear in the flock: The birds will not react if the drone is too far from them; on the other hand, the birds will scatter uncontrollably if the drone is too close.

The Caltech algorithm— which Chung says requires further refinement—was built around speed and position, so that the external threat perceived by a flock of birds is somewhere between those two extremes and they shift direction in unison. “The birds will see the drone as a mild threat,” he says. To herd the birds as a flock in formation, the drone positions itself on the edge of the flock to make course changes that affect the birds closest to it. In turn, each bird signals the next further into the flock so that all the birds are prompted to shift direction at once. “They kind of relay that information to the nearest neighbors,” Chung says. “It’s a cascading effect.”

What a World of Drones Will Look Like


Drone racing will come full circle, back to its gaming roots, by becoming a hybrid of racing and gaming, predicts New York drone race producer Frank Costello. “I see a closer marriage between those two technologies,” Costello says. He imagines “interactive elements” within the track that pilots trigger as they fly their drones near them. “You’ll be able to play something like Capture the Flag, where the drones turn a different color as they go near an obstacle,” he says. Costello helped produce the ASL Speed Challenge 2 in Sacramento that already combined elements of computing and racing. “We had teams from around the world compete on a simulator.” The simulator track was then recreated in the Sacramento Kings basketball stadium, where the top eight teams competed. “We brought it to life in the stadium,” Costello says.


When the Daytona Beach Police Department launched its drone unit, it saw a few uses for the new equipment but nothing extensive. In just a few months, however, police began to see the drones as far-reaching tools aiding in many elements of their work. “Originally we were thinking, ‘Let’s look for someone who is missing,’” Timothy Ehrenkaufer, the unit’s founder and supervisor, said of an obvious application. “Then we thought what if we take it to crime scenes and photograph them from a view you’d normally see. Every day we were saying, ‘Oh, we could use a drone for that.’ I’m surprised how many different facets of law enforcement we can fit this into.” That’s why Ehrenkaufer predicts that before long drones will be as commonplace with police as their car radios. “It’s not pigeonholed into one thing,” he said of drones.


The use of drones in agriculture is steadily growing, boding well for the environment, says Colin Snow, chief executive of the drone research firm Skylogic Research. Farmers are using the drones to collect data and photos of crops, letting them detect which are growing most vigorously. “The ecological play is that farmers can then focus on only the areas in their fields where there is a problem,” Snow says. “They’re using pesticides less—only where it’s needed.” Other environmental sectors will benefit as drone technology advances. Scientists are deploying drones along shorelines to study beach erosion, but extensions in battery life could let drones travel farther distances to study the ocean. Some of that work is already underway. Over the summer, Trent Lukaczyk, founder and chief technology officer of Flightwave, flew the drone company’s Edge drone from the research ship RV Falkor as part of experiments 1,000 miles west of San Diego. Exploring the waters of a subtropical front, the Edge flew more than 12 miles on its longest mission. “We were able to show with this kind of setup that you can collect data at a large scale but with really high precision,” Lukaczyk says. “It’s just unprecedented.


Modern art has long taken the ordinary and turned it into something beautiful, mysterious and a wonder to gaze eyes upon—just consider Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can. Drones are expanding the possibilities of artistically reframing the commonplace, and will continue to for years to come, artists and other creative types predict. Those possibilities will expand the economic impact of that art on both those who create it and its consumers, Roberts says. “The prettier something is, the more impact it has,” says Steve Roberts, head judge in the New York State Fair’s 2018 Drone Film Festival and owner of Zoey Advertising in Syracuse, New York. “The more beautiful the perspective is, the more captivating it is to the eye, and the ability to create economic impact from it is greater. “I was on a project a couple of months ago where I never would have thought to shoot a pure vertical of a sewage treatment plant from a drone, and it looked fantastic,” Roberts recounts. “To me a drone is a bigger, more colorful paintbrush that I never had access to before.”Modern art has long taken the ordinary and turned it into something beautiful, mysterious and a wonder to gaze eyes upon—just consider Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can.

Drones are expanding the possibilities of artistically reframing the commonplace, and will continue to for years to come, artists and other creative types predict. Those possibilities will expand the economic impact of that art on both those who create it and its consumers, Roberts says. “The prettier something is, the more impact it has,” says Steve Roberts, head judge in the New York State Fair’s 2018 Drone Film Festival and owner of Zoey Advertising in Syracuse, New York. “The more beautiful the perspective is, the more captivating it is to the eye, and the ability to create economic impact from it is greater. “I was on a project a couple of months ago where I never would have thought to shoot a pure vertical of a sewage treatment plant from a drone, and it looked fantastic,” Roberts recounts. “To me, a drone is a bigger, more colorful paintbrush that I never had access to before.”


Retail giant Amazon’s influence on how drones are deployed in both the public and private sectors will be significant, researchers predict. The many patents Amazon is scooping up for the drone delivery system it hopes to run shed light on technologies that “could have significant applications beyond the company’s delivery scheme,” says the Center for the Study of the Drone in a report. “For example, the company’s proposed safety features could be employed to make drone operations safer and more reliable in everything from infrastructure inspection to aerial photography,” the report said, “and the company’s networked drone-to-drone communications concepts could enable swarming operations, which have a number of applications beyond parcel delivery, such as surveillance or search-and-rescue.”


© Copyright 2020 Discover Life Magazine. All rights reserved.