This weekend at Smithsonian magazine’s The Future is Here science festival, Christopher Vo will demonstrate how easy it is to make a drone do what it’s told. The educational director of the DC Area Drone User Group, Vo has “taught more people to build their own drones at build parties than anyone in the country,” says Timothy Reuter, president of the group and founder of a national network of user groups, as well as the CEO of AirDroids, the company that builds The Pocket Drone. You’ve probably noticed the proliferation of stories about people flying drones. Reuter is right in the middle of that explosion. He spoke with Air & Space editor Linda Shiner recently.
Air & Space: Why did you want to form a user group?
Reuter: I was trying to build my own drone from a kit, and finding it a little challenging to do on my own, just using online instructional videos. And so, I thought, you know, maybe if I form a community, I can find people to teach me how to do this.
Ah, the old Experimental Aircraft Association trick.
Exactly. And, you know, I thought I'd be lucky if I found 30 people who would be interested. Well, two years later, I found 1,100 people.
Just in the D.C. area. Now we have a network of these associations around the country, getting close to 5,000 people. So, you know, this isn’t a niche activity. This is something that a lot of people are excited and passionate about. My focus has sort of transformed from “How do I do this myself?” to “How do we take this technology and turn it into something that has a positive impact in our society?”
And how do you do that?
There are a few different ways. One is to encourage people to experiment with new applications. We’re having a drone search and rescue challenge this Saturday where we’re simulating a lost person scenario, and people are going out and trying to find these lost people and the items they left behind. One thing I want to be clear about is that we would only ever do this in support of professional first-responders. We are not interested in going out and wildcatting this, but we hope in the future that we can be a resource to professionals who may need additional assistance from the community.
And there are additional things being built around this. One of our members has created a site called The UAViators [pronounced u-aviators] Network, which is an international humanitarian association of UAV pilots. Basically, when we have another hurricane Yolanda or something like that, we have people who are ready to deploy and help with those kinds of situations.
Is the movement growing on its own, or do you think you have to help it along?
There’s really a grassroots movement that is building to try and take this technology that has become more accessible—and it’s cheaper than ever before, and it's easier to use than ever before—to allow people to do things to make the world a better place. The other thing we’re doing to try and stimulate that is to have the Drone Social Innovation Award, a $10,000 cash prize for the most socially beneficial use of a low-cost drone.
How do you compete for such a prize? Who awards it?
The Drone User Group Network. I started it off with the D.C. area drone user group, and then sort of seeded similar organizations around the country or linked up with pre-existing organizations. The mission of the network is to teach as many people as possible how to operate their own drones and to promote socially beneficial uses of the technology. That includes everything from conservation to entrepreneurship to art to community service.
And how do demonstrations like the one that your education director is going to be giving this weekend at the Future is Here science festival help in that mission?
I think it gets people to understand what this technology is and how easy it is to use. We think using the drone is a bit like riding a bike. Anybody can learn how to do it. You do have to have somebody show you.
And do you think that users like yourself and your network can overcome some of the negative implications of drones? People are a little bit afraid of them, don't you think?
That’s true, and that’s because the most prominent historic application is from the military-intelligence complex. But just as we’ve seen with GPS, the way the technology is used historically doesn’t predict what the main applications will be in the future.
Did you invent The Pocket Drone as a result of the network? Or did you create the network as a result of the Pocket Drone?
The Pocket Drone was inspired by the network. I saw gaps in the market with what people were using and had a desire, frankly, to diversify the base of people who were using this technology by making it easier.
What do you think of the FAA’s recent announcement that they don't expect to have rules in place for commercial uses of drones until 2020?
Our biggest fear is that the FAA is going to come out with rules that are so expensive and cumbersome that only big businesses will be able to comply with them, and small entrepreneurs will be squeezed out of the market before it even has a chance to blossom. And, you know, although there are real issues that need to be considered here, the longer the FAA waits to provide guidance, to some degree the less relevant they become. Because it’s always a challenge to tell people they can’t do something that in fact they really can do.
People can go out and fly, but you’re telling them they can’t. The FAA is trying to apply models from old technology to new technology that’s actually quite different. Why do you need a license to fly something that fits in the palm of your hand, 20 feet above the ground? Now, the honest answer is we don't know what the FAA is going to come out with. But we’re worried that they’re really going to take the model from manned aviation that has very high requirements because of the safety issues and apply it to things that have much less risk associated with them. That isn’t to say that there’s no risk, but you need requirements that are commensurate with that risk. So, requiring a copilot for something that fits in the palm of your hand and is flying 20 feet above the ground would be ridiculous.
Would you advocate some type of agreement? I imagine your own group has a set of safety standards.
Absolutely. And so, we think we could take what is currently considered advisable for hobbyists and use that as a model for commercial use of small craft, say, under 10 pounds. The FAA actually came out with an advisory circular for what they call model aircraft in 1982. Now, it’s not a law. It’s not even a policy or regulation. It’s an advisory circular. But frankly, what's in there is good sense.
What type of advice is included?
Things like don’t fly higher than 400 feet because at 500 feet, you get into manned helicopters, and at 1,000 feet, you get into manned planes. And there really do need to be systems in place for where manned aviation and unmanned aviation will interact in the future.
But frankly, the way that most people fly is in a completely separate space from where an airplane would be. And so, these are all good-sense things. They’re not that difficult to comply with, and we could use them now as regulations and allow the vast majority of commercial applications that people want to undertake.
Would you be able to undertake a commercial application, do you think, with a Pocket Drone now?
Absolutely not. According to the FAA, no one is allowed to undertake a commercial application, with a few exceptions in Alaska.
Yes, no one is allowed. But let’s pretend that the FAA has said, “You know what? These are small. They’re not going to hurt anybody. You guys, go ahead.” Is there a commercial application for drones?
Oh, yes, absolutely. Real estate photography is an easy one, you know, pipeline inspection, insurance adjustors could easily use them to take a quick aerial photo of an accident or damage to a house or facility. There are lots of security applications. Anybody who needs some aerial imagery for any purpose could easily use the pocket drone for that.
But we are not currently promoting those applications, because although we may not like the current regulations, we do encourage people to follow regulations in a democratic society. But the regulations are very unclear right now because of the Pirker versus the FAA case, where the National Transportation Safety Board said that the FAA does not have the right to regulate these craft. A number of media organizations, such as the New York Times, filed an amicus brief in support of the NTSB position, saying that there had been no First Amendment right carved out, because journalism is speech, it’s not commerce.
So, you know, there’s a question, “Is there a constitutional right to drone?”
Did you just say, “To drone?”
Did you just invent a verb? (laughing)
I did. It may be a constitutional right to be able to take aerial photography.
I feel like I'm at the dawn of a new language. So, how are things going with the Pocket Drone?
One of the transformations that I’ve seen since creating this community is that there’s been a transition from people who have been focused on the gee-whiz nature of the equipment itself to people who just want to start focusing on the applications, and not spend all their time fiddling with the technology.
And this is the natural evolution of a lot of technologies. We saw it first with the personal computer, and, you know, the hacker group building their own computers that eventually evolved into folks like Apple that made it something that you could just use off the shelf. And more recently, we’ve seen the same thing with 3D printers. Now it’s transitioned to people who just buy a MakerBot that works off the shelf. They can go from focusing on building the equipment to using the equipment.
What gave you the confidence that you could design something that would be marketable and usable?
We live in an exciting time, where there are just new tools available to create products and start a business. So my partner, TJ, and I have been working with3D printers and [computer numerical control] mills that allow you to try out new designs at a very rapid clip. Whereas before it would have cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to try and iterate your different prototypes, now it costs thousands or tens of thousands. And then we validated that the marketplace was interested in this through Kickstarter. So, again, historically we would have had to go to a bunch of venture capitalists and say, you know, “Can we have a million dollars to build a flying robot?” And then have people laugh in our face. We were able to go directly to the public with our design, and we raised just under a million dollars.
So, we’ll be delivering the drones over the summer.