Another story about drones and developing problems

September 9, 2015 |

In the United States there is some form of legislative structure developing regulating the use of drones in built up areas.  As is the way it is being done on a state by state basis.  In Australia the States have looked to the Commonwealth while the Commonwealth looks at its shoes.  In the aviation sphere the Commonwealth has undisputed and appropriate responsibility.  In privacy and other safety issues, like drones crashing onto or near people, the States can regulate.  But they don’t.

But the legislative and enforcement response has been universally slow.  Hence the frustration by someone like Chris Anderson who sees the more reckless use of drones causing a backlash, the inevitable overreaction from slow acting legislatures and the stifling in the development of a hugely useful technology. The Fairfax piece in 3D Robotics’ Chris Anderson on the rise of ‘mass jackassery’ in the hobby drone community.  The article is a meld of biography of Chris Anderson and the growing problems with larrikin use of drones.  There is little new in this article but it is interesting to get a recap.

The article provides:

The chief executive of the US consumer drone maker 3D Robotics wants the cowboys who have tarnished the name of the hobby to have their wings clipped.

Chris Anderson, the co-founder and chief executive of the Bay Area-based start-up, has even coined a term for the phenomenon: “mass jackassery”.

“[It’s] bad and it’s going to get worse. And if we don’t do something about it, no one’s been killed yet, but someone’s going to do something really stupid,” he told Fairfax Media.
Chris Anderson co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics.

Witness the drone which crash landed in the stadium last week during a tennis match at the US Open. Read about the increasing number of drone sightings by pilots of civilian aircraft. Or listen to the complaints made by firefighters and emergency workers when drones interfere with their work.

And the rise in these kinds of incidents have resulted in some people taking the law into their own hands. And it’s not just humans. Even chimpanzees are taken to bringing down snooping drones.

“One of the ironies of this drone age is that because we’ve made drones so easy to fly and the process of learning to fly and all the safety and responsibility lessons that come with it are now no longer required,” Anderson said.

“As a result, all that wisdom about safe and responsible flight doesn’t come automatically. A bunch of people are doing dumb things. Not because they’re bad or evil; just because they don’t know better.”

But he’s not arguing for more regulation. Governments all over the world struggle to keep up with technological changes and concerns about the safety and privacy implications of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

In Australia, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority says sometime next year it will start a review of all drone rules to make sure they are still relevant and keeping up with technology. “This review will involve consultation and will take a few years,” said CASA spokesman Peter Gibson.

The solution, says Anderson, needs to come from the industry itself with the use of software to “geofence” drones so that they cannot fly where they are not supposed to.

He says static no fly zones already prevent drones from flying in Washington DC or too close to airports. And in the future, dynamic no fly zones will restrict the ability of drones to fly near bushfires or where there are on-going disaster relief operations.

“Using the smartness of the drone to inform the user about how to responsibly behave is ultimately how we’re going to solve this problem,” he said.
Mortal enemies

In Australia, drones are still a novelty hobby pursued by a nerdy few. But just as in the US, the market is growing and going mainstream. Most major electronic goods retailers now stock one or more drone models, and with Christmas around the corner, you can expect to see many more of them popping up in the wide open yonder over summer.

The local market has been dominated by two companies. Parrot’s AR and Bebop drones retail for between $300 to $1300 with built in cameras. And DJI’s Phantom range retail from between $1300 to $1950 with integrated cameras.

And it’s into this market that 3D Robotics is launching its $1800 Solo drone. (The price does not include the companion GoPro camera nor the optional three-axis camera gimbal, which would bump the overall cost to just north of $3000).

Anderson acknowledges that taking away market share is going to be a challenge. “DJI is definitely the market leader and they’re a great company,” he said.

And he frames that challenge in terms of a philosophical difference between the two business models: the open platform approach of 3DR and the closed platform model of DJI.

“They’re a Shezhen-based [China] company, which means they’re a hardware company, We’re a Silicon Valley company. So we’re essentially a software company,” he explains. “Both of us make software and hardware, but […] they see things as hardware problems. We see things as software problems.”

Plus, he says, 3D Robotics’ close relationship with its head office neighbour GoPro gives his company a symbiotic relationship with arguably the world’s leading action camera specialist. Whereas DJI “got into a fight with GoPro and are now mortal enemies”.
Capturing the moment

Anderson calls this the golden age of personal storytelling.

And as a best-selling author, long-time editor of WIRED magazine and now the boss of a start-up cranking out hardware that supports that storytelling, he above all should know such a golden age when he sees one.

He says we’re now in the third era of consumer drones. The first was getting them to fly. The second was attaching cameras and stabilising them enough to be able to shoot good video.

“But it turns out that is not enough,” he says. “We’d rather be in front of the camera instead of behind it. We’d rather be the stars of the movie, not the directors of our movies.”

Just as software will solve the problem of the aerial pests and triumph over the hardware-first philosophy of his leading competitor, so too has it ushered in the third era. And it has done this by taking the variables out of piloting a drone and replaced it with push-button autonomy.

“We think that what makes drones special is that they don’t have to be piloted, they are autonomous. You don’t have to be sitting behind the camera like a nerd with sticks. You’re just living your life and the drones can capture the moment.”

For Anderson, it’s been a long journey from computational physicist to writer and editor and now back to his first love.

“Fast forward 20 years and along came drones. And what are drones? They’re computational physics. You take physics and computers and you put them together and like finally, I get to use my degree.”

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