Drones for good

Ring bearer: A quadcopter drone delivers wedding bands to Otavio and Zina Good during their July 2013 wedding ceremony at Pulgas Water Temple in Redwood City, Calif. Image illustration based on photograph by Frances VonWong.
Ring bearer: A quadcopter drone delivers wedding bands to Otavio and Zina Good during their July 2013 wedding ceremony at Pulgas Water Temple in Redwood City, Calif. Image illustration based on photograph by Frances VonWong.

The moment of creation is immortalized on YouTube. In the grainy 15-second clip, innocuously titled “Willard Street Robot Club,” Timothy Reuter ’99 launches a national movement without ever getting off the ground.

It was July 2012, and the former foreign service officer had joined some buddies to celebrate the maiden flight of his 3D Robotics Hexacopter — or recreational drone, to those whose aerial references might only extend to the balsa wood airplanes of their childhood.

In the video, Reuter stands in a Washington, D.C., alley clutching the controls. He starts the propellers whirring on what, in the dark of night, looks like a pizza straining against gravity. And then, as if a mechanical flapjack, the drone rotates violently and slams into the ground.

“I had spent months working on putting it together,” Reuter recalls, “and then promptly smashed the thing to pieces.”

He’d make repairs and embark on a successful flight three weeks later. But that fateful night had wider-reaching implications.

“The experience was part of my motivation for finding other people to teach me how to do this,” Reuter says. “I thought I’d be lucky if I could get three people who were interested in what seemed to me like a very esoteric activity.”

Like his inaugural flight, Reuter again miscalculated. His outreach amounted to something far greater.

Widespread interest prompted him to create the D.C. Area Drone User Group, whose membership has surged to 1,200 in the two years since it started. It’s spawned 18 similar organizations around the country and has helped position Reuter as one of the nation’s leading proponents of civilian drone use. He’s spoken on the positive use of domestic drones to such news outlets as CNN, MSNBC and The Washington Post.

His involvement has even accelerated into the commercial realm. In April, Reuter quit his job with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to co-found AirDroids, whose $550 foldable “pocket drone” is expected to go to market this fall.

“I loved model rocketry as a kid, and I’m also someone who’s always been interested in new technologies. The fact that anybody could own something like this was exciting to me,” says Reuter, who owns five drones. “It tends to be addictive.”

Privacy concerns

Propeller-powered drones, which can have fixed wings or an array of rotors that give them the look of a mutant helicopter, have superior maneuverability and are easier to control than traditional remote-controlled devices. They’ve been around for nearly 10 years, but mass production now has brought the cost down to as little as $300, making them more accessible to everyday Americans. But the rise of the drones — many of them rigged with high-resolution cameras — is also raising privacy and safety concerns among the general public, government leaders and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Supporters, meanwhile, want to push the devices beyond the hobby horizon, including using equipment for aerial newsgathering, search-and-rescue operations and commerce, to name just a few of the touted possibilities.

Given the ongoing political and social thicket surrounding the devices, Reuter jumped headlong into the debate in June 2013, when he launched the online Drone U with New York attorney Nabiha Syed. The site bills itself as a nonsensationalistic, impartial source of information that offers the general public “a deeper, more holistic perspective on these emerging technologies.”

Reuter says those with privacy concerns are confusing the issue.

“It’s easier to demonize drones rather than the cameras mounted on them,” he says. “Anyone who suggests that grandma should require a license to own the camera she uses to take family photos would be considered crazy, even though we acknowledge that the paparazzi sometimes use cameras in ways that many of us consider inappropriate.

“What we need to do as a society is have a broader conversation about what we think is acceptable to take and retain imagery of, regardless of whether it is from a drone, Google Glass or telephoto lens.”

What of safety hazards? In April, an Australian triathlete needed stiches on her head after a drone landed on her. The operator told police that the craft plummeted from the sky when an attacker wrested the controls from him. Another user crashed his drone into Yellowstone National Park’s Grand Prismatic Spring, risking damage to the spring’s azure waters. In June, the National Park Service banned drone use in national parks because of safety and noise concerns.

Timothy Reuter '99

Timothy Reuter '99 tests out an early prototype of The Pocket Drone at a D.C. Area User Group event in Leesburg, Va., in March. Photo courtesy of the D.C. Area User Group

While learning to fly a drone “is like learning to ride a bicycle,” Reuter says, “some people do use bicycles in unsafe and antisocial ways, but we as a society understand that widespread access to bikes generates more social benefits than harm, so we have minimal regulation of who can own a bike and how they can be used. Part of the mission of the Drone User Group Network is to create a culture of safe and respectful flying. Just because you can do something with a drone, doesn’t mean you should.”

Group members include federal workers and engineers, artists and students — gearheads and novices alike who share their mechanical expertise and love for weekend fly-ins held in the wide-open spaces of neighboring Virginia and Maryland. Many are photography buffs reveling in their newfound ability to snap breathtaking aerial vistas from their camera-rigged flyers.

They include Bethesda, Md., cinematographer Kevin Good. He uses any of his four functioning drones (10 others are on his workbench) to practice aerial image-making. That’s not his only use for the technology. At his brother Otavio’s wedding, Good used a drone, to the accompaniment of a harp-strummed James Bond theme, to deliver the couple’s rings.

Within the user group, Good has taken on a whimsical title: director of flying robot arts, a designation bestowed on him by Reuter. It’s a descriptor that fits.

“I just wanted to find a cool flying machine to strap a camera to and take pretty pictures,” Good says. “Some of the people in the group are real brainiacs. I’m nowhere compared to them in terms of my understanding of the technology. That’s a testament to how accessible drones are becoming.”

Defining appropriate use

Commercial drone use and, consequently, hobby use, got one of its biggest boosts in July when Amazon.com asked the federal government for permission to test a drone-based delivery service; 14 other companies also are seeking the go-ahead to use drones for filming movies and inspecting ocean oil rigs, for example. The FAA in 2007 banned the commercial use of drones. It is now reviewing its restrictions, and the agency has indicated it could release new provisions by the end of 2015.

Hobbyists face few such restrictions. An FAA “advisory circular” tells recreational drone flyers not to pilot their crafts higher than 400 feet to avoid helicopters. (Drone use is, however, banned in Washington, D.C., because of national security concerns. “I didn’t know that at the time of my flight,” Reuter says.)

Syed, who co-founded Drone U (she went to Yale Law School with Reuter’s future wife), calls her collaborator “eminently thoughtful and nuanced” on the subject of drones.

Nonetheless, Syed is playing the foil to Reuter’s boosterism, something she says is critical for fomenting intelligent discussion in an area of rapidly growing interest.

“I come at it with a bit more skepticism, but also fascination and curiosity,” she says. “We figured there are probably a lot of people along that spectrum, who just want to know more. It really was our first conversation that lit the flame for what Drone U became.”

Both founders are sensitive to criticisms that flying devices, which can be controlled by smartphones, may be used for ill purposes. But both say that’s not a reason to legislate away their potential for good. Drones are being envisioned as a means to safely and cheaply assess the health of infrastructure, such as bridges, or to deliver food, water and medical aid to victims of natural disasters. They could also be used by farmers to gauge the health of crops and by law enforcement to monitor crowds and track suspects.

And there is potential for big business. A so-called drone economy could create more than 70,000 jobs and have an $82 billion impact on the U.S. economy by 2025 — from pizza delivery to parcel transport — according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a trade group.

The FAA itself says that 7,500 commercial drones could be navigating your neighborhood as soon as 2018.

It’s such possibilities that get play on Drone U podcasts, which feature policy experts weighing in on the vagaries of the technology. Drone U also features viewpoints on weightier matters, such as the use of military drones to protect human rights or the technology’s impact on government surveillance.

“With technology, there’s tension between people who want to plow forward into the future and build and create something better, and people who say, ‘What’s the downside?’” Syed says. “Being a lawyer, this is where I come from a lot of the time. It’s great to work with Timothy and have that push-pull dynamic. The best we can do is have many different types of thinkers thinking about it.”

'Making the technology meaningful'

Many hobbyists chafe at the word drone, worried that the appellation confuses their recreational pursuits with military drones, which have been criticized for indiscriminately killing civilians in war zones. They instead refer to their crafts as “unmanned aerial vehicles,” “multirotors,” or simply “flying robots.” Reuter doesn’t trade in euphemisms. He’s sticking to the original nomenclature.

“We’re trying to take back a word that has negative connotations and open up the opportunity for conversation,” he says.

Reuter’s airborne aspirations began as a kid growing up in the nation’s capital. He and his dad used to launch model rockets from the parking lot of a Navy telecommunications station near their apartment building. Nobody ever questioned the pair. Clearly, those were halcyon days relative to the current climate: “I imagine we’d be hauled in for questioning if we tried something like that today,” Reuter says.

Reuter’s love for all things technical took on a new complexion when he enrolled at Connecticut College. He majored in anthropology and economics, and he also was accepted into the Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts (CISLA) program. All of it got him thinking about the bigger picture, and he still draws from his days in New London.

“Having a liberal arts background has made me approach technology in a different way than engineers typically do,” he says. “I’m always thinking about its social significance and making the technology meaningful.”

But recreational drones were the stuff of science fiction when he graduated, and he had to ply his social sensibilities elsewhere. Reuter participated in Teach for America and eventually moved abroad. He worked for USAID’s Office of Iraq Reconstruction in 2004-05, and from 2012-14 he was a senior adviser to the deputy coordinator for the group’s Feed the Future program, the government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

Now, drones — both for fun and for loftier social purposes — have given Reuter’s life its new focus. He’s concerned that the United States is failing to grasp the technology’s potential. Japan already is using drones for crop dusting, while in Australia and the United Kingdom, journalists are using airborne eyes to augment their reporting.

“Our hope is that we can have legal, regulatory and social situations that allow us to take advantage of this technology rather than hobbling it,” Reuter says. “Even though historically we’ve been a leader in developing this technology, we’re becoming a laggard in developing services around it, and that’s a self-inflicted wound.”

The Pocket Drone: Reuter's company, AirDroids, is marketing this personal flying robot as the world’s first multicopter powerful enough to carry a high-quality action camera and fold up smaller than a 7-inch tablet.

The FAA doesn’t quite see it that way, saying the comparison to other countries is “flawed.” “The United States has the busiest, most complex airspace in the world,” FAA officials wrote in a “busting myths” statement addressing unmanned aircraft. “Developing all the rules and standards we need is a very complex task, and we want to make sure we get it right the first time.”

For now, drones are largely the domain of weekend enthusiasts. The greater the interest, Reuter says, the better the chances are of creating practical drone uses.

Reuter is hopeful that his company’s Pocket Drone will play an important role in rallying additional interest. His creation weighs two pounds, is battery powered (it can fly 20 minutes with a camera, 25 without), and is formed from injection-molded plastic. Its flight path can be programmed along waypoints with a global positioning system (GPS).

GPS, like today’s drones, once had its own public relations hurdles.

“Just as GPS was originally used to guide military munitions, now it’s something that you have on your smartphone to help find restaurants in a new city,” Reuter says. “The way that a technology is originally developed and used isn’t necessarily how it gets applied in the future, and we’re seeing that transition with drones.”

After showcasing the Pocket Drone in January at the Techcrunch Hardware Battlefield in Las Vegas, Reuter has secured more than $1 million in preorders. He’s touting his creation for “documenting your latest outdoor adventure.”

“Or you can even see if your gutters are clear without having to climb onto your roof,” he adds.

Life-affecting applications are, for now, limited among casual drone users. The D.C. Area Drone User Group earlier this year staged a mock search-and-rescue operation in The Plains, Va. Cardboard cutouts were placed around farmland property to simulate lost hikers.

For the most part, enthusiasts aren’t allowed to help out in real-life searches. But that wasn’t the case in July, when a recreational drone took just 20 minutes to find a missing 82-year-old man in the Wisconsin countryside. It was an outcome that dogs, helicopters and volunteer searchers weren’t able to accomplish in three days.

It was validation enough for Reuter. He believes the sky, literally, is the limit for drones.

“There’s a saying: Robots should be used for work that is dirty, dull and dangerous,” he says. “There are situations in which you can afford to lose a drone, but you wouldn’t want to lose a person — a chemical spill, a fire, nuclear radiation. We’re in the very early stages in terms of what the technology is capable of, and society’s understanding of it. Things are going to transform hugely over the next 10 years.”

- By Andrew Faught

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of CC: Magazine. 

October 27, 2014