Christopher Vo, right, is the Director of Education in the D.C. Area Drone User Group, and the go-to guy for troubleshooting multicopters.
On a workshop table at Nova Labs in suburban Virginia, a custom-built drone lies on its side, emitting a shrill beeping sound. A series of wires connect the machine — which looks like a model helicopter on steroids — to a laptop, over which two young men lean in intently.
At another workbench, two other men play with a tiny toy drone that fits snugly in the palm of a hand as they try to guide it gently down on a tabletop without crashing.
In the next room, Mark Ettinger sits at attention as he threads screws into the skeleton of a six-armed drone. It’s a hexacopter, or “hex” in the parlance of drone hobbyists, and will eventually be able to carry a payload hundreds of meters in the air.
The collection of hardware spread out in the lab looks like it came straight out of a 90s science fiction movie. It’s a typical scene for the members of the D.C. Area Drone User Group composed of everyone from hobbyists to engineers to serious students of robotics. The group is pushing the boundaries — both technologically and socially — in a rapidly growing field.
Now, a year and a half after its inception, the group has over 900 members and it’s still growing. The group holds several workshops, fly-ins, and meetings every month.
Mark Ettinger working on the skeleton of his hexacopter at Nova Labs.
Collaboration on the bleeding edge
The medley of specialties represented within the group means each member sees the potential for the technology differently.
The entrepreneur Ettinger, for instance, comes from a farming family and wants to explore the way drones can be used to make agriculture more efficient — what he calls “precision agriculture.”
“Rather than just dumping water or fertilizer over the entire field, the idea is to use sensors to help target spots that need help, as well as to aid the detection of pests and disease,” Ettinger said.
But without a working knowledge of how to assemble a drone, Ettinger didn’t know where to start. That’s how he wound up in the workshop for one of the D.C. Area Drone User Group’s monthly build parties.
“I wouldn’t have any idea how to do this stuff — I’m a software guy, not a hardware guy,” Ettinger said. “But I met these guys and they gave me the confidence that I could do it.”
The creation of a collaborative environment is precisely what prompted Timothy Reuter, the group’s president, to form the group.
“I thought maybe if I create my own community, I can recruit people who can teach me to do this properly,” he said. “I thought maybe I could get 30 people if I’m lucky — it seemed like such a niche thing.”
Like Ettinger, Reuter has aspirations of making a business in this burgeoning industry. He is a co-founder of AirDroids, a San Diego-based company that is designing and manufacturing The Pocket Drone — a small collapsible tricopter intended for use in aerial photography. Their Kickstarter campaign recently raised over $900,000, well beyond their modest $35,000 goal.
“It’s a technology that I’m really passionate about that I really think is going to change the world, and it’s fun to be part of it,” Reuter said.
Raphael Piker was fined $10,000 for operating his fixed-wing drone in a manner the FAA described as "reckless."
Shifting regulatory playing field
Whether or not drones will actually change the world will depend, at least in the United States, on the Federal Aviation Administration.
In 2012, Congress directed the FAA to create rules that would safely integrate drones into the U.S. airspace by 2015. Until then, officials say the commercial use of drones is prohibited.
That means high-profile commercial ideas like Amazon Prime Air -- where the online retailer Amazon would use semi-autonomous drones to deliver packages to customers’ doorsteps -- are on hold until the FAA gives the go-ahead.
The exceptions to that rule are drones operated “solely for hobby or recreational reasons.” In that case, operators are subject to rules issued in 1981 governing model aircraft, which merely require that drones be flown away from populated areas, below 400 feet and at least three miles from airports.
So using a drone to take pictures at a friend’s wedding is allowed under the existing regulatory framework. But selling those photos is against the law, according to the FAA.
It’s a cause for incredulity for drone entrepreneurs like Reuter.
“Somehow it’s safer for me to sell a pocket drone to some 17-year-old who has never flown before than it is for me to sell it to a professional photographer who’s going to do this all-day every day,” Reuter said.
But that may be changing. On March 7, National Transportation Safety Board Judge Patrick Geraghty dismissed a $10,000 fine (PDF) the FAA issued against aerial photographer Raphael Pirker for flying a small fixed-wing drone near the University of Virginia and then selling the footage to the university.
In the ruling, Geraghty said there was "no enforceable FAA rule" specifically prohibiting commercial drone enterprises.
The FAA has signaled their intention to appeal, which would put the decision in the Pirker case on hold. More broadly, the federal agency has also updated the “Busting Myths” section of their website, reiterating the commercial ban even in the face of their loss in court.
An already murky legal situation for aspiring drone entrepreneurs has only gotten murkier.
This video of the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve was shot with drones as part of a community service project.
Technology for and by the community
The best uses of drones are not always commercial. One way the group has managed to grow their skills while playing by the rules has been to cultivate a culture focused on community service.
John Waugh has worked in conservation for more than 30 years. He heads a sub-group of the main organization which identifies protected areas in the Washington region and around the world that have particular problems that drone experts are uniquely equipped to address.
“I like to say that we’re trying to be more than just boys with toys,” Waugh said.
Last year, members of the group collaborated to produce a video that showcased the trails in Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve in Loudoun County.
Waugh said drones could also be used to identify sources of pollution in the Shenandoah River or infestations of certain kinds of invasive plant species in protected areas. With near-infrared sensors, they can be used as tools to help search and rescue missions. They can also empower communities to gather important data about their neighborhoods without the need for government help.
And those are just some of the possible uses with for drones optical sensors. With a little creativity, Waugh said, you can imagine all sorts use cases.
“A favorite application of mine would be collecting insects in an air column. What insects exist at what elevations over a forest canopy?” Waugh said. “This is just me goofing around, but there might be compelling reasons to know this stuff.”
And at a time when education in the STEM fields has become a matter of national concern, drones can be a remarkable tool for recruiting kids into science and engineering, Waugh said.
“We want to convey the message that this is not dangerous stuff that will invade privacy or compromise their security,” Waugh said. “Good can come out of it.”
And that good, ultimately, may be the best advertisement for both the technology and the D.C. Area Drone User Group.
“It’s not the fact that drones exist that is going to be revolutionary,” said Reuter. “It’s the degree to which they empower people to do new things or to do things that used to be available only to people with lots of resources that is going to make them a big deal.”