Drones are most well known for their military use, but in the near future unmanned flying contraptions may dust our crops, deliver us pizza, and become another technology that fades into the background of our lives.
If game-changing, life-altering technology is the bar here, then Aerial Captures in Concord may seem like it comes in underneath it. Founder Michael Ouimet palms his “drone” like a basketball.
“What we have here, it’s a quadcopter,” Ouimet says. “It’s a four-blade aerial device.”
The quadcopter is essentially a high-end RC vehicle, the big brother to the toys at a hobby shop. Ouimet has outfitted this one with a small camera on the bottom. He plugs in the camera and switches on the quadcopter.
Four lights blink red and green as the copter picks up GPS signals, which help it balance and—should the machine lose connection with Ouimet’s remote—automatically return it to the location from which it took off.
The copter lifts off and hovers about 20 feet in the air. Ouimet nods at a screen on the copter’s remote.
“We can actually see through the lens while we’re flying,” he says. “So, it helps us get a much better picture of what we’re trying to capture for our clients.”
Those clients hire Aerial Captures to film events, for instance a Special Olympics fundraiser, where participants rappelled down Fifth Third Bank in Uptown.
But its most consistent business has been producing videos for high-end real estate listings, flying over to give an above view of the home and mixing it with traditional shots of the driveway, kitchen, and so on, at a cost of about $1,500.
Drone photography has many possible commercial uses. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill used a drone to snap shots of football practices and games.
The film industry has experimented with drones, instead of far more expensive helicopter crews. Ouimet says he has spoken with the oil and gas industry about doing site surveys in remote areas.
Outside photography, the uses expand further. On a recent 60 Minutes, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos revealed a drone service the company has under development.
“There’s no reason they can’t be used as delivery vehicles,” Bezos said on the program. “And we can do half hour delivery.”
Imagine food delivered by drone. Domino’s has built a pizza delivery drone. In San Francisco, a company called Tacocopter went briefly viral when it offered to deliver Mexican food to your door. Unfortunately for burrito lovers, it is not real, but Ouimet says the idea is not that far fetched.
Gesturing to his small quadcopter, he says, “It’ll carry a burrito. … Probably a couple of burritos.”
Amazon’s drone delivery service, and a real Tacocopter, would rely on unpiloted drones that navigate automatically by GPS. While sensor technology has advanced, experts say the required software is not yet precise enough to consistently deliver to your house, without fear of bumping into overhangs, fences, people, or—eventually—other drones. But, the development of self-driving vehicles, such as the Google Car, suggest the technology will exist sooner rather than later.
On a larger scale, the U.S. military already has unmanned planes the size of buses. Imagine FedEx one day replacing its delivery planes and trucks.
“I think it’s kind of like the Internet,” Ouimet says. “You’re right at the cusp of it, and I think if we stop and ten years from now we look back, we’ll find these are being used in a lot of different areas.”
The FAA projects in three years, 10,000 drones will fly in the U.S. Eventually, we could have a sky filled with unmanned vehicles. Eventually.
“I think it’s a very promising technology. There’s obviously a great deal of public and commercial interest in it,” Michael Huerta, Administrator of the FAA, said in an interview. “The important thing for us is that we integrate them safely.”
And right now, Huerta says it would not be safe.
“If you have unfettered use for commercial purposes there will be conflicts with populated areas, with private pilots that might be operating within the airspace system,” he said.
Questions need to be resolved, such as what happens if one falls out of the sky? What kind of training do pilots have to have? How do larger, high-flying drones integrate with other planes in national air space?
Due to their military role and law enforcement interest in drones, privacy concerns have received perhaps the most attention. What and where can they record?
In addition to FAA guidelines, states will enact their own privacy policies, in much the same way as states have different laws about recording phone conversations.
In last year’s budget, North Carolina lawmakers banned police from using drones. On Tuesday, a new committee on commercial use will meet, co-chaired by Representative Mitchell Setzer.
“The purpose of this committee is to study it and have groundwork in place, and statutes to prohibit the invasion of personal privacy,” says Setzer.
That committee’s decisions will be moot for the time being. While it develops rules, the FAA has approved six organizations across the U.S. to test applications of drones, but banned all other commercial use (with the exception of one organization in a remote part of Alaska).
Aerial Captures has not heard from the agency, but the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln received a cease-and-desist letter in July. Director Matt Waite says the FAA is lumping all of these flying contraptions together, regardless of size or risk.
“If the word drone can be applied to a $30 toy and a $130 million aircraft, I think the word has some problems,” Waite says.
The FAA actually has two categories. Rules for what it calls small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS), anything weighing less than 55 pounds, are due in November. But Waite says that is still an enormous range. It can include everything from a plastic RC helicopter to a metal plane the size of a dog.
And Waite says the ban puts the U.S. behind other countries. For instance, ESPN and Fox Sports have used drones to cover cricket in Australia. Unmanned vehicles in Japan have dusted crops for more than two decades.
Between the FAA’s regulations and the remaining technological challenges, Waite says drone-delivered burritos are still a ways off.
“Your pizza will actually deliver itself to your house in a self-driving car, before Amazon will be able to deliver to you via the air,” Waite predicts.