Credit: Ed Schipul/Flickr

Amateur Hour: Drone Fail and Lessons Learned

PALO ALTO, CA — The stage is set, and nothing could possibly go wrong. The sky is clear and the wind stills right as we arrive in the middle of the grassy expanse, surrounded on all sides by imposing spruce trees. Although we can hear the busy sound of rush hour traffic emanating from beyond the trees, I am unperturbed. In fact, I am excited. It is time for my first drone flight.

My younger brother Alexander, a drone enthusiast for the past year or so, approves of the conditions. He checks the propellers, double checks the landing gear, and switches the controller settings to “Dumb Mode”, an appropriate setting for a beginner such as myself. “Dumb Mode” ensures that the drone, which happens to be Alexander’s favorite, largest, and most expensive quadcopter, will stay relatively stable and travel in a slow, safe manner. Nothing could go wrong.

Famous last words.

I gently applied pressure on the throttle, expecting the quadcopter to slowly rise to eye level. Wrong. In mere seconds, the drone shot up to an altitude likely not approved by the FAA. I am overwhelmed by this unexpected occurrence, and in my confusion, clumsily tilt the drone 90 degrees and aim it full speed ahead towards Middlefield, one of the busiest streets in Palo Alto.

By this point, everyone is shouting, and I decide to drop the controller. This does not have a calming effect on the drone’s trajectory. The drone is ominously close to skirting over the trees separating us from the rush hour traffic. At the last second, Alexander picks up the controller and decreases the drone’s altitude enough that it crashes into a tree bordering the street and disappears out of sight.

We run over to the suspected impact area, fearing the worst — that the drone crashed landed on some unsuspecting driver’s windshield in the middle of the road. Alexander spots the drone. Miraculously, it is on the edge of the sidewalk, roughed up but still intact. Looks like that landing gear double check wasn’t needed after all.

Now that I have had time to process my first — and according to Alexander, last — experience with drones, I would like to share a few thoughts on the current status of drones today, and the potential they have in the future.

Regulation and Enforcement Capabilities are Dismal

The drone industry is expected to grow by leaps and bounds in the next several years, here in the United States and worldwide.

I believe that my failed attempt at flying a drone is a microcosm for some of the regulatory issues that will hinder the development of drones and slow their acceptance into the mainstream. Drones, like cars or guns, can very well be a weapon when mishandled. I almost caused an accident. In the wrong hands, a drone could do far worse damage.

Although the FAA is taking steps such as drafting stricter laws and requiring pilot registration, it is still too easy for something to go wrong. And just like any new experimental technology, as we are seeing with AI and driverless technology, one mishap has the potential to catch the nation’s attention.

The lack of regulation and enforcement only hurts well-intentioned drone pilots and keeps the industry from realizing its full potential.

The Sky is the Limit

When in the right hands, the potential for drones is quite simply fascinating. We have already seen a variety of different drones take on military and entertainment responsibilities, from reconnaissance missions to filming high-quality real estate promotional videos. Enthusiasts use their drones for everything from Pokemon Go (funny and practical) to decapitating unfortunate snowmen (funny and worrisome)

I have a feeling that the next big thing to watch out for is the drone delivery industry. In a sense, a drone is the next-generation version of the homing pigeon. There are high shipping costs associated with small, short distance deliveries (the resources needed are actually quite staggering) and drones, if properly employed, could all but eliminate these obstacles. I’m thinking everything from Amazon 25 Minute Delivery to rapid-response medication drops in once-inaccessible locations, as Zipline is currently testing in Rwanda.

Whether you dread or eagerly await breakthroughs in drone technology, one thing is clear — drones will become an integral, contentious part of our society. And hopefully, even people like me — the ones requiring “Dumb Mode” — will be a part of it.

If you have had any similar harrowing experiences with drones, please feel free to share below.

And, to learn more about one of the most promising leaders in the drone industry, AKA my 17 year old brother Alexander, follow his drone build here.