These Folks Can Build Drones That Might One-Up Amazon

Timothy Reuter, founder and president of the DC Area Drone User Group, stands on a green wrestling mat addressing a crowd of about 20 people—and their flying robots. “Keep the crafts and the people separate,” Reuter reminds them during the group’s final drone fly-in of the year.

Reuter started the DC Area Drone User Group, DC DUG for short, after he bought a drone kit and found it harder to put together than anticipated. “I thought if I could create an organization, I could find people to teach me,” he says. DC DUG now has more than 700 members. It is part of the Drone User Group Network—also founded by Reuter—a nationwide network of more than 2,500, with members in Mexico and Australia. Their mission: Promote drone use “for the benefit of humanity.”

Build workshops are the main draw, where members exchange tips and train new folks on how to construct and control drones. The fly-ins, like the one this Saturday in December, are a reward for all that tinkering: part test-run, part bragging rights. “This is a show-off-your-toys thing,” says Kevin Good, director of flying robot arts for DC DUG.

Cold weather has pushed them indoors to the field house at George Mason University in Northern Virginia, a large, echoing gym encircled by a running track. Members put their drones on the edge of the wrestling mat—about the size of a basketball court. This is the designated launch zone. “Time to start flying robots,” Reuter tells them. “Let’s have some fun.”

With the exception of one Styrofoam drone that looks like an oversized paper plane, other drones are alien or insect-like, especially the hexacopters and octocopters—six and eight-legged crafts. Many are made with kits. Advanced builders soup them up with photo or video cameras, and with materials that look fished from a junk bin: whiffle balls, pool noodles, even chopsticks. No matter their features, in the air, drones actually do drone, sounding like a chorus of electric razors.

Only three drones are allowed airborne at once, so others hang back, wait, and watch.  Curt Westergard came today because he thinks drones are his new competition.  Westergard, a landscape architect, uses hot-air balloons to take aerial photos; drones are edging into that market. So he plans now to make balloons in-air charging stations for drones, enabling robots to travel longer distances for missions such as monitoring oil spills or methane gas emissions from oil and fracking operations. “A hub in the sky for FedEx trucks,” he quips, but to deliver vaccines, rather than online purchases.

Like Westergard, DC DUG is full of innovators and entrepreneurs who are honing start-up plans and expanding tech knowledge in anticipation of the FAA guidelines, expected in 2015. Recreational drone use is permitted by the FAA , but many see themselves operating in a gray area. “It’s like playing a game of basketball, and all the coaches are just asleep on the sideline,” Westergard says. “So we organize ourselves, like right here.”

Christopher Vo, the DC DUG director of education, compares their group with the meet-ups that formed when personal computers first arrived in homes. “But maybe tomorrow something like the DC Area Drone User Group won’t exist anymore because these things are so ubiquitous that there won’t be a need,” he says. “It’ll be just everywhere.”

That world probably won’t arrive that soon. Vo and Reuter, who comes over with his custom-built drone, say, they doubt we’ll receive Amazon packages via drones in two years—let alone defibrillators, or emergency aid, which do demand immediate delivery.

Safety is the biggest unknown: Not just trees, power lines, and buildings, but moving obstacles like cars, pedestrians, pets. They do boast, if a little tongue-in-cheek, that the drones they build aren’t all that different from Amazon’s prototype—the main innovation there is the package gripper. “Now that we’ve all seen it, we can copy that design,” Vo says.

Of course DC DUG attracts amateurs and hobbyists who are just into the idea of flying robots. Jenny Moton and Fredia Huya are Google Glass-bespectacled and newly engaged. They built their drone, a squat, compact hovercraft, from a kit. They’ve tested it before, but this is their first fly-in. Yet Huya is something of a minor celebrity here. He’s figured out a way to program his electric blue Google Glass to navigate a parrot drone—a store-bought copter that looks like an oversized G.I. Joe accessory. “He’s the only person in the world I know who’s doing this right now,” Reuter pops by to say of Huya.

So they track down a parrot drone, and its owner brings it over to the fly zone. Huya fiddles with it, his Glass, a cell phone, until he finally announces that he’s got it. He nods his head to the right. The drone rises. Huya keeps knocking his head to the side, as if trying to get water out of his ear. The drone mimics Huya, zigzagging upward. It makes it up about six feet, then drops down.

“You fly just by looking at what the drone is seeing,” Huya says, as if this explains it, but the Wi-Fi connection is too unstable now. Plus the parrot drone’s owner needs to leave—his wife, is the reason given. Before the parrot gets packed away, Huya hands me Google Glass. A screen the size of a long postage stamp appears in the right-hand corner. It broadcasts a shaky, fuzzy wrestling mat. Drone vision.

Huya heads over to fly with his fiancée, until Reuter proposes a precision sport: Land your drone in a designated square on the wrestling mat. The game begins and one drone—that Styrofoam airplane—catches on a net hanging down from the ceiling. “Get it with another one,” somebody yells. Vo takes control of Moton’s drone, sending it skyward until it knocks against the Styrofoam plane. The plane comes loose and both robots spiral down to the floor. There’s a muted crash, and a group kneels over the scene.

The rescued drone, free and very much intact, takes off again soon. It zips around, rolling figure eights and mid-air flips. Moton’s drone isn’t as lucky. The crash landing broke its leg, snapping one plastic limb in two so it droops sadly from a string of wires.

Moton doesn’t seem to mind. “It’s good news for me,” she says. “I like to build stuff.”

Jennifer Kirby

Jennifer Kirby

Jennifer Kirby is freelance writer until she wins the Mega Millions or comes up with the next great American novel. Since neither seems likely, she tries to bring you stories about interesting people doing interesting things.
Jennifer Kirby
Jennifer Kirby

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