View from above
Nevadans find new applications for drones
After a few switch flicks and button presses, a drone whirs to life in a flurry of sound, light and vibration. It's a spider-like mechanical contraption, simultaneously eery and cool with exposed circuitry, glowing LED lights and a Canon 70D DLSR camera mounted from its base. Although its grounded, one can imagine how it looks hovering in the sky with its spinning blades.
Its pilot, Ryan McMaster, stares at it affectionately. He checks its components as one might check on a pet, looking for bugs or injuries. He’s checking for anything that needs to be tweaked, repaired or improved. In front of McMaster is the control box used to maneuver the drone out in the open.
But that’s a complete no-go when it’s even remotely windy outside, as it was during the second week of May.
“This would probably end up seriously hurting someone,” McMaster says. Or it would fly into the wall of a building. Or into the Truckee River. All of which would be a dangerous and expensive catastrophe, so McMaster would never risk it. Malfunctions are rare, but weather is unpredictable.
Although the drone looks fairly small, it’s heavy with the DSLR camera mounted to it. This particular model is a MikroKopter, manufactured in Germany but painstakingly assembled by McMaster. It took him 12 hours to assemble. A second kit, a simpler Y-copter that cost a fraction of the price, will take him about six hours.
On the control box, there’s a screen that shows what the camera sees. A switch allows him to maneuver the angle of it. It makes a robotic sound as it rotates.
After a moment of fiddling with the drone as its system powers on, McMaster leans back in his chair and crosses his arms.
“I’m in the middle of my life’s work,” he says.Game of drones
McMaster is an engineer, a certified pilot and a professional, self-taught drone operator. He graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2006 with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. McMaster is mum about his past employment but says it helped him develop some of the skills that aid him today.
These days, he’s self-employed thanks to his passion for drones. He runs the aptly-named company Volant Productions out of an office located at Valley Arts Research Facility. Volant, a French word, means “flying” or “capable of flying.” McMaster’s projects are self-funded, although he has pending partnerships with some local organizations.
Through Volant, McMaster does aerial surveying with his drones, including thermal, infrared and ultraviolet surveying. This can give him data like the status of vegetation in a park. This is called a Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a tool used by organizations like NASA.
“You technically take the RGB [red, green, blue color spectrum] of infrared to tell the health of plants in that spectrum,” he explains.
From the perspective of a drone, “red” grass would indicate good health. (That’s on the traditional NDVI spectrum; the newer one uses a more intuitive green.) Rivers, rocks and other non-vegetative matter render black. However, understanding what to look for can yield some interesting data, says McMaster. For instance, some trees might show up as red, which initially seems good. But it could be red because “the skin is exposed under bark, which means [a tree] is dying.”
Drones are often used by government and private industry to collect this kind of data and surveillance.
“Inspection services are going to be huge,” McMaster says.
McMaster says the word “drone,” and the sight of one in the wild, tend to cause uneasy reactions from those unfamiliar with the technology. Much of this is due to the prevalence of drones in military action and the use of the term in the news.
A drone is another term for an “unmanned aerial vehicle” (UAV). There’s some debate over which term is most accurate, but many hobbyists use them interchangeably. According to the frequently cited DIYDrones.com, “A UAV is an aircraft that has the capability of autonomous flight, without a pilot in control. … Usually, the UAV is controlled manually by radio control (RC) at take-off and landing, and switched into GPS-guided autonomous mode only at a safe altitude.”
UAV kits are available to buy online, and can range in price from a few hundred dollars into the thousands. Parts can be 3-D printed independently. This makes it a popular hobby among hackers and makers. Local makerspace Bridgewire has offered UAV classes where participants can build drone components or fly as part of the “Bridgewire Air Force.” McMaster says his background in 3-D printing and rapid prototyping was a natural fit for building and flying drones.
“I like 3-D printing,” he says. “I can print whatever I want. I can print a drone if I want.”
But there’s some tension due to the influx of private drones. A 2013 report in Mother Jones said that there will be an estimated 30,000 drones in 2020. While drones aren’t technically illegal, some states restrict use by private citizens and law enforcement. The Mother Jones report stated that Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to have fewer restrictions for private UAVs by 2015.
There’s concern that private drones add to a country already wary of privacy infringement; some critics also say that the data collected on public resources by private citizens could dismantle existing industries. Despite these concerns, many private drone owners believe in using their UAVs for good, whether that’s tracking a flood in a neighborhood or delivering burritos (a project by Darwin Aerospace called “Burrito Bomber”). Some larger companies like Amazon.com envision drones as the delivery system of the future. And some use drones as a way to create unique art, capturing footage of urban and rural environments from above.Wide open spaces
Luckily for Reno UAV enthusiasts, Nevada is a drone test site, which means that there are designated areas to conduct research and development on drones. The Nevada Governor’s Office of Economic Development made an enthusiastic case for Nevada’s claim to the industry: it’s where the UAV industry was founded. The state also offers good weather and plenty of expertise for novice drone pilots, among other features.
For novices, some of the drone building and piloting can seem daunting. But McMaster says it just takes practice and dedication. He has an assistant who helps him with Volant projects, and is willing to teach interested people how to fly. However, McMaster is highly selective about who he teaches to pilot, and is insistent on only operating drones while fully sober.
“I don’t drink or do any drugs at all,” he says, noting that operating drones while intoxicated is dangerous for bystanders and potentially expensive if the drones crash or get lost. Which does happen—he’s witnessed drones falling into Lake Tahoe.
A clear head is key. “I don’t want to see people hurting other people.”
However, McMaster notes that much of the fear surrounding failing drones is misguided. The technology is more reliable than most people think, and has a multitude of uses in communities. So while some envision a near future dystopia where the skies are thick with buzzing drones tracking our every move, many drone enthusiasts see it as a chance to see the world from a different perspective.
And, for McMaster, drones can just be really fun, albeit expensive, toys.
“It’s fun as hell,” he says. “Flying these is peaceful.”