Monday, September 12, 2016

Flying High with Drones

Everyone seems to be talking about drones these days. Are drones the wave of the future? Are they dangerous? Do they cause an invasion of our privacy? Can they be used for great things or are they a waste of money? There have been news reports of people being injured by drones, airplane pilots reporting them as distractions and novice pilots crashing their new drones moments after unboxing.

My first drone was the Parrot Bebop and it sat in its box for months. I was excited to pilot it for the first time, but I was not sure where to fly it or what purpose it would serve. I am a big fan of new technology and gadgets of the future, but I like them to have some utility. What problem are these drones going to solve, I wondered.

I knew I didn't want to simply take this drone and fly it like it were a video game. I also was concerned about crashing this expensive gadget into a tree and breaking it. At the time, there were no specific laws governing personal drones, but I also did not want to violate the privacy rights of my neighbors.

When I finally started flying the Bebop it was an immediate love-hate relationship. It was thrilling to fly an aircraft with a video camera through the sky, but I still had concerns. Over the past year, I've begun flying other drones including the Parrot Bebop 2 and several mini drones, which my kids can also fly. During this time, I've found opportunities to use the drones safely to record video of happenings on the ground. I remain cautious about the safety and privacy implications, but have enjoyed capturing beautiful photos and videos from hundreds of feet in the sky.

Rabbi Jason Miller with the Parrot Disco FPV Drone

Last month I was invited by Parrot to fly the new Disco drone in the Palm Springs desert. With about thirty other drone enthusiasts we were taken to the famous Arnold Palmer designed SilverRock golf course in La Quinta where we would have some open space and breathtaking views of California's Santa Rosa Mountains. Unlike the Bebop models, which are quadcopters, the Parrot Disco is a fixed wing drone. While I haven't had much experience flying winged model airplanes, flying the Disco was very easy. Once the motor starts, you throw it like a paper airplane and it takes off. The controller is easy to use, but more advanced pilots can use an RC controller to have more control of the drone and perform tricks.

The Disco drone (Parrot names its drones after dance styles) is the first fixed wing drone for immersive flights, meaning you can use the virtual reality Cockpitglasses (they come with the unit) for a FPV (first person view) experience. Legally, a pilot's license is required to fly drones using virtual reality and a spotter (without VR glasses) must be onsite.

One doesn't need to know how to take off and land with the Disco because its autopilot takes over. It is necessary, however, to give Disco a lot of space for the landing. I found the plane to be very intuitive with the joystick controller. Lightweight (under 2 pounds), the Disco can reach a top speed of 50 miles per hour and the battery will allow it fly for about 45 minutes. The 14 megapixel full HD camera in the front of the aircraft takes amazing video and still photos. The 32GB internal memory saves the captured photography until the end of the flight when it can be transferred to a phone or tablet.

The most impressive aspect of the Parrot Disco is the FPV virtual reality headset. I had a chance to use the headset with both the Disco and the Bebop 2 while someone else was piloting the drones. The views through the glasses were astounding although I did get a little nauseous at times, which is common with virtual reality headset. The Disco comes packaged with both the Skycontroller 2 remote control and the virtual reality headset. At $1,299, it is pricey for a winged drone, but the controller and headset make it a better value. The Parrot sells for around $550.

My experience in the Coachella Valley with Parrot provided me the opportunity to learn to fly a winged drone and experience the immersive FPV technology. The eal highlight for me, however, was having the chance to speak with other techies interested in drones and the impact they think drones will have on our world. Like all new technologies there are pros and cons.

The French company Parrot got its start in 1994 when it specialized in voice recognition technologies for the auto industry. With a strong presence in Detroit (its American headquarters were in Southfield), the company focused on products related to car telephony like noise reduction and Bluetooth hands free car kits. Parrot's co-founder Henri Seydoux tells the story that he was frustrated that so many kids were stuck indoors playing video games. In an effort to replicate the gaming experience outdoors, Seydoux came up with the idea of personal consumer drones. In January 2010 at the Consumer Electronics Show, Parrot introduced the AR.Drone flying hardware piloted over Wi-Fi with a smartphone. Over the next six years, the company would continue to improve upon its drone technology, which includes mini-drones that fly, race and jump.

There remain significant questions about the future of drone use in our country. Anytime you fly a device in the skies over people and buildings and near other flying crafts, there are risks. Legislation, however, has quickly been enacted to protect our privacy and to ensure our safety. Drones aren't just for taking aerial videography of sporting events and outdoor weddings -- there are many ways that drones can be useful to society. An organization called Drones for Good explores future life saving possibilities with drones. One of its recent developments is the Ambulance-Drone, a high speed drone network that delivers emergency supplies to any location within minutes. Drones will also be used to locate missing people, surveying real estate, help farmers observe their fields, check on the status of bridges, and monitor the safety of beaches. The military has been using drones for a long time and we are only just discovering the uses for personal drones.

The same way our society adapted to automobiles, airplanes, computers and cell phones, we will adapt to flying drones in our airspace. In our digital world, drones are the future. There are certainly dangers involved, but the positives outweigh the risks.

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