There may be a drone flying over you

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Michael Abraham

Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It might be a drone!


One of the most fascinating new technologies in our world today is UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones. These are aircraft that have nobody on board, with neither crew nor passengers and are piloted remotely or in some cases by themselves. I’ve been curious about them, so I tracked down a local man named Stephen Tanner who owns an assortment and we went flying.

I met him on a windless, warm evening at the old Blacksburg Middle School site alongside downtown and he quickly removed several planes, copters, controllers and goggles from his car and set them down on the asphalt parking lot. There were three quad-copters (with four propellers), about the size of a dinner platter, and two larger delta-winged airplanes.

Stephen is a big guy with lots of auburn hair. A Florida native, he came to Virginia Tech to study engineering, then diverted to computer science, and is now employed at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute as a software developer. The sport of drone flying seems to attract technically savvy people. He’s been here for 12 years and at VTTI for eight.

“I turned my job as an intern at the Transportation Institute into a full-time position. I got interested in drones three years ago. As a kid, I got a RC (radio controlled) rocket glider. I crashed it into a school and I didn’t fly anything until a decade later.

My mom wanted to buy a toy drone for my twin cousins and asked me to do some research. I bought one myself to fly indoors around my house. My roommate and I both got the bug. We ordered two kits, radios, frames, and built quad-copter racing drones.”

One of the things that surprised me is that drone pilots don’t look at the aircraft, but from the aircraft; he sees what the drone sees. Stephen put on a set of goggles and then launched his quad-copter, seeing on tiny screens inside the goggles the image the camera on the copter radioed to him. It was bizarre, as he could have been facing anywhere, even away from it, while it was buzzing past us. And it was astonishingly fast!

“It’s totally immersive,” he explained. “I can’t see anything but the screen. It’s not what I see; it’s what it sees.”

These little machines only exist today because of amazing breakthroughs in a series of miniaturization technologies: movie cameras, motors, speed controllers, video screens, batteries, radios, transmitters and on-board computers.

Perhaps the most intriguing technology is the computer that takes radio signal inputs from the pilot and converts them to variable speeds of the propeller motors to achieve changes in direction for the aircraft. The aircraft sends video signals to the pilot and the pilot sends directional signals to the aircraft.

Hobbyists use drones for aerial viewing and movies, and for racing. Commercial applications include information gathering in mining, farming, disaster relief, hazardous environments, weather forecasting, mapping, search and rescue, and package delivery. And of course the military is pursuing drone technologies eagerly for surveillance and warfare. Someday we may no longer have piloted aircraft at all. “Pilots” sitting at military bases in the US with joy-sticks in front of them are already killing bad guys across the world, using remotely piloted UAVs. The military is experimenting with swarms of hundreds of tiny, one-pound drones that interact to avoid crashing into each other, all focused on a single target.

“Three years ago, I watched a YouTube video of people racing drones. The video wasn’t that good and the music was crappy, but the thrill of seeing this aircraft that you could physically pilot through the real world at 60-mph, whip it around a tree and bring it back, and if you crashed never hurt yourself, it was all the excitement that you could get in racing, and no risk of being hurt… how could I not want to do that? It’s fast! It stresses my mechanical brain. It stresses my programming brain. And I could afford it.”

Stephen said in three years he’s spent perhaps $5000. But someone could enter the sport for only a few hundred dollars, competing in racing for maybe $300.

I experienced some monetary perils first-hand. Stephen lost contact with his little quad-copter and it landed some distance away. He had to walk across the field to find it. Then he seriously crashed one of his delta-winged airplanes on launch and fractured the frame. No worries, nobody got hurt; back to the workbench! And then back to the field to fly again.

“It’s FUN! I love it. I feel it when I don’t fly for a few days,” Stephen admitted.

Michael Abraham is a businessman and author. He was raised in Christiansburg and lives in Blacksburg.