New Drone City

Game of Drones: Does NYC Have an ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’ Problem?

Rise of the machines.

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In late 2011, a slender Williamsburg resident named Tim Pool roamed downtown Manhattan, seemingly recording every minute of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Mr. Pool, an independent journalist, would use his smartphone to live-stream the demonstrations, sometimes for as long as 19 continuous hours, earning himself the nickname “The Media Messenger of Zuccotti Park” in Time magazine.

As the protests escalated, it became increasingly difficult for Mr. Pool to capture the civil disobedience from eye level. He yearned for an unhindered view—a higher vantage point, like from the sky.

“The fact that police would obstruct cameras just sort of put in our minds that we might be in a situation where you can’t get a good shot because there’s a wall or a fence or something,” Mr. Pool, now 27, told The Observer.

Enter the “occucopter”—a modified drone of Mr. Pool’s creation, built from a Parrot AR, one of the first consumer-oriented drones, which hit the marketplace in 2010 and was available for purchase on Amazon for $299.

Drones, also commonly called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), differ from the remote-controlled toy helicopters of childhood in that they operate via onboard computers under the direction of a pilot, who is on the ground. The Parrot AR Drone has onboard technology to follow preprogrammed instructions and automatically stabilize itself against wind.

A lightweight quad-rotor, Mr. Pool’s drone resembled nothing so much as a bike seat and, with its palette of neon colors, it looked like it had been plucked straight from the pages of SkyMall. Unlike the junk found in an in-flight magazine, however, it actually worked—and with the addition of a camera, the occucopter was given further functionality.

Shooting 50 feet into the air and zipping around at speeds of up to 10 miles per hour, the occucopter buzzed above the heads of the protesters. For many, both within and beyond Zuccotti Park, this marked their first-ever encounter with a drone. Even the mainstream media was fascinated, focusing on the device’s nonmilitary capabilities, as Mr. Pool earned press mentions across the globe in outlets like The Guardian and Wired magazine.

“Being a drone, it’s got a huge novelty factor, and a lot of people are really excited,” said Mr. Pool. “They think that this is like the game-changer, it’s this great revolutionary thing.”

But even nonmilitary drones can pose a threat, the city would soon learn. Last March, an Alitalia pilot claimed to have seen a three-foot-wide drone buzzing within 200 feet of his Boeing 777 while on approach to JFK Airport. At the time, the FBI reported that the unidentified device had been flying 1,750 feet over a densely populated neighborhood and could have caused a calamitous midair collision. The operator was never located.

In and around New York City, the number of drones launching into the sky has gradually grown over the last couple years, as businesses have begun considering how they can put the flying robots to work and hobbyists have made their own investments. (To date, more than 500,000 Parrot ARs have been sold.)

In January, NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly said the police were “looking into” drone use—a claim the department later backtracked on. Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne told The Observer that the NYPD doesn’t use drones and doesn’t have any plans to, but admitted it’s “conceivable that police departments and other first responders would someday deploy drones to supplement helicopter coverage.”

In the meantime, high-end real estate firms like Halstead Property have embraced the machines. According to Matthew Leone, the company’s director of web marketing, “the drones are used for both shooting aerial photography” and filming video, which the firm then sets to a soundtrack and uploads to YouTube, like a movie trailer. “It’s a water-cooler moment for the owner,” he said.

While Halstead’s drones are mostly deployed in places like Hudson Valley and the Hamptons, Mr. Leone said the company has flown the UAVs in the Bronx and Park Slope as well, adding that, wherever they fly, the firm’s drone operations are legal because they fly below 400 feet, in accordance with FAA regulations, and they are only deployed during the day so as to not disturb the peace. “We have our bases covered,” Mr. Leone insisted.

Those bases may be even easier to cover come 2015, when the FAA is expected to roll out looser regulations that will permit more drones into the nation’s airspace, including access to areas that are currently reserved for piloted planes. The agency estimates that 30,000 commercial drones will fill the skies by the end of the decade.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg broached the drone topic on his radio program on WOR 710 in March, calling the forthcoming saturation of the city’s skies with drones both inevitable and “scary.” “We’re going into a different world, uncharted,” he said, “and you can’t keep the tide from coming in.”

US-DRONE-PROTESTAfter Occupy Wall Street ended, Mr. Pool pretty much stopped bringing his drone out. That changed following Superstorm Sandy, when he traveled to damaged parts of Staten Island and the Rockaways.

“I’m trying to go out there, use it in these situations to get footage to see what can be done with this—what is the quality we’re going to get and if it’s truly worth it,” he said.

Mr. Pool explained that advancements are making camera-equipped drone technology increasingly cheaper and lighter. He suggested that the Dragonfly—a $100 device that fits in the palm of a hand and flies with the grace of an insect—could become indispensable to reporters in a growing field dubbed “drone journalism.”

“I think it will be only logical to assume that mobile journalists and news teams would have some of these on hand,” said Mr. Pool, adding that compared with the Dragonfly, the Parrot AR drone is becoming “obsolete.”

Mr. Pool isn’t the first to tinker with the idea. In 2011, News Corp.’s now-defunct iPad newspaper The Daily used drones to capture aerial footage of a tornado-ravaged city in Alabama. Earlier this year, the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism launched a drone journalism course.

Meanwhile, guys like Sameer Parekh, the chief operating officer at NYC-based robotics company I Heart Engineering, are decidedly more focused on the flying robots’ entrepreneurial possibilities. In fact, Mr. Parekh would like to displace your dog with a drone.

Under the mostly facetious moniker Pet Drone, his upcoming project modifies the Parrot drone with artificial intelligence, motion-tracking sensors and cameras to follow people from a distance using a small sensor tagged to their clothing.

Mr. Parekh explained to The Observer that such a drone would be primed for extreme sports or similar situations where traditional cameras angles aren’t viable.

“It will autonomously follow the athlete down [hills or cliffs], so the filmmaker would be able to provide these intimate images,” Mr. Parekh said, adding that non-athletes can use the drone as a sort of personal paparazzo and then upload the pictures onto social media.

“We’ll be living in a world where robots are our friends,” he predicted.

In recent weeks and months, drones have entered the national conversation at unprecedented levels. President Obama’s administration has critics charging him with unlawful usage of the devices in countries where the United States isn’t officially conducting wars, like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Last month, for the first time ever, Mr. Obama acknowledged that the country’s drone strikes have killed American citizens outside of battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he subsequently shifted control of the program from the military to the CIA.

While drones have been used for years on the domestic front by federal agencies, which deploy them to survey devastated areas after natural disasters and to monitor the country’s borders, FBI director Robert Mueller admitted last week that the agency has also used drones to spy on citizens.

“Yes, in a very, very minimal way,” Mr. Mueller said, adding that the drones are utilized in “particularized cases and particularized leads.”

This use of drones for surveillance purposes, combined with cagey reasoning, has made groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union wary, especially on the heels of the NSA’s Edward Snowden scandal. Udi Ofer, NYCLU’s former advocacy director, had already said earlier this year he has “no doubt” that the NYPD is going to deploy drones over the city.

“We do not want to see … drones hovering over the skies of New York City, 24 hours a day, engaging in massive surveillance,” Mr. Ofer said to an NBC reporter, adding that there need to be laws “regulating drone activity.”

But even with such privacy and oversight concerns, drones appear to be having a moment both at home and abroad. Artist Rajeev Basu collaborated with world-famous designers earlier this year on an exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens dubbed “Drones of New York,” which imagined eclectically painted Predator drones assimilating into daily city life.

Earlier this month, sushi chain Yo! Sushi debuted the “flying waiter,” a small, quad-rotor machine that carries a customer’s food by whizzing around one of its London outposts at speeds of 25 miles per hour. Last month, Domino’s unveiled a drone prototype to deliver pizzas. It was a small, custom-built octocopter—aptly called the DomiCopter—that hurled two piping-hot pepperoni pizzas into the backyards of residents of a London suburb.

Mr. Pool says he can envision a drone-filled society in which the machines will not only serve as couriers, but will become ingrained in our daily lives due to multifaceted functionality and ever-decreasing costs. He dismisses concerns about people using drones for malicious intent.

“Being a dick is being a dick,” Mr. Pool said, when we brought up the case of a Seattle man who used his camera-equipped drone to spy on a neighbor’s house.

“We have cellphone cameras, and people take pictures like Reddit creepshots,” he added. “If you’re taking a drone to do dickish things, then that’s just being a bad person.”

Follow Jordan Valinsky on Twitter or via RSS. jvalinsky@observer.com

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