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Don’t Be a Drone Jerk

if you fly we can't

Mounting a gun on a home-built quadcopter. Attaching Roman candles to a pricey DJI Inspire 1, then posting the explosive results on the internet. Flying camera-carrying drones around the scene of a devastating Southern California fire, hampering disaster-response helicopters (for which San Bernadino County, California, is now offering $75,000 for information to help track those pilots down). This summer has been dominated by the Drone Jerk, and I’m sick of it — and I’m worried these poorly-behaved specimens may ruin this fantastic hobby and promising industry for everyone else.

Why have drone jerks suddenly become so common? Availability is a factor: Drones have gone from a DIY tech reserved for the very nerdiest to a Christmas present available on Amazon, with prices dropping all the time. The tricky-to-fly R/C aircraft of the past have given way to the idiot-proof consumer drones of today, lulling newbie pilots into falsely believing they’re competent pilots. At the same time, the tight-knit community surrounding old school R/C aircraft — a community that used to provide mentorship and training for new pilots, and a social insurance policy against jerky behavior — has yet to coalesce around drones.

Finally, the sea of ever more technically impressive drone videos available on the internet has set off an arms race, as pilots compete to capture the most extreme footage and to rack up interesting “firsts” — with potential danger to both the UAV and unassuming bystanders coming in a distinct second to the possibility of viral video glory.

Humanitarian UAV Network Founder Patrick Meier agrees this strain of bad drone behavior is on the rise, recalling how inexperienced UAV teams descended on Nepal after the April 2015 earthquake, without organizing their filming and search and rescue efforts with local authorities or major aid groups.

Nepalese authorities, claiming concern over unauthorized information leaking to the public, soon decided to ban drone flight without explicit prior permission from its Civilian Aviation Authority. “It blows my mind that regulations are preventing us professionals from using UAVs for legit humanitarian efforts during disasters but idiot men who fly UAVs near airports walk away unscathed,” Meier says.

While the US still lacks final rules on UAV flight, they’re expected to be released by the FAA in 2016. The “Small UAS Notice of Proposed Rulemaking,” known as the NPRM, was first released in February and made many optimistic, with reasonable restrictions on flight that leave room for both hobbyists and commercial pilots to operate.

But the rules aren’t final: The comment period ended in April, and there’s plenty of time for lawmakers to change their minds. In that light, the summer’s rash of drones behaving badly should be scaring all of us. It’s time we in the drone community — from hobbyists to industry — spent less time arguing on the internet, and more time working together to stop “drone jerks” from dominating headlines.

Some organizations are already fighting back against drone jerks. The Know Before You Fly educational campaign, a collaboration between the FAA and various UAV organizations, offers information on safe drone flight to new pilots — though I wish the group would do more.

A number of ready-to-fly drone manufacturers have begun packaging basic safety and regulation information with their UAVs, including links to the Know Before You Fly website, a practice that should become an absolute industry standard. DJI, as most of us know, has begun shipping its drones with built-in “no fly zone” barriers, which restrict flight near airports and other sensitive areas, while Airmap has released a map and an app that display no fly zones in a simple format.

These efforts by industry and private companies are welcome, but they’re not going to be enough: Individual hobbyists and drone pilots should take responsibility for reigning in drone jerks as well. While the irresponsible and the just plain dense will always be among us, many newbie pilots are reachable: They’re simply ignorant of the rules and unaware of potential repercussions.

If you see someone acting like a jerk with a drone, don’t ignore them: Call them out. Explain why what they’re doing is unsafe, illegal, or quite possibly both. Don’t share or click on videos portraying dangerous behavior. Kick them out of your hobby groups and online forums, and calmly explain why you’re doing it.

It’s also incumbent upon us to educate people before they buy a drone. If you know someone mulling over a purchase or a first-time build, take the time to give them a common-sense rundown of what good piloting behavior looks like.

Thanks to these so-called “drone jerks,” the civilian drone community is developing an image problem, and this time, it can’t be blamed on the malevolent nature of U.S. military drones. It’s time that we as a community began working to regulate ourselves and to stop the idiots among us ourselves, before regulators come in to do it for us, in ways we’re probably not going to like.

6 thoughts on “Don’t Be a Drone Jerk

  1. Why be outraged that someone mounted a gun to their homebuilt quadcopter? Because “OMG gun?” New flash, there are a lot of people out there with guns and no interest in hurting anyone. Was he in danger of accidentally hurting someone? My understanding was he had a pretty good backdrop behind that target.

    Did he somehow give a bunch of criminals a new idea? Sorry… that one was pretty obvious.. it was only a matter of time. Shooting a gun does not deserve a “…. with a drone” patent.

    Did he give authorities a reason to enact stricter laws against quadcopter owners? Maybe he gave them an excuse but not a reason. Sorry but the ‘you can build a gun yourself’ genie has been out of the bottle for centuries. The ‘you can build your own quadcopter’ one is out now too. There is no way to put either of them back.. therefore you cannot successful eliminate either through legislation nor can you eliminate the combination.

    If that video teaches anyone anything it’s not teaching criminals that they can misuse a quadcopter… People with criminal intent can misuse anything.. and they already know it! It’s just showing the more naive what is possible.

    Now we can have drone fight videos where the drones shoot at each other! Done properly that isn’t a bad thing. I would recommend low flying in a hole… perhaps a quary for example. No people in the quary.. only cameras. Flying above the walls with guns active is a very big DQ.

    I don’t know about the roman candle incident. Was it in a public place? If not then what’s it anyone else’s business? If someone wants to endanger themselves by pulling a dangerous stunt… let them! We don’t need nannies to keep us all safe from ourselves!

    If it was in a public place then.. don’t we have generic laws against doing stupid things that endanger others? If not then certainly there must at least be some law regarding fireworks. Freaking out because “OMG it’s ____ with a drone!” is entirely unnecessary.

    Finally the forest fire incident. That was a UAV with a four-foot wingspan flying between 800 and 900 feet above the ground. Why does a 4-foot wide UAV even belong in the same category as a toy quadcopter? Should we limit the public’s ability to play with match box cars because some jerk gets a DUI?

    There is so much publicity over the fire incident. I suspect somebody was just waiting for this to happen so that they could make a point. They have a DC-10 with a belly full of water. Couldn’t they have just dropped a load on the drone? (bye by mosquitto) Maybe they wouldn’t be making the ideal drop by doing that but it would be clear skies for the second load!

    Also, aren’t there laws against interfering with emergency workers? But.. “OMG ____ with a drone!” right?

    1. Not to change the subject but CA & other states could put these fires out before they get out of hand by using the Bombardier 415’s which they REFUSE to buy or even lease!

  2. I agree, Leif, that new technology doesn’t change anything significant about how our species works (or, as evidenced on Election Day, screws up).
    But you must also know that humans need to be in one way or another, smacked upside the head from time to time, and this article is a nice, gentle, smack upside the head to people screwing up.
    There is nothing wrong with shaming shameful behavior.
    I personally wish I could shame more people into becoming better citizens, so that we don’t need and demand such a big, violent, corrupt and messy government.
    It’s one or the other, you know.
    Either we shame each other into better-than-human behavior, or we build up a monstrous abstraction of violence and imprisonment called “government.”
    I’d prefer a little more self-government, and a lot less of the other kind of government.

    1. I see your point but I don’t think this kind of focus on a particular class of object is healthy. If you want to go slap people upside the head for being jerks that’s all fine and good. More power to you. Singling out being a jerk “with a drone” is just “teaching the controversy”. Its reinforcing in peoples mind that the so called drone is the problem, not just that some people are jerks. It brings to mind ideas about banning things which is never a good solution.

  3. First enough is enough with calling Quad Copters “drones”! This is why the feds are trying to crack down – they dont like THEIR terminology used by us slaves! Second a lot of these reports are simply false flags to be able to justify legislation banning not just Quads but all RC aircraft! Yes there are plenty of idiots out there with cheap Quads doing some really stupid stuff and they need to be educated but beware of our skewed “news” reports at the same time.

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Faine E Greenwood

Faine's currently work as a field analyst at the New America Foundation in DC, focused on the usage of civilian drone technology for humanitarian purposes.

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