It’s a rare thing to witness a historical moment and know that it is historical.
But that seems to be what’s happening in Los Angeles right now. Derrick Ward has been working with the L.A. Fire Department to develop their drone program for about a year, and when the recent wildfires swept through the area he was called to action for the first time ever.
Derrick Ward flying in an LAFD demo for the press
As we saw with the use of drones in Houston following Hurricane Harvey, the public launch of the drone program in Los Angeles has led to a huge amount of media attention (scroll down to get a sense for how much), and an overwhelmingly positive response from both the public and city officials.
One reason this positive coverage is so important is because the L.A. Fire Department is one of the largest fire departments in the world. Fire departments all over the U.S., not to mention around the world, look to the LAFD as a trend setter when it comes to finding new, innovative fire fighting practices.
The public launch of the LAFD drone program, and its hugely positive reception, could well mark a tipping point after which we’ll see precipitous adoption in other public agencies. Within the next year, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more and more drone programs being developed by police and fire departments throughout the U.S.
Some of this has to do with technology, and some of it has to do with psychology.
On the technology side, before mass adoption can happen new tools need to get to a point where they are usable and accessible for anyone to pick them up and try them out (remember when most drones were DIY, and it was pretty complicated just to buy and fly one?). Reaching this useable and accessible point also generally corresponds with cheaper prices, which helps people feel comfortable trying something new without feeling like they’re making a big financial commitment.
On the psychology side, adoption of new practices can be slow at first because people simply don’t understand the potential value of a new tool. Tom Agos of the Gurnee Police Department told us earlier this year that he was “blessed by a propane tank fire” in his town—not because of the fire itself, of course, but because he was able to use his personal drone to fly over the fire and identify smoldering spots near propane tanks that were possibly in danger of exploding.
After that fire, no further argument had to be made about the value of having a drone program in his police department. Everyone was on board, including not just police and fire department personnel, but also local citizens and political officials.
That one fire was a tipping point for the town of Gurnee—and the recent L.A. wildfires may well be a tipping point for the use of drones in fire departments everywhere, given their extreme visibility.
LAFD Media Coverage
Once the media picked up the story about the L.A. Fire Department launching their drone program to help with the terrible wildfires they’d been experiencing, it spread quickly to many other news organizations around the country. Below is some of the major coverage the LAFD drone program received.
Change is hard, but it does seem like public agencies will be adopting drones more and more in the near future. We’ll be curious to see how these changes take place, and what the actual speed of adoption will look like for public agencies in 2018, and over the next few years.
If you’ve never heard of Burning Man, it’s a little hard to describe. It’s part music festival, part art show on steroids, and part experimental living scenario where all goods can be procured only through barter.
And it’s huge—over 60,000 people attended the week-long event this year.
Burning Man is a community. A temporary city. A global cultural movement . . .
– The Burning Man website
Burning Man takes place out in the Black Rock Desert, 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada, and includes wild costumes, live music, and huge, mind bending art installations with some of the strangest, most beautiful creations we’ve ever seen.
All of which makes for incredible material if you’re a drone pilot.
Matt Emmi received permission to film there this year, and he created the impressive video below with some of the footage he shot.
Watch the video, and then read on to learn more about how he got permission to shoot there, and what it was like to fly at this incredibly unique event.
How did you get permission to fly at Burning Man?
To get permission to fly there you have to apply to the Burning Man Organization for a media pass, as well as applying for a drone application.
I went through the application process, and ultimately I was one of about a dozen pilots granted permission to fly. It was a pretty small group of us relative to the size of the event.
Were there any special considerations around flying there?
One of the principles of Burning Man is a focus on being present. This means that there’s always a little bit of contention in the relationships with people who are filming or taking photographs, because those are activities that can take you out of that state of presence.
Being photographed can take you out of the present. And of course if you’re the one doing the photographing, it takes you out of your own experience. So I wanted to be very mindful of this underlying tension while I was flying.
I really appreciate that they’re very careful at Burning Man about how many people are allowed to fly there, because I think it does help preserve the special situation they’re trying to create.
Shooting at Burning Man is pretty overwhelming—just trying to capture the sheer size, scale, and scope of this world that’s been created in the span of a month can leave you at a loss.
I remember bringing my camera up to my face the first time I attended Burning Man and then dropping it immediately back down to my side. My friend looked at me and said, “You can’t capture this.” I just shook my head and said, “Uh-uh.” And I didn’t take another picture the whole rest of that time.
So having been completely defeated trying to capture what Burning Man is and what it means the first time I went, and then going back two years later with my drone and being able to capture a couple of glimpses in this video that look truly magical and truly fantastic—that was pretty amazing.
What drones did you bring to Burning Man?
The Inspire 2 and a Mavic that I had customized just for the event.
I was really excited about the Mavic—I’d strapped two 360° cameras to the top and the bottom, and created a custom 3D-printed rig to try and capture a kind of 720° sphere of the whole event.
But I realized very quickly after arriving that there was a significant flaw in my plan. In order for me to get optimal coverage with the 360° cameras I needed to fly just around chest height—but at chest height the Mavic kicked up so much dust from the ground that you couldn’t see anything. And by the time I got the drone above the dust range, at maybe 7 or 8 feet in the air, it wasn’t capturing the image that I wanted to capture.
So that plan was totally foiled, but it didn’t end up mattering because the Inspire was so great and I was able to get a ton of great footage with it.
Matt’s customized Mavic
Tell us about flying there. What were some of the challenges you faced?
There were definitely some unique challenges.
The primary challenge that everybody faces while they’re there is the dust. It is insane how much of it there is, and how it gets on everything.
Even now there is dust on all of the things that I took there, from my clothes to the plastics of my Inspire 2. No matter how many times I clean it, that dust is not going away.
Going into it, I knew the dust would be an issue, and I had no idea how the Inspire would respond—whether it would choke up the motors, or mess up the camera, or create some other problem.
But in the end I really didn’t have any mechanical issues. I used a big landing pad to help keep the dust exposure down, and I would hand launch and hand catch my Inspire to keep it from kicking up too much dust off the ground.
I also used this really spectacular Lowepro DroneGuard backpack, which was a life saver.
Since you’re always on a bike while you’re there, carrying a stock case around would have been really hard. Being able to just pull the drone out of my backpack, set it up, and know that the core mechanicals of the bird and the motors were fairly well protected, that was super helpful.
How many of your shots were planned, and how many were spontaneous?
It was a mixture—some of the shots were planned, and some were just spontaneous and captured through luck.
One of the shots I really wanted was the Aqueous installation, both during the day and at night.
I also wanted to shoot the Mayan Warrior art piece, which was the big art car, and get some shots of it alongside the Aqueous installation.
There was another planned shot that I got for a Norwegian film crew that was filming a documentary for Burning Man. They had put in a request to the Burning Man organization to get shots of the 747 and the playa [the word used to refer to the beach / open desert at the event], and that request was passed on to me since I was one of the approved drone pilots.
And then there were some spontaneous, magical shots that were totally unplanned.
My favorite shot like that is of the marionette—the giant doll that was walking through the desert. I was just flying around shooting the playa at sunset, and my friend that was spotting for me came running over to me saying, “The doll, the doll!”
I looked up and saw her almost immediately. What you see in that clip is the first thing I was seeing. So I started rotating around the marionette and got that shot of her walking next to the giant dragon, Abraxas.
In the video you’re flying at night and over people. Did you obtain waivers for those shots, or how did you navigate that?
What I was told was that Burning Man has its own set of regulations because it’s a private event, and since I was flying recreationally I was covered by those rules. That being said, their rules very closely echo those of the FAA—they include things like don’t fly at night, don’t fly over people or over the city section of the event.
To get permission to fly at night and over people I worked with the folks who were running Burning Man, and got them to sign off on it. When I was flying at night and near or over people (I shot with a longer lens and tried to stay as far away as possible) I had to have someone from the Burning Man organization with me, monitoring the flight to make sure everything was safe.
Want to see more of Matt’s work? Check out this video he shot at the Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland a little while back:
As we approach the end of 2017 we wanted to take a look at one of the more futuristic ideas in the drone industry to have made headway this year: the passenger drone.
Self driving cars seem to be edging their way toward real viability, and we no longer think they sound crazy when people bring them up. And if the news cycle is any indicator, it seems like drone taxis are also starting to gain some real traction, both in terms of viability and in terms of capturing our imagination as a thing that could actually happen.
We’ve seen several stories about passenger drones in the news over the last several months, all of which indicate that progress is being made. That being said, the coverage has the same feel to it that news about drone deliveries once did—lots of hype, without a whole lot of action.
What follows is a look at the companies that are working to make passenger drones a reality, some thoughts on how likely it is that they’ll actually pull it off, and information on the places where these futuristic crafts might actually be flown.
The Biggest Passenger Drone Companies
Toward the end of last month Ehang was in the news again for its E-184 drone. The current model can only carry one passenger in its small cockpit, but the company now says it’s working on a model that will carry two people. Ehang’s Chief Executive Officer Hu Huazhi says that, pending official approval from regulators there, they plan to be flying in Dubai in 2018.
Will it happen?
It’s hard to believe Ehang’s timeline at this point, since they originally claimed they were going to roll out drone taxies in Dubai by July of 2017. Given their track record, we don’t have a lot of confidence that we’ll actually be seeing Ehang’s drone taxis flying over Dubai—or elsewhere—any time soon.
Uber was also in the news last month for their passenger drone program, called Uber Elevate, which they’re now developing in partnership with NASA.
Uber’s proposed design would have passenger drones that take off and land vertically (called VTOLs), making them optimal for flight in dense urban areas.
Will it happen?
Uber hosted a three day “flying car” event back in April focused on vertical take-off and landing aircraft (this is where the acronym VTOL comes from), and they’ve been working with officials in Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Dubai to push their taxi drone project forward. They’ve also reportedly been working with real estate firms in these cities to identify possible locations for take-off and landing pads (called “vertiports” by Uber).
Unlike Ehang, which claims they’ll be flying by next year, Uber provides a more conservative timeline and says that they plan to be operational by 2020. Given all the logistical thought they’re giving the effort, and their modest timeline, it does seem possible that Uber may actually pull this off.
AirBus was in the news a few months back for its announcement that it would have its electric drone taxi in the air next year. According to CityAirbus chief engineer Marius Bebesel, they’ve conducted successful ground tests of the electric power system used to propel the vehicle through the air, and they’ll be ready to fly in 2018.
However, being able to fly and being ready for daily operations are two completely different things. Although AirBus may soon have a taxi drone in the air, we don’t expect to be riding in one any time soon.
Will it happen?
As you can see in the infographic below, AirBus has laid out a fairly detailed timeline for getting their passenger drone program up and running. From what we know, AirBus has hit the milestones on their timeline up to this point. If they continue delivering at this pace it seems like they could actually be operational by, or even before, 2023.
Places Where We Might See Passenger Drones in the Air First
Of course, even if these companies develop the technology needed to make drone taxies a reality, the question still remains: Where will they be able to fly them?
Below is a list of places that have expressed interest in hosting passenger drones, largely because they see them as a possible solution to their congested roadways.
Let’s take a look.
Partnering with the city of L.A. to help it make a bid for the 2020 Olympics, Uber has claimed that their vertical taxi drones could be operational in time to transport all of the people the international games would bring in. Notorious throughout the world for its traffic delays, this solution would certainly help L.A. in their bid—if the Olympics committee believes it to be viable, of course.
According to Uber’s own analysis, a 200-mph all electric ride across Los Angeles would be “price competitive” to an UberX ride of the same distance.
Here’s an example of a sample UberAir route in Los Angeles:
Back in June of 2016 Nevada’s GOED (Governor’s Office of Economic Development) announced a partnership with the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems and Ehang to “help guide Ehang through the FAA regulatory process with the ultimate goal of achieving safe flight,” so that Ehang could begin testing passenger drones in the state.
But after that announcement things have been relatively quiet on the taxi drone front in Nevada. We wonder if the lack of news has to do with Ehang falling short on deadlines in production—the delays we’ve seen in rolling things out in Dubai would certainly back up this theory.
If Ehang can’t come through, Uber and AirBus may jump in to fill in the gap—if they’re interested. Given that the attraction of Nevada for airspace research is its wide open spaces, big companies looking to drive fast adoption may simply not be interested in operating there when they could potentially make more money in dense cities like L.A., Dallas, or Dubai.
Uber has reportedly been working with real estate firm Hilwood Properties in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to identify sites where it can build takeoff and landing pads for its passenger drones.
Uber has also been talking to city officials for months about the possible rollout, as well as with representatives from the DFW International Airport, the Fort Worth Alliance Airport, and Dallas Love Field.
Dallas has a fantastic history with aviation. It’s a very aviation-friendly and forward-thinking city.
– Mark Moore, Uber Engineering Director of Vehicle Systems
United Arab Emirates
Ever since announcing its plans back in February to launch passenger drones by July of 2017, Dubai has been the poster child for the passenger drone movement.
Dubai is already a futuristic city, with its man-made palm-shaped islands and the tallest building in the world—taxi drones seem like a natural fit, and would also be a feather in their collective cap when it comes to maintaining their position as one of the most innovative cities in the world.
The original partner for Dubai’s taxi drone program was Ehang, but now Uber is also mentioning possible flights in Dubai. It seems like taxi drones will definitely come to Dubai, but it’s still an open question about who will bring them there.
Hands Free Hectare has successfully planted, tended, and harvested the world’s very first crop without a single hand ever touching the farming equipment. The effort was accomplished with the use of drones and robot-driven machinery.
The farm where the project was completed is about two and 1/2 acres in size and is located in the U.K. The yield from the effort was 4 and 1/2 tons of barley, and the total cost for the project was $250,000.
The automated farm was created in a partnership between Harper Adams University in Shropshire, England, and Precision Decisions, a farming specialist company in York.
Agronomists and engineers used customized tractors and drones to cultivate the barley. For hardware, the team used commercially available agricultural technology coupled with open-source software used in hobbyist drones—the drone software was modified to work with all of the machinery employed, not just the drones.
Tractors and harvesters were fitted with robotic arms controlled by drone software. At first the machines were controlled remotely, and then they were made autonomous, ultimately running without any direct human attention. Using GPS, the machines were able to navigate to specific locations in the farm and perform pre-programmed actions there, like planting seeds or watering.
Hands Free Hectare says the project is not about putting farmers out of work but instead about modernizing their efforts. As they imagine the future, a farmer will oversee a fleet of robots, all performing tasks that previously required intense manual labor by people.
How Were Drones Used in the Hands Free Project?
Drones have been used in agriculture for a while now, but this project was the first time where drones were part of a fully autonomous operation.
So how did they do it?
Drones helped tend the crops at the Hands Free Hectare farm in part by using multispectral imagery to identify where the barley was first starting to emerge from the soil.
Drones with multispectral sensors took aerial images of the field, while smaller machines at crop level took samples to assess what fertilizers to apply, and where. Live camera feeds were used to detect invasive weeds or disease.
Pictured above is what the Hands Free Hectare team calls the “drone barley snatch.” This device uses a kind of clamshell dangling down from the drone to collect barley in order to find out if the crop is ready for harvesting.
Drone software was used to automate all of the farm machinery, but this did come with some complications. It turned out that the autopilot in the drone systems used wasn’t designed to travel in a completely straight line, but simply to get the drone from point A to point B in the most efficient manner.
This meant that if the software hit a rock while operating a tractor, it would navigate around it instead of plowing straight through it, which would lead to squiggly rows of crops instead of straight ones.
To fix this problem, engineers had to adjust the code to produce straighter steering, regardless of the terrain.
We believe that in the future farmers will manage fleets of smaller, autonomous vehicles.
– Jonathan Gill, Researcher at Harper Adams University
American Robotics’ Scout
Right on the heels of Hands Free Hectare’s announcement about the first world’s first autonomous crop of barley, American Robotics has launched their ag drone, appropriately called Scout (appropriate since it’s built to scout crops for signs of stress or other potential problems).
Scout is built for automating farm work. It can’t tend crops, like the custom octocopters used by Hands Free Hectare, but it can help a farmer collect all of the data needed to get the maximum yield from their fields.
Full-automation is a key ingredient in the future of precision farming, and we’re eager and excited to finally deliver this capability to our customers.
– Reese Mozer, Co-Founder and CEO of American Robotics
The new American Robotics drone is a self-charging, self-managing system capable of autonomously carrying out daily scouting missions.
According to American Robotics, traditional scouting techniques on farms don’t adequately detect crop stress, and this leads to huge amounts of lost crops that could otherwise be saved.
What’s their proposed solution? Drone scouting automation, via Scout.
Scout autonomously performs:
You can literally just leave the drone alone and it will fly missions and deliver data back to you on a regular time table, according to your plans. Once installed within a farmer’s field it requires no manual intervention to plan, fly, or manage.
One interesting thing to note about the Hands Free Hectare project is that drone software seems to be making new kinds of automation possible for other machines, not just drones. We’ve written before about how the development of drone technology has simultaneously pushed the development of A.I. forward (this is something Intel’s CEO spoke about at InterDrone earlier this year). It’s pretty impressive to see new, creative ways that drone technology is helping push other industries forward.
When looking at this technology, it seems like the future will hold a lot less manual labor for humans—if we can get there. There is still a long ways to go from a functioning idea to a scalable, cost-effective solution adopted by the majority of people in any industry. We’ll certainly be curious to see how things develop.
For the first time ever drones are being used by the Los Angeles Fire Department in their efforts to combat the tremendous wildfires that have been ravaging the city and surrounding areas.
The drones will be used mainly to perform assessments of the property damage that’s been done by the Creek Fire near Sylmar and the Skirball Fire in the Bel Air and Sepulveda Pass, both in the L.A. area.
The drone will fly over, locate hotspots, and then we’ll dispatch our firefighters to get final extinguishment in that area. We’re very, very proud of that new technology.
– Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas
Last Thursday L.A. firefighters flew drones over the Skirball fire in the first ever flights performed “in an operational environment” (as opposed to training and test environments).
For safety reasons, the fire department will not use drones at the same time as other fire fighting aircraft.
On the same note, just a reminder that drone pilots in the area should avoid flying at all unless working directly with the authorities overseeing the firefighting effort. More on why this is so important can be found in our article on the If You Fly, We Can’t educational effort to spread awareness among drone pilots about the dangers of flying during ongoing firefighting operations.
We already have a group of firefighters FAA-certified to fly drones, and soon drones will be helping with structure and brush fires, and with accidents, water rescues, and a lot more. The L.A. drone program is going to be one of the biggest in the world.
– Derrick Ward, Los Angeles City Fire Department
The L.A. Fire Department provides fire prevention and firefighting for 4 million people, which is a massive responsibility. By ushering in the use of drones, L.A. will become a model for how other cities can incorporate drones into their own operations.
L.A. Fire Chief Terrazas recently explained that using drones is cost-effective, and that we can expect to see more of them in use by the department in the future. Drones eliminate the need for renting infrared camera and flying helicopters over fires, which means both savings and increased safety for firefighting personnel.