There’s a mesh cage in the middle of the exhibition floor that separates the drones from the kids, as though the buzzing devices were exotic predators hungry tiny towheaded scalps. They aren’t, but they’re objects of wonder for this crowd, like crowds everywhere. It’s the Day of Drones at New Jersey’s Liberty Science Center, and everyone — the parents, the little kids, the dude tightly buttoned-down in black who surreptitiously slides a vape pen from his ripped skinny jeans and takes a drag while tending his quadcopter — is high on drones.
Legal quirks and the looming potential for airline catastrophes aside, it’s a great time to be in the world of unmanned aerial vehicles. Six years ago, nobody really knew what a drone was beyond something that shot at insurgents halfway around the world. Two years ago, drones were devices pervy men used to spy on their neighbors. Today, they’re still those things, but also vehicles for furthering STEM education, tools for taking award-winning video, and the only way to win $1 million in an aerial race in Dubai.
Drones have “gone nuclear,” says Steve Petrotto, who manages the drone racing group Team Horizon. A few of his pilots are in Dubai, competing for the World Drone Prix cash. Though the sport is in its infancy, it’s already stratifying by how much practice time the best can devote. “Top guys will go through 40 to 50 batteries a day. At three-and-a-half minutes a battery, well, you do the math.” (It’s 2 hours and 20 minutes to just shy of 3 hours.)
Sunday’s inaugural Day of Drones was also the largest drone event of its kind to date, according to Liberty Science Center CEO Paul Hoffman. But it’s hard to pin down exactly what kind of event it was. There were drone races around the park outside — thanks to a special dispensation from the FAA — drone film screenings, a “drone fashion show,” and drone fights, which entail two bare-bones quadcopters trying to nudge the other to death. As spectator sports go, the fights are pretty OK. More thrilling is when a custom drone starts firing foam discs toward the crowd. The mesh cage, being made of nylon holes, offers no stopping power. (Vape guy, oblivious to little ears: “Oh shit, that one went through!”) After one too many close calls between a Nerf disc and a soccer mom eyeball, a few hapless interns get to play the role of human backstop.
The two dozen drone pilots, builders, and photographers — almost all men, mostly thirties with a couple high school kids — played showman and proselytizer. Do you have five minutes to hear the good news about drones?
If you ask Andy Shen, who looks a bit like Captain Picard if Picard was from Hawaii, an interest in drones leads you on a path to a DIY engineering degree. “You have to teach yourself electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, you learn how to solder and you learn about feedback loops.” A drone’s mechanical brain is really just a series of feedback loops, he says. Shen designed and built the foam-firing drone for his nieces. But Shen’s drones aren’t just silly, high-tech Nerf weapons — they’re silly, gorgeous works of art, like the drone frame he crafted from bamboo.
But to dismiss drone applications as silly is doing the machines a disservice. Photographer and filmmaker Steven Cohen, president of the thousand-strong Drone User Group Network, approaches events like the Day of Drones as a way for people to see drones in the flesh and clear up any misunderstandings. As far as the evolving legal and privacy issues around drones, he’s not worried. The privacy laws are already in place, and invasive drones are no different than any other sort of technology. “You can get a room at the Standard and bring a telephoto lens to get an eyeful.”
Plus, he sees a focus on photography as limited, just the low-hanging fruit for unmanned aerial vehicles. The hobby’s momentum is “building, building, building,” he says — as the rapt New Jersey crowd can attest.