I want to believe that when we talk about drones — also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or unmanned aerial systems — whose bodies vary from pterodactyl-big to mosquito-small (the Robobee, a robotic insect, weighs less than 1/300th of an ounce), and any one of which will soon be taking off, in ungovernable numbers, in our coming (2015) deregulated airspace, we are not talking about General Atomics’ “Predators and their Hellfire missiles bombing daycare centers in Afghanistan.”
But the drone has already earned its inalterable reputation. Much to the chagrin of the man who uttered the sardonic quote above: the resourceful, loquacious, fingers-in-many-pies Lucien Miller, CEO of Innov8tive Designs, in Vista. Miller is behind his desk in a small office, next to an adjoining warehouse, one of hundreds of manufacturing warrens in the Palomar Business Park. Dressed in a light blue knit shirt, faded jeans, and comfortable loafers, Miller is a-flurry with info and PR on unmanned aerial vehicles and their possibility. Which is why he’s adamant that the word “drone” is a great misnomer.
Miller is a licensed pilot whose less than 20/20 vision did not qualify him to fly commercial jets, as he’d hoped to do. To replace it, he’s developed a next-best passion. He designs, builds, flies, distributes, and sells kits and fully assembled aircraft for the radio-controlled model-airplane industry. This technology has, in just three years, evolved into his specialty, the multi-rotor or quadcopter, the hobbyist’s drone. “Instead of having the one big main rotor” like a helicopter, “they have four small rotors with airplane propellers.” His quadcopters, complete at $2000, have “sophisticated GPS systems so when you set them down and power them up they learn the position they took off from.” Auto-command GPS gives them that sense that they “know” where they are because you, the controller, have positioned them so.
Miller has more fun with his drones than a man in his 40s should be allowed. Imagine him and his joystick, “chasing neighbor kids up and down the street on Halloween” with his “Ghost Quadcopter” — a torso-sized body, cloaked in black, with a frayed skirt, a derby-topped LED-lighted skull, and Frankenstein-stiff arms. In the video, the children scream in fright while the adults laugh at the anomaly, their cellphone cameras flashing and recording the stunt. One year, Miller buzzed the Ghost Quadcopter beside the driver’s window of a passing car, “and it no doubt freaked the poor woman out to no end.”
Lucien Miller's ghost quadcopter
The ghostcopter in action. Terrifying!
Drone strikes in Pakistan — resulting in hundreds of innocent civilians blown apart — have so corrupted Americans’ thinking about drones, Miller notes, that not only does the press ignore the “good uses,” but the consensus remains that all flying things incur surveillance. “It’s all how the media portrays it.” It’s absurd, he says, police peering in our windows with bots. The personal computer and the cellphone did not meet with such bad press. Coverage, for the unmanned aerial vehicles, he finds moronic. So much so that he’s started the rolling blog, thetruthaboutdrones.com. Only positive posts, please.
It may be that our deepest fears of a National Security State arrive from outside and above, like in Steven Spielberg’s sadistic War of the Worlds — and not from within our super-hive of laptops and wireless connectivity. Post–Edward Snowden, many privacy rights activists believe the true menace comes from government and corporate surveillance of us via our devices. Still, because of our attack history, we fear the unexpected air assault — 9/11, Pearl Harbor. No wonder we’re spooked by flying machines — those incoming planes are coming for us.
Lucien Miller hates the word drones. So does Monica England at Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the largest unmanned aerial vehicles lobby, which heavily romances both the military and Congress. England writes in an email that unmanned aerial vehicles are not “drones. A drone is a target used by naval aviators in combat training.” She attaches a photo. It’s not a target; it’s a missile, fired from a ship. Headed to Pakistan. Now, that’s a drone.
Jordi Muñoz also hates, though good-humoredly, the word drone. The chief technology officer of 3D Robotics, who’s 27, a wunderkind, both affable and brimming with ideas, prefers “flying robots,” he tells me while clearing a desk in his no-longer spacious, research-and-development headquarters in the Kearny Mesa Industrial Park. Floor and shelf space is his number-one burden. He began in his garage, in Riverside, built his first drone at 20, sold it and more at 22, moved to San Diego, where he’s established one of the company’s three sites: a manufacturing plant bubbles along in Tijuana and business and sales are staffed in Berkeley, run by Muñoz’s partner, CEO Chris Anderson, a founding editor of Wired magazine.
A drone or unmanned vehicle, he says, can be anything that “makes a decision by itself or follows a preprogrammed mission.” In the air, underwater, inside buildings, searching the wilderness for a lost child — or, the future butler, Droney, as in, “Hey, Droney, slippers, please. The master wants to relax.” Muñoz employs open-source computer codes, taken from Nintendo and the iPhone, to design the “brain” of the unmanned aerial vehicles, also called the machine’s “autopilot.” The brain is a miniaturized panel of sensors that controls the functions of the unmanned aerial vehicles: a lithium-ion battery for an hour or two of flight; an accelerometer for speed; a gyroscope for locating itself in relation to the ground, other flying robots, and unmovable objects (“Look out for that wall, Droney”); and a magnetometer for finding its bearing vis-à-vis north.
Muñoz is dedicated to open-source design, in which software codes are shared on the internet for free. “It’s the way I grew up; it’s my mentality,” he says, showing me slides of his PowerPoint presentation. As he developed code for his robots, others used it as well, correcting and revising his language. Though such “online collaboration” remains viable, Muñoz found many hobbyists had no time to make brain and bot as he had. “Do it yourself,” he told them when they inquired if he had one for sale. Instead, they begged for his machines — voilà, 3D Robotics, an international supplier of drones and parts with 170 employees, still growing avalanche-fast. In the past four months, $30 million in new venture capital has fattened the company’s bank account. Already they’re scouting larger digs.