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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

August 2, 2014 at 8:00 PM

Let’s go fly a drone: Getting personal with some creepy cool machines

I wave and entrepreneur Dan Shapiro navigates as his Parrot AR.Drone records us mid-flight. (Screenshot: Dan Shapiro)

I wave and entrepreneur Dan Shapiro navigates as his Parrot AR.Drone stops to looks at us mid-flight. (Phone screenshot: Dan Shapiro)

I came face to face with a drone Thursday, and survived.

It was a black and blue, 2.8-pound 3DR IRIS quadcopter and, as its four propellers chopped the air a few feet in front of me, I thought about all the science-fiction scenes where the next move for a hovering bug like this would be to unfold a pair of hidden arms and start shooting.

Of course, domestic drones have come to seem so scary lately less for what they can look like than what they can look at.

Entrepreneur Matt Shobe poses with his 3DR IRIS drone in the University District Thursday. (Photo: Mónica Guzmán)

Entrepreneur Matt Shobe poses with his 3DR IRIS drone in the University District Thursday. (Photo: Mónica Guzmán)


But to the small, geeky group of hobbyist drone fliers, these ever more agile, affordable and programmable little machines inspire a lot less fear than fun.

Sometimes a little too much.

“It’s something I’ve thought of doing 100 times and have never come close to being stupid enough to do it,” entrepreneur and drone flier (and RC vehicle enthusiast) Dan Shapiro told me as we flew his drone over Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island.

He was talking about flying a drone over the Space Needle.

That’s exactly what an out-of-state Amazon employee did a couple weeks ago, getting what would become viral video of visitors waving from atop Seattle’s icon before police knocked on his hotel room door and asked him to please not do it again.

The stunt violated FAA guidelines that prohibit flying recreational drones over populated spaces and anywhere over 400 feet.

But we know a toy out of the sandbox when we see one.

Space Needle still standing after reported drone strike,” read the tongue-in-cheek headline on the Seattle Police Department blog. “Still waiting for our @amazon package to arrive,” the Space Needle’s Twitter account posted later.

[Here’s video from that Space Needle flight:]

Drones occupy an uncomfortable space between remote-control airplanes and game-changing future tech. What a drone even is depends on whom you ask. To many, it’s another name for any UAV, or unmanned aerial vehicle. Others draw a distinction between drones and their older cousins in the remote-controlled genre. To them, a drone is a UAV that can fly on its own. Not a vehicle, really. A robot.

“You’re droning!” Shapiro said as I tilted his Nexus 5 phone forward, moving his Parrot AR.Drone across a rolling field as its camera beamed live video straight to the phone’s screen. It was a breeze, and a blast.

When we aimed it toward us to snap a drone selfie — a “dronie” — I kept edging back. With no input, it was moving. Inches to the front, side, front again, in response to wind, sensors and programming.

The drone decides how to move, Shapiro told me. You just make suggestions.

Eye to eye with Shapiro's Parrot AR.Drone. (Photo: Dan Shapiro)

Eye to eye with Shapiro’s Parrot AR.Drone. (Photo: Dan Shapiro)

In other words, it’s alive.

That morning, a few passers-by had stood crossed-armed off Northeast Boat Street watching me and Matt Shobe fly his camera-less IRIS over a small open space between campus buildings in the University District.

Shobe, a pilot who invests in a fund for drone startups called Drone.VC, wants to master moving his second bare-bones $750 IRIS — his first died in a crash — before attaching something like a GoPro camera to its body.

Shobe’s drone seemed less a toy than a vote for a young industry’s future. Between short flights, he talked about drones surveying farmland. Filming athletes. Buzzing back to your friend’s house to get your keys.

On his Android tablet, Shobe opened an app called Droid Planner and drew a loop on a map of our spot with his finger.

One tap and he could tell his drone to fly that exact path around the open space, passing by the buildings’ third-story windows.

With the gusts and the people, he thought better of it.

“So what’s this?” a young man asked, kneeling with a stony expression to see the IRIS on the ground.

Shobe told him.

“It has no camera,” I blurted out, feeling like that got us off the hook somehow.

Drones may be toys, but they’re also the future. And as scary and exciting as the future tends to be.

Want to drone? Hobbyist @Stammy recently posted a great beginners’ guide. Oh, and did you know Martha Stewart loves hers?

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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