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At DARC’s Drone Conference, “Conflation” was the Order of the Day

This past weekend DARC (@droneconference) hosted its debut Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference at NYU, the first of its kind here in New York City.  The event was co-directed by Ben Moskowitz of Mozilla Foundation; Christopher Wong, Executive Director of NYU Law’s Engelberg Center and Dean Jansen, co-founder of caption and subtitle platform  Amara. DARC drew in a broad audience made up of hobbyists, activists, technologists, investors, film makers, students and policy experts. Hundreds of attendees came out for 3 packed days that combined keynotes, roundtable discussions, workshops, an evening of live demos and a DIY hack day.

What’s in a name: Killer Robots or Cool Kid Tech?

DARC describes itself as a massively multidisciplinary conference focused on civilian applications. Despite DARC’s emphasis on commercial drones, passionate conversations surrounding the military’s controversial use of drones seemed unavoidable. The show welcomed the discourse on combat and surveillance, and to some extent, veered off course of its core purpose. Unfortunately, scheduled government speakers, including representatives from NASA and NOAA, had to cancel due to the government shutdown, and would have undoubtedly contributed relevant insights to the military debates.

Conference goers were starkly divided between those that felt the hype and sex-appeal of civilian drones lead to dangerous marginalizing of government uses, and those that saw civilian and military issues becoming the objects of careless conflation.  “When are we going to get away from the idea that drones are cool?” one attendee shouted to a panel. “When are we going to get away from the notion that drones are evil?” a fellow attendee retorted. “Our goal is to bring drone technology to the common man, to democratize it!”

The term “drone” provoked a similar debate. For many, “drone” carries too deep a stigma connected to warfare. Originating from Great Britain’s 1930s radio-controlled military aircraft, the DH.82B Queen Bee is said to have become the basis for the name.  But are the negative associations reason enough to call for the widespread adoption of “UAS” (Unmanned Aerial System) when referring to civilian systems? Many didn’t think so, feeling that it was up to the commercial industry to change drones’ image. What’s more,  UAS and UAV are the official terms used throughout government to refer to their unmanned aircraft.  Advocates for “drone” included keynote, former Navy fighter pilot and MIT professor Missy Cummings, who argued that the “d” word would persist for commercial use, even if only because, unlike related acronyms, “drone” is catchy and pronounceable.

Still, the mainstream’s negative connotations succeeded in attracting a gathering of protesters outside the front entrance. The Granny Peace Brigade was among the peaceful activists displaying a large plastic model of the USAF’s MQ-9 Reaper, calling for the worldwide ban of all weaponized and surveillance drones.

Human-piloted versus autonomous was yet another argument calling for differentiation. Keynote Daniel Suarez, NYT’s bestselling author of Kill Decision, warned that wars conducted with autonomous, rather than human-controlled drones, posed a serious catastrophic threat. Suarez called for an immediate international treaty on robotic arms control, fearing that, like plausible deniability, fully anonymous wars could soon be carried out by autonomous drones if international measures are not taken.

The majority of panels and keynotes took to outlining civilian-use ethics and policy. Legal and industry experts weighed in on a broad variety of precedent cases, statutes and historical comparisons in order to address public airspace, Bill of Rights protections, privacy and safety. One speaker called on turn-of-the-century hot air balloon laws and once-viable plans for civilian Zeppelin transportation.

By the end of the conference there were few clear indications of what shape laws would likely take. I’ll refrain from rehashing the many hairy, competing facts, but will offer up just on example. Speaker Paul Voss shed light on current navigable airspace definitions. According to the FAA, “local jurisdictions do not have authority to regulate the use of navigable airspace.”  The 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act states that “navigable airspace” for a UAS has no minimum safe altitude. Title 49 states that citizens have a right to public airspace. According to Voss, this means that public navigable airspace could start at zero altitude, or grass level, in anyone’s private backyard. Speaker Ant Miller, Senior R&D Researcher for the BBC, remarked, “as this session progresses the FAA Gordian knot of regulatory entanglement looks worse and worse.”

Here’s to all Drones with a Silver Lining

Despite the severity of issues on the table, vision and hope permeated DARC. The conference highlighted far-reaching benefits that drones will have on consumerism, agriculture, media, social good, the workforce and everyday life in the near future. Expect rapid improvements among drones currently being used for food delivery (DARC attendees loved TacoCopter), medical supply drop offs, feature film production, firefighting and crop dusting, just to name a few. And to throw in a Jetsons-like  twist, according to Missy Cummings, self-flying passenger vehicles will become a consumer reality within the next fifty years!

Attending hobbyists, technologists and aerial film makers brought an electric vitality and creativity to the show. They compared homemade builds and GoPro footage, talked shop and tech geekery, and speculated on the next big drone innovations.  Maker-culture types were treated to AfterDARC, an evening of interactive flying demos, and to a day-long hack for DIY tinkering.

The youngest attendee, 14-year old Riley Morgan, quickly became a favorite face of co-attendees and media. Morgan, who began building drones 6 months ago, was eager to trade tips and tricks with peers. He happily walked me through the basics of his DJI quadcopter, which took him a mere two days to build. After watching the exciting DJI demo later that day, I found myself catching a case of build-a-drone fever too. You just might find me sporting my own souped-up GoPro copter next year at DARC 2.

DJI Innovations’ Chief Innovation Officer Colin Guinn Demos the Soon-to-Be Released Phantom 2 Vision:

High-level Takeaways:

  • Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) have been in operation since the early 1900s
  • The DoD operates more than 7,000 UAS’s
  • USAF currently has more UASs than manned aircraft.
  • U.S. UAS market expected to generate $89 billion in next 10 years
  • Current UAS sizes range from micro, weighing just a few pounds, to the USAF Global Hawk at 7,600 lbs.
  • September 2015 is the deadline for the NAS to deliver domestic UAS certification process to the FAA.
  • FAA  is selecting six domestic UAS test sites.
  • FAA has completed the standards for small UAS (sUAS), to be published before Thanksgiving.
  • FAA currently lacks any authority regarding privacy issues.
  • Civilian drones will have widespread day-to-day impacts on par with the automobile’s disruption of the horse and buggy.
  • Unmanned Cargo and Postal Airships are in the works.
  • UAS’s are actively being used by animal protection agencies to surveillance poachers.
  • Renowned researcher Dr. Vijay Kumar shared his work on autonomous first-responder and disaster recovery drones: autonomous swarming and drone collaboration. Examples.
  • Agriculture expected to be the first industry to experience sweeping developments through the use of commercial drones.
  • Precision agriculture taking off in Japan, with 90% of the country’s crop dusting performed by drones.
  • Israel leads the world in drone innovations, with Germany, Australia and France making strong strides to take the lead.


Be sure to check out DARC’s #DroneConf hashstreams on Twitter and Instagram.

*In the UK? Don’t miss the Unmanned Aerial Systems Conference on 31st of October in Northamptonshire, co-organized by DARC speaker and BBC Senior R&D Researcher Ant Miller.

Xochi (sōchē) Adamé is the digital marketing and social media strategist at Hearst Corp.’s CDS Global, Inc, where she is responsible for developing the CEO’s content marketing campaigns focused on business and technology trends impacting clients, as well as digital marketing across the organization, and internal social business programs. You can reach Xochi on Twitter at @xochiadame.

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