Poking among the gadgets and gizmos at Marionville Models, the last shop in Edinburgh before the airport, you’ll find a generic type of man. Middle-aged, scuffed at the edges, grey-haired, anoraked – but with boyhood alive in his eyes in this treasure cave. He is pretty much me.
Like blokes in “adult books” shops, when those still existed, we try to ignore each other. You recognise the taint of solitary obsession. But conversation starts, mainly about gimbals and yaw. After I admit to crashing my borrowed DJI Phantom 2 two seconds into its maiden flight, the other droners (yes, that is a word) open up. I clearly pose very little status challenge.
If you ever got a balsa-wood aeroplane kit in your Christmas stocking and wound its rubber-band-driven propeller until it broke you will understand how men – and they usually are men – may end up a Richard Branson or a Howard Hughes. We may just spend more money in the model shop. This year it’s going on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), the serious droners’ name for a drone.
In Marionville Models, assistant Kevin recalibrates my machine’s compass while answering nonstop phone calls. These are all from men who want to buy drones. Two women do come in, to ask if they could buy something that their dad could use to fly his camera. Pretty soon Kevin is halfway to selling them a £2,700 DJI Spreading Wings, an octocopter or eight-engined drone with the looks of a toxic flying spider. It is capable of carrying a digital SLR camera. One like this is used by a Marionville customer who’s also into falconry. The drone films the birds in action while flying prey to them, suspended on a string.
Keith shows me his hexcopter, which is just being fine-tuned by Riccardo, Marionville’s owner. With six rotors and a remote-controlled GoPro camera it has cost him a little under £2,000. “I’m planning to use it for business,” Keith says. “I work on the rigs, using an ROV [remotely operated vehicle] underwater, so it’s pretty much the same sort of thing. Same controls.” What business? “Oh, building-trade stuff – inspecting gutters, roofs, chimneys. A lot cheaper to hire me and the DJI than three men and scaffolding.”
“But, you’re going to have some fun with it, as well?” “Oh aye,” says Keith. “I’ll be having a play with it.” The light of boyhood is on in his eyes, too.
Drones – remote-controlled flying objects with cameras – are likely to be this Christmas’s big present for boys, big and small, and next year’s biggest suburban annoyance. For £50 you can now buy a reasonably stable and efficient hovering flying machine that will take video of your neighbours in their garden – or through their bedroom window. These are small enough to fit into your hand.
There are drawbacks, of course. When my daughter and I first launched the HubSan X4 (£48, from RC Geeks) in our kitchen it inflicted an interesting wound on her finger and then flew behind the kitchen sink. Not many 10-year-olds can go to school and boast that they have been lacerated by a quadcopter, though the numbers are surely rising. More troubling was the hour we had to spend drilling a hole through the back of the kitchen unit to retrieve the tiny thing.
No doubt the British army has similar problems with the “nano-drones” it uses in combat. They are the same size as the HubSan and they do pretty much the same things – fly round corners, film things, fall down and get lost if there’s any wind. The big difference is that the army’s Black Hornets cost £125,000 each. They should have tried Maplin.
A few hours later, my daughter was exercising the dog with the HubSan, flying it backwards and forwards across an Edinburgh park. The drone’s eye view of the Jack Russell attacking it – other park-users will sympathise – is hilarious stuff, like a shark coming up to grab a swimmer. The daughter is convinced it can make it on Harry Hill’s You’ve Been Framed. There it may join such treasures as the drone that got into trouble while filming a wedding and gave the bride a black eye.
With a bigger budget, droning may get more grown-up. For under £300, you can buy an AR Parrot that will fly further and higher, and stream video footage by Wi-Fi to a smartphone or tablet. You download an app that shows you the drone’s view and a couple of on-screen joy sticks that you control with your thumbs. I was given one last Christmas, it also comes with a useful polystyrene propeller guard that the dog can bite. For about £650 there is the DJI Phantom Vision, with a 14-megapixel still and video camera: nearly broadcast quality.
It will stay in the air for 25 minutes, tolerating wind that would confound all but the sturdiest umbrella. It uses in-built GPS to fly around and over, say, the Queen’s palace at Holyrood. (At this point the Civil Aviation Authority starts to take an interest – more on that later.) Most important, if it goes out of range it will return home by itself. YouTube is full of cheeky and eye-popping footage taken by Phantoms. The most impressive yet to appear features film from inside an erupting volcano in Iceland. The drone survived but the GoPro camera attached to it melted.
The GoPro, a matchbox-sized HD video camera used by extreme-sports people, was carried into the volcano by a DJI Phantom 2. These sturdy Japanese quadcopters are doing for drone-flying what the Amstrad 8256 and Apple II did for home computing. Starting at £700, Phantom 2s are top of the Christmas- present want-lists of most of the outdoor photographers and aeronautics geeks in the land. China-based DJI won’t release sales figures, though it says it has gone from 50 staff to 2,500 in the past five years. In November, Marionville was selling 10 of its quad or hexcopters a week and Riccardo says the rise of the drones has all but saved his business.
The DJI Phantoms are currently the most popular recreational drone in the world – so big in the United States that this summer the National Parks Service (NPS) issued a temporary ban on them and all unmanned aircraft at the parks and monuments it polices. In the States there’s a fad for “dronies” – aerial shots of yourself, posed somewhere cool. So many Phantom 2s have been videoing the great presidential faces of Mount Rushmore that one droner said a queueing system had to be started, to prevent collisions.
In an editorial, the New York Times welcomed the NPS’s stop to the “gnatlike advance of aeronautics” quoting John Muir, the “great evangelist” of America’s wilderness: “The gross heathenism of civilisation has generally destroyed nature.” The ban is only temporary because the freedom to pester nature and the wilderness by remote control is something no legislator can see a way of outlawing.
In 2006 Frank Wang, a 26-year-old Chinese electronics engineer, started DJI. A remote-controlled helicopter enthusiast since childhood, Wang thought he could do better than make toys “that were hard to control and easy to crash”. At the same time the key component, a lithium rechargeable battery, was getting cheaper – the price has dropped 40% this decade. From his Hangzhou apartment, Wang designed parts and kits for UAVs and then, in early 2013, launched the first Phantom. This would not only carry a camera capable of professional-quality images, it would also survive a crash and, if it lost its owner’s signal, return to where it had started. Before this, camera-carrying drones were the stuff of electronics home-build projects and military surveillance.
I came across drones for non-geeks first in 2011. Journalist friends in Asia and the Middle East reported photographers using them during urban rioting in the Arab Spring and in Thailand – as much to find out what was going on behind police lines and in no-go zones as for getting footage. That seemed a good idea. The same year I worked in Beirut for an NGO trying to help doctors and journalists operate in Syria’s civil war. During the bitter fighting in Homs, I spent time on the phone to military attachés in different embassies, trying to find out whose surveillance drones were hovering over the Baba Amr suburb.
It was an important question. The humanitarian workers on the ground wanted to know if the eyes in the sky were friendly, or likely to be directing fire at attempts to move casualties. The answer I got was that nearly everyone – the Israelis, Americans, Syrians, Russians and Iranians – was flying unmanned aerial-surveillance aircraft over the city.
It seems a good principle that when governments have machinery that can gather information, journalists should have it, too. (Though as early as 2010 a $25,000 drone was used to get images of a Paris Hilton beach party in the south of France.) Faine Greenwood, a journalist based in Phnom Penh, uses a Phantom 2 for her work. She has also helped assess different drones for the Humanitarian UAV Network, a group that wants to develop the machines for emergency aid work, including delivery of supplies and medicines.
Greenwood, whose Masters thesis was on “drone culture”, has likened the ever-dropping price of UAV tech to “the peace dividend of the mobile phone wars”. She says: “They will provide us with a cheap, easy-to-use and incredibly versatile way of gathering data, from perspectives humans have rarely had much access to before.” The extraordinary drone footage of nighttime Hong Kong, giving a unique idea of the scale of October’s democracy protests, shows how technology can challenge a state that doesn’t allow freedom of speech or reporting.
Many, of course, don’t see a human-rights benefit around drones. They are just another hi-tech pest. But drones are so useful that cracks in this stance are inevitable. The RSPB has already used one to check whether a marsh harrier had laid eggs in its remote nest. So far, talk of non-military drone delivery systems has not gone further than Amazon’s joke that it might start with UAVs if the traffic gets worse, and the Las Vegas hotel that delivers cocktails from bar to poolside by Phantom. But that is going to change. Drones are taking off, like it or not.
As with internet misbehaviour and legal highs, legislation is not keeping up with the advance of technology. I can’t fly my rebooted DJI Phantom 2 from the pavement outside Marionville Models because we’re within the four-mile exclusion zone around Edinburgh airport. Local wisdom says the police will spot any incursion. But I can do pretty much anything else I like with it, because there’s not really anyone to stop me. Last winter a sperm whale was stranded, dead, on a beach in the Firth of Forth – crowds gathered and the police rather officiously kept us back. So I flew my drone out over their heads to have a look at it and take some pictures.
That, the Civil Aviation Authority tells me, was illegal. It is their job to police manmade objects in the UK’s airspace, whether over your back garden or Heathrow. The law, a spokesman explains, is clear. No UAVs can be flown within 50m of a person, vehicle or building – unless those are “under your control”. So what about the back garden of my terraced house? “We would expect you to have told your neighbour. It’s not permitted if you’re within 50m of your neighbour’s house.”
There’s more. No flight is allowed within 150m of any congested area, which rules out half of Hyde Park. Also, you have to be in line of sight of the UAV at all times – which means it should be no more than 120m above you and 500m away. This is despite the fact that the cheaper models now give you real-time views from the drone’s camera, and control via GPS makes long flights out of sight ordinary – just like the drones the RAF is using to bomb Isis in Syria.
Breaking these rules is a criminal offence, but so far there have been only two convictions, both this year. One was for flying a drone over Alton Towers too close to the rides – a guilty plea and a £300 fine. In the other a TV shop owner in Barrow-in-Furness was fined £800 for flying the drone within 50m of a road bridge and near a BAE nuclear submarine site, an offence in itself. The villain, Robert Knowles, called his conviction “ridiculous”, saying that the drone had only got to these places because it had crashed and floated there down the river.
No UAV, furthermore, can be used for paid commercial activity without a certificate of competence, after a training course, and permission from the CAA. That, of course, turns nearly all the drone users who hire themselves out to builders and architects in Marionville Models and around the country into law breakers. Arguably, it would nab the BBC natural history unit – regular drone users, too. But the CAA has exempted them.
“We’re not naive,” sighs the CAA spokesman, “but we think the rules are proportionate and sensible. The Phantom 2 weighs 3kg: flying at 200ft, the remote goes, it drops out of the sky, that could hurt someone.” And, in case any droner is wondering, the CAA does monitor YouTube. That’s how they got the guy from Alton Towers.
In order to photograph the fleet of drones acquired for this article, the Observer played it strictly by the book. The notion of drone-flying a Hibernian FC flag across Hearts of Midlothian’s ground midmatch, emulating a stunt pulled by an Albanian fan at a Serbia-Albania match in Belgrade two months ago, was abandoned. Instead we borrowed a country house on a secluded estate in East Lothian. On a golden November day, the drones danced around the neo-classical stonework, putting up pigeons that then tried to attack them. There were no accidents, because we had obtained the services of a competent pilot, Ian McKean.
Ian bought a Phantom 2 Vision earlier this year for TipTop Gardens, his landscape gardening business. “It’s really useful for surveying a property from above, getting pictures so you can then show a client where a bed is going to be.” He doesn’t charge for that service, so no CAA permission is needed.
But what about the fun, I wondered, looking for the boy-gleam in his eye. “Oh, I’ve got a project filming the changing seasons in the woods around my house. And there’s a friend who’s organising motocross events, and wants that filmed.” I can see there’s something else: an even more pleasing notion. Ian grins, the smile of a man who once loved a balsa-wood aeroplane. “My friend is a sheep farmer and we think we might use it for rounding up the animals. I’ve seen that on YouTube.”
The DJI Phantom 2 Vision was lent by rcgeeks.co.uk (01737 457 404). Including a motorised gimbal for a GoPro camera, it sells for £707.50. Marionville Models, 42 Turnhouse Road, Edinburgh (marionvillemodels.com; 0131 317 7010) sells drones and offers generous human help to those who can’t fly them very well.
UAVs: a buyer’s guide
(in order of size)
Four engines, 20 minutes’ flight time. Best of the many nano-drones, equipped with video camera and memory. Use for snooping indoors and outdoors, harassing pets. Will fit through letter box. From £35.
Parrot AR Drone 2.0
Four engines, 30 minutes’ flight time, max speed 25mph. Controlled via Wi-Fi from smartphone, tablet or head-set. Low-res video or stills can be stored on board or streamed back. From £220.
Spreading wings. Eight engines, 15 minutes’ flight time, max speed 45mph. Retractable landing gear. For professional still and video photography. From £2,800.
RAF MQ9 Reaper
One engine, 14 hours’ flight time, max speed 300mph. Cameras and up to four Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. Few legal restrictions as long as only non-UK citizens are killed. From £8m.
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