When Chris Barter, program manager for the Datron Scout micro unmanned aerial vehicle, isn’t surfing one of his favorite low-key spots near Oceanside, California, he’s selling his military-grade spy drone to standing militaries and law enforcement agencies across the world.
When Alan Sanchez and Sam Kelly, two young engineers with 3D Robotics, the open-source hobbyist drone company spun off of Chris Anderson’s non-profit community DIYDrones, aren’t tinkering in 3D’s charming drone-punk lab, they can be found at a neighboring field. Blissed out under the late afternoon sun, they pilot a pair of tricked-out RC aircraft—a small quadcopter and a more traditional glider plane, both outfitted with 3D’s custom autopilot—in lazy circles, mindful of small manned airplanes passing through the same airspace. Further off in the distance, a pack of Apache helicopters thumps past.
When Anderson, for his part, isn’t overseeing the entire operation with his business partner, Jordi Muñoz, shuttling back and forth between 3D’s research and development centers in San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico, he’s busy working his day job as editor of Wired. Wait—scratch that. Anderson just left Wired to focus on drones full time.
“It was one of those follow-your-heart things,” Anderson tells me over email. “The company is booming and we’d just raised a big VC round. I felt that this was my next big thing.”
He’s not alone in that thinking. These are just some of the key figures at the leading edge of American spy and hobby drones, of course. They represent only a thin slice of the southern California drone zone, a booming and buzzing tech sprawl borne of what historically has been a hotbed for aerospace R&D. But they’re a mixed, somewhat unpredictable, and dedicated lot, nonetheless—and as we saw first hand, just as mixed, somewhat unpredictable, and dedicated as the drones they know inside and out.
Our shooter, Chris, as seen by Datron’s Scout at roughly 40 feet
Without further ado, then, we present Drone On, Motherboard’s nosedive into this domestic drone boom. From military weapons expos in Jordan to idyllic SoCal beaches, we caught up with some of those who are building and selling unmanned aerial vehicles all over the world, and even convinced a few companies to let us take their flying spy robots for a spin.
It’s a story about not just the most overlooked facets of the American Drone Age – small-scale recon drones, not the ominously hulking and Hellfire-missile-toting hunter-killer drones so characteristic of American anti-terror missions abroad—as the Federal Aviation Administration ramps up the authorizing process for those itching to fly drones in US airspace. It’s a story about the fears, the uncertainties, and the hopes arising when tools once solely used in the military eventually seep over to law enforcement, various federal agencies, and everyday civilians, and quick.
Now, look up.