When drones and virtual reality come together in an out-of-body experience

Raphael Pirker, the entrepreneur behind Team BlackSheep, asked me if I saw the birds. Tilting my head up at the foggy skies above the hills of Moraga, California, I couldn’t see them — my view didn’t change, no matter which way I turned my head.

I had forgotten that my eyes were not my own — they belonged to a drone named Gemini.

I tilted my head back down, instinctively looking at the controller in my hands, even though I couldn’t see that either. My view, still of the mountains and the foggy sky, stayed the same. My thumb nudged the left joystick forward, and my line of vision went up until I finally saw three black birds circling near me, their outlines a bit fuzzy.

My body was a hundred feet below, standing on a hilltop a half hour east of the San Francisco Bay. The birds were high in the sky, and my drone, with its camera pointing toward them, was now flying at the same altitude. The buzzing eventually scared them off, and I thumbed the joystick down and guided the drone back toward me.

My body came into view: white goggles strapped to my face, controller in my hands, shoes soaked in the wet grass. It was the first time in my life I had stared at myself — from outside of myself.

Gigaom staffer Biz Carson tries her hand at flying a drone.

Gigaom staffer Biz Carson tries her hand at flying a drone.

First-person drones

Before last week’s adventure in the East Bay’s hills, the one time I’d test-flown a drone was inside the Gigaom office, where the GPS didn’t work and the slightest flick of my finger on the handset sent the drone straight into the ceiling and crashing into the floor. Drones are meant to be flown outdoors, where GPS coordinates can pick them up and guide them, and you’re left tracking a whizzing orb in the sky with your eyes and maneuvering it via a controller it in your hands.

But that day in Moraga, I was with my Gigaom colleague Signe Brewster and drone advocate Raphael Pirker, who was in town from Hong Kong where he runs Team BlackSheep to go drone racing. It’s a natural progression for drone hobbyists, Pirker explained. Once they get good at flying around, people turn competitive and start racing in a kind of Star Wars–style pod-racing thing of the future.

First-person-view drones, or FPV drones, operate a little differently from the hobby drones you most often hear about in the news. They’re operated by relaying the video stream from the drone’s camera into a pair of virtual reality goggles, instead of piloting the device by just watching it in the sky.

But it’s not virtual reality in a typical sense. Most VR products tout a 360-degree experience — you can stand in a room and look all around it. FPV drones have a fixed view, so you can’t see what’s around the drone, only what the camera on the drone is seeing. Compared to Microsoft’s HoloLens project, FPV drones are not considered augmented reality either since you’re not using your own eyes to see reality with a projection upon it. In the Fat Shark–branded goggles, my peripheral vision was all black, but my eyes were focused on the green hills and gray horizon — not a virtual environment, but a future use case for VR technology.

Because of the battery life, most FPV drone flights last less than 10 minutes. After six minutes of seeing the world through the eyes of a machine, I got spooked and handed over the controls. But if you get the opportunity to fly for six minutes, you should take it.

Eyes in the sky

The course was laid out below me: four flags and a bush that I was supposed to weave this mechanical piece of plastic through.

Instead, I just wanted to hover high above the course, flicking my right thumb on the control pad left and right to turn the drone’s camera – and my eyes – around the vista. Otherwise it was mostly quiet as I flew above the hills, except for me chattering anxiously to those around me. The drone was too far away for me to hear its buzzing.

I don’t know what I expected flying to feel like. I’ve never hovered above land before, on a hot air balloon or while paragliding or skydiving. The closest feeling I could compare it to was being at the top of a roller coaster, where you look out as you teeter at the top before gravity pulls you back down.

Biz Carson, right, navigates an FPV drone while Raphael Pirker, far left, and Olivier Ancely, middle, watch the same feed on a screen.

Biz Carson, right, navigates an FPV drone while Raphael Pirker, far left, and Olivier Ancely, middle, watch the same feed on a screen.

Flying, via a drone’s perspective, abandons those physical limitations. I didn’t have to worry about parachutes or inflating or deflating a balloon to go up or down. I nudged a joystick up to be among birds. If I had accidentally crashed the drone, the loss would have been a couple hundred dollars of plastic and my ego — not my life. It’s an out-of-body experience that doesn’t require death to be a part of it. I could have always turned the camera around to look at myself, my physical body, to make sure I was still there on that mountain top — and then moved my fingers and flown on.

As I handed off the controls, Pirker’s friend did a barrel roll with the drone, flipping it in circles in the sky. When was the last time my vision had been spinning like this?

I felt like I was a kid rolling down a hill, that spinning vision of earth, sky, earth, sky, earth, sky. My eyes and my mind were detached from my body.

As the drone came in for a landing, my body came into view once more. I wasn’t covered in dirt. I hadn’t been rolling down a hill. I had never been flying in the sky, or scaring away birds. My feet were still soaked through on a soggy mountain top.

I took off the goggles, my vision once again, disappointingly, my own. Grounded.

Pilot pressure explains FAA’s indecisiveness on drones

Drone policy in the U.S. is a mess: the Federal Aviation Administration is currently grounding commercial use of unmanned aircraft while letting any amateur imbecile — like this guy — fly freely. Meanwhile, the agency keeps missing deadlines to propose a plan for integrating drones into civilian skies.

The situation is a source of frustration to researchers, photographers and companies, which have been stuck twiddling their thumbs even as other countries leap ahead in developing new industries tied to unmanned aircraft. But if it’s any consolation, there’s now an explanation for the FAA’s arbitrary approach.

Wall Street Journal report suggests that the FAA is dragging its feet on drone rules large part due to pressure from commercial pilots whose job could be at risk from commercial competition:

Aerial surveyors, photographers and moviemaking pilots are increasingly losing business to robots that often can do their jobs faster, cheaper and better. That competition, paired with concerns about midair collisions with drones, has made commercial pilots some of the fiercest opponents to unmanned aircraft.

The Journal account also points to why, in the handful of cases where the FAA has granted an exemption to the ban on commercial drone use, it has imposed onerous conditions:

In many of those exemptions, the Air Line Pilots Association, the biggest U.S. pilots union, and the National Agricultural Aviation Association, a trade group for crop dusters, helped persuade the FAA to place tight restrictions on the drone flights, including requiring operators to have pilot licenses and to keep the devices within eyeshot.

To be fair, there are legitimate safety concerns associated with unmanned aircraft. But the FAA’s current approach, which gives free reign to hobbyists while stifling commercial opportunities, does nothing to address these.

The smarter way to go about this, according to experts I’ve cited before, is for the agency to create buffer zones in which drones can operate at low-altitudes and away from airports. This could involve designating new zone fly-zones to go with the existing ones shown on this FAA map (I’ve added the arrows that point to Class G space which is unregulated):

FAA Airspace

Meanwhile, the FAA could also follow the lead of drone-friendly France or that of Canada, where the federal aviation agency has been issuing thousands of permits to businesses that are incorporating drones into everything from real estate to farm surveillance to TV filming.

Instead, the U.S. appears stuck in the worst of all worlds when it comes to drones:

Military Green Tech: Pics of A Solar-Powered Predator

Unmanned war machines are out in force in the war on terror. Last year there were 5,000 military robots deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, up from 162 in 2004. And these semi-autonomous robo-warriors aren’t just your terrestrial terminators — they’re taking flight with the help of solar power.

Aurora Flight Sciences has unveiled its plans for an unmanned aerial vehicle that uses solar cells on its wings and body to propel itself and stay aloft for five years for longterm intelligence, surveillance and communication missions, Cleantech.com reports. We contacted Aurora and the folks there were kind enough to send over these awesome snapshots.
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Open Thread: What’s Your Luggage Strategy?

Anyone who’s been on airplanes over the years knows that checking luggage is getting to be steadily more of a nuisance – and a potentially expensive nuisance at that. Between TSA searches, airlines charging more for checked luggage, and disasters like the recent breakdown of the baggage handling system at Heathrow Airport’s brand new Terminal 5 (causing 15,000 bags to go astray), checked luggage has become an exercise in frustration. But if you have to travel for business, what’s the alternative?

As an article in the Baltimore Sun points out, one alternative is to skip the checked baggage system entirely. Instead of checking their luggage, an increasing number of travelers are shipping it to their destinations.
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Freeware of the Moment- Pointix Scroll ++

You are probably aware that I have been playing with the MoGo Mouse/ HP PC Card Mouse for a few days and I really like it so far.  The model I am using has no scroll capabilities like most of the mice today and MoGo has recently begun touting "their" utility for providing scrolling capability without the wheel.  I did some research after downloading and installing "their" utility and found it is actually an old utility called Pointix Scroll ++ that was released way back before there were any mice that had scroll wheels.  Scroll ++ has a simple principle, you assign one of the mouse buttons to trigger scrolling or panning within a window.  I have assigned the right mouse button to that function so when I want to scroll or pan a window, say a browser window while using the HP mouse, I just hold down the right button and drag the mouse around.  This causes the window to pan around following the mouse as long as I hold that button down.  Simply pressing the right button still sees the mouse button work as it normally would so Scroll ++ is pretty useful with the MoGo/ HP mouse. 

The utility offers full configuration options such as scrolling speed and trigger button and is totally free as abandonware.  I found a blog that originally touted Scroll ++ last year and the history of the utility is pretty colorful.  It seems that it was originally a commercial product but when all mice started appearing with scroll wheels the market dried up and the company stopped offering it.  The blog points out that it is thus distributable for free as abandonware and recommended it to readers as such.  Apparently Newton Peripherals, the company behind the MoGo/ HP mouse discovered it on this blog as they not only started offering it on their site but their instructions for setup of Scroll ++ are a direct copy from the blog which has understandably left the blogger a bit unhappy.  Newton is even calling it the "MoGo Mouse BT Scrolling Software" and implying they wrote it which is pretty cheesy if you ask me.

The utility is working well for me so if you have one of these mice check out Scroll ++.  Note that once installed it works with any mouse without a scroll wheel including laptop trackpads so it might be worth a look for use with those too.  The download ZIP also has a utility called PopMouse in it which simply assigns macros to mouse gestures.  I tried it and didn’t like it so I uninstalled it pronto.  Note that Scroll ++ would likely be useful for UMPCs that have joysticks and two buttons on the bezel too.