Drones — the remote-controlled multi-rotor copters that can increasingly be seen piloted by hobbyists — are a buzzword these days. But Mike Wright, a co-founder of the Motor City Drone Company, says there's a big semantic debate going on right now as to whether what the public has come to call "drones" are really even drones. Wright wears a T-shirt that avoids the issue entirely, emblazoned with silhouette of a drone followed by the words "IS NOT A CRIME." Wright likens drones to firearms — no technology is inherently evil, he says, it just depends on how people use it. We asked Wright to drop by the MT office to give us a test demonstration of one of his machines and answer some of our questions about the technology.
Metro Times: This looks like a little toy helicopter. When people think of the military "drones," that's more like a plane than a helicopter, right?
Mike Wright: Yeah, it doesn't look like this. It looks like a plane and it's got like a hundred-foot wingspan.
There's a big debate on whether this is a drone. Some people say, "Quit calling it that. It's a quadcopter." The bottom line is if it flies autonomously, it's a drone, and you can make this fly autonomously. I could program it to go to the end of the block and hold there for as long as we wanted.
"Drone" has such a negative connotation because (the military) kills people. There are some people out there who say, "Don't say the D-word." We asked a thousand people what a multi-rotor copter was, and nobody knew. If you show them a picture of this, they say, "Oh, that's a drone." So we went with the name people were using anyway.
MT: Someone was flying a drone at a Trash Talk show last month, and a band member disabled it by throwing a bottle at it. Then this whole crowd of hardcore punks started chanting, "Stop the feds!" Even though it was a civilian drone, there's still this sentiment of distrust ...
Wright: Google Maps can read the text message off your cell phone in your driveway. Your privacy has been invaded way before your neighbor bought a quadcopter and put a GoPro on it. If that's your introduction to your privacy being taken, then you've missed the boat. Our cell phones are all tracked. If you're missing or you kill somebody, they can find you through your cell phone. Your privacy has been gone for a long time.
MT: There's talk of, say, Amazon flying packages right to your door with drones. Is the technology there?
Wright: Right now, they're using lithium-powered batteries, and I think what they're trying to do is use nuclear, which also poses a problem because if it goes down and you've got nuclear rods inside these batteries, then anyone can just go up and grab them. Right now, as far as Amazon delivering packages, unless something is within a mile from your house, it's just not feasible. One day, it might get there, but right now it's just not there.
MT: So officially it's supposed to be illegal to use drones for commercial work, right?
Wright: It's not against the law. It's the FAA saying it's illegal, but every time it's gone to court, it's been appealed and overturned because the judge says, "Well, they haven't broken any laws. You're saying they can't, but the FAA doesn't make laws." So, it's gotten no return every single time. There hasn't been a single case where the FAA has won against someone who has flown a drone and used it for financial reasons.
The FAA is so busy regulating actual aircrafts in our airspace that they haven't really paid much attention to this, and meanwhile this has really crept up on them. There are hundreds per day being sold in America, thousands a month. There's one single unit that I have the numbers on. The manufacturer is importing 3,000 of these a month. It's kind of like waiting until everybody had a car and saying, "Ok, now, you've got to register them or insure them." They've just waited too long. Ultimately, it comes down to money. They want to regulate it, which is fine. There's a lot of people out there, and they just want their cut.
MT: What do you use your drones for?
Wright: I would say our company is made up of three different revenue streams. One of them is sales. People call for parts, and we ship them out. The other third is service. We get drones from all over the country mailed to us daily — between five and 10 a day — and they need to be repaired on some level. The third stream is the filming side of it, which as we build up customers, that's just continuing to grow.
MT: Do you see the possibility of the technology being used in the wrong hands?
Wright: I think it's like anything else. I have a CPL and I've owned a gun for 10 years, and it's never killed anybody. But guns kill people every day. People use their cars and run people down, but there's millions of people who drive their cars to go to work. Anything can be used in the wrong hands.
Honestly, I'm for regulating it because, just like anything else, if anyone can buy one, then you don't really know what anyone is doing with it, and there's no accountability. We're big on safety and we're big on flying responsibly. We have shirts that say, "Friends don't let friends drink and drone." You can mail-order a drone — you don't even have to be 18.
You see people flying over stadiums during sporting events going on, and when you see that online, the reality is that pilot could be three miles away. You do a three-mile circle from that drone, how are you going to find that guy? Some part of me thinks they'll get the retailers that sell drones in on being more responsible with who they sell it to or require some sort of class they have to take.
Then again, there's always ways around that stuff.
Find out more about the Motor City Drone Company at motorcitydroneco.com.— mt