Francis Fukuyama is one of America's best known public intellectuals... and a homemade unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) enthusiast. The author of The End Of History And The Last Man recently blogged about his experiences building a DIY aerial drone for The American Interest. Fukuyama, an amateur photographer and videographer, built the drone for photography and video. In his words, “when my kids were younger I looked into buying an RC helicopter for this purpose and actually tried to wire a camera on a car, but the consumer technology wasn’t up to snuff back then.”
In order to build his DIY drone, Fukuyama purchased a commercially available DJI Innovations F450 quadcopter, a multirotor helicopter-like device which retails for US$80. Fukuyama used RealFlight 6 to train himself to use the quadcopter, and succesfully attached a Sony Flip video camera to the flying machine. The result was an impromptu aerial surveillance machine which did not need to be registered with government authorities.
Since building his homemade drone, Fukuyama has become increasingly engaged in speaking about the privacy and security issues surrounding the easy availability of UAVs to the general public (including Hollywood location scouts and real estate agency drones). Fast Company spoke with Fukuyama via email about drones, future technology, how the free market will react to an unmanned airplane in every garage, and the genius of Velcro.
FAST COMPANY: How did your interest in personal drones and remote control aircraft come about?
FRANCIS FUKUYAMA: This probably started when I read about the Army's RQ-11 Raven drone, which is a relatively simple RC airplane that has a live video feed used to look around buildings and such by ground troops. It seemed to me that this was something a civilian could build and operate, and I wanted to try this.
How difficult was it to attach a camera to the DHI Innovations quadcopter? Did it require any specialized hobby experience?
Assembling the quadcopter requires some soldering skills and initializing the controller with a PC. Getting all this to work properly takes some doing. My first camera was a Flip video recorder stuck on with Velcro (one of the most useful inventions of the 20th century). By far the hardest part of this project was learning to fly an remote controlled helicopter/airplane, which really should be done on a simulator before trying it with a real aircraft.
When you were filming with your drone, did people on the ground notice they were on camera? For instance, the dogwalker in your baseball field video? (See below.)
Yes, this device generally attracts a lot of attention. Everyone wants to stop and watch.
You wrote that you think the government will make personal drones illegal. Do you think this is likely given the commercial market?
Actually, the government is in the process of liberalizing the rules concerning the commercial use of drones because they are so useful in police work, real estate, the movie industry, and other fields. It will probably take one of these drones smacking into an airliner or photographing Angela Jolie in the nude before there is a reaction.
Do you think there will be any unintended social, economic, or political consequences from drones being in the hands of private citizens?
Most of the concerns about drones today are related to privacy. We don't have well-established rules on whether, for example, we should expect people not to film inside an upstairs bedroom window from a drone. However, potential criminal and terrorist uses are out there. You can buy a fully autonomous drone today that can fly without pilot control to GPS-specified waypoints. It emits no electronic signature and therefore cannot be detected or jammed. I leave it up to your imagination to think how a terrorist might want to use such a drone.
How has the telemetry phase of the project been going? (Editor's Note: Fukuyama is currently upgrading his drone to include GPS, heading, and airspeed capabilities.)
My latest version (of the drone) has a live video feed and can send back telemetry data that is superimposed on the picture to a laptop base station. It sends back GPS location data, airspeed, compass heading, and the like. I've got this installed on the DJI quadcopter, and also on an airplane. The airplane can stay up much longer than the copter and has a range of 2-3 kilometers. You can pilot it by what's called First Person View (FPV), just as if you're sitting in the cockpit of the airplane.
What is your take on the FAA's regulation of UAVs?
I think they will inevitably be forced to write more detailed rules, beginning with safety rules about where drones can be flown. You shouldn't underestimate the commercial and libertarian lobby out there, however, that will oppose excessively restrictive new rules.
Note: This interview was edited for readability.
[Image: Wikipedia user Andrew Newton]