Imagine hiking in a national park, hearing a whirring noise and looking up to see a mini drone overhead, filming the scenery. The growing popularity of small consumer drones — often with cameras attached — is raising new questions about the intersection of appealing new technology, privacy and safety. The National Park Services, for one, has banned personal drones until it can develop rules that respect both humans and wildlife. Tech Tuesday examines the technology behind this new generation of remote-controlled aerial vehicles and explores the debate over legal and social norms for using them.


  • Clive Thompson Writer for Smithsonian magazine; Author of "Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better" (The Penguin Group, 2013)
  • Jonathan Jarvis Director, National Park Service
  • Colin Guinn Senior Vice President, Sales and Marketing, 3D Robotics
  • Christopher Vo President, D.C. Area Drone User Group; PhD candidate in robotics, George Mason University

Watch: The Future Of Personal Drones

Chris Anderson, the CEO of 3D Robotics, talks about “The next decade of American Airspace:” Domestic Drones.


  • 12:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's "Tech Tuesday." Mention drones and most people think of stealth aircraft flying surveillance missions in war zones. But here at home, there's growing interest in friendlier, personal sized drones you can buy off the shelf and take out to fly around for fun. And for great photos and videos if you attach a camera to your drone.

  • 12:07:15

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe newest personal drones look like high tech descendants of the old model airplanes and helicopters, measuring a couple of feet across and outfitted with sophisticated positioning and location technology, like you find in your smart phone. Everyone from model plane enthusiasts to professional photographers to farmers is experimenting with these new flying machines that give them an eye in the sky. But the growing popularity of camera equipped personal drones is raising a host of questions about privacy, safety and the nuisance factor.

  • 12:07:46

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe National Park Service, for instance, is working on rules to balance the desires of tech enthusiasts with the interests of the wildlife and natural landmarks it's supposed to protect. "Tech Tuesday" explores the expanding capabilities of personal drones and the challenges they present. Joining us in studio is Jonathan Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service. John, good to see you again. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:10

    MR. JONATHAN JARVISThanks for the invitation, Kojo. Great to be here.

  • 12:08:12

    NNAMDIAnd joining us from Argo Studios in New York City is Clive Thompson. He writes for Smithsonian Magazine. He's the author of "Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For the Better." Clive Thompson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:25

    MR. CLIVE THOMPSONGood to be here.

  • 12:08:26

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Austin, Texas is Colin Guinn, Vice President at 3D Robotics, which makes consumer drones. Colin, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:35

    MR. COLIN GUINNAbsolutely. Thank you for having me.

  • 12:08:37

    NNAMDIColin, I'll start with you. Your company makes what your website describes as aerial vehicles with the consumer in mind, including a helicopter like drone, described as stylish and powerful, running the newest auto-pilot electronics. Explain what consumer drones look like today and the technology that makes them possible.

  • 12:08:57

    GUINNWell, like you said earlier, I think the -- with the reduction in cost of micro-electro mechanical systems, MEMS gyros and MEMS accelerometer being purchased by the millions from cell phone manufacturers have really those -- the cost of those sensors down, which is one of the most expensive parts of, you know, building the auto-pilot, which are the brains that make these flying robots work. And so with the cost of those things coming down, we can really bring, you know, incredibly intelligent flying robots or drones to the consumer market for extremely attainable prices.

  • 12:09:36

    NNAMDIHow far can a pers -- go ahead, please.

  • 12:09:38

    GUINNNo, go ahead.

  • 12:09:39

    NNAMDII was going to ask how far can a personal drone fly and for how long before its battery needs to be recharged?

  • 12:09:46

    GUINNSure. Sure. So, you know, most personal drones now, we're seeing flight times around 20 minutes. You know, we have drones that are a little bit more in the commercial space that can fly for over an hour, but your costs, you know, go up sharply when you get to those types of flight times. So, but for a commercial or a consumer drone, you're looking at 20 minutes of flight time. And it can fly along at about 25 miles an hour. So, you know, all of our drones are actually programmable from an Android tablet or a Macintosh computer or a PC computer.

  • 12:10:21

    GUINNSo you can actually pre-prescribe the flight plan for the drone, so you know, you could essentially have it fly several miles, back and forth. But most of the people that are flying these small, you know, consumer drones, are just kind of flying around within line of sight. You know, under 400 feet, because that's the current, you know, FAA, you know, suggested guidelines that they released with 9117.

  • 12:10:52

    NNAMDILet me invite our listeners to join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. How do you feel about photo drones flying overhead and filming or snapping pictures? 800-433-8850. What rules would you like to see for unmanned aerial vehicles in the hands of hobbyists? You can also send email to Shoot us a tweet @kojoshow using the hashtag techtuesday. Or go to our website, and join the conversation there. Colin, how much do personal drones cost and who's buying them?

  • 12:11:28

    GUINNWell, the second question's easy. Everybody. I mean, it's literally everyone from a farmer that has a vineyard, potentially, or an action sports enthusiast. Or maybe a real estate agent trying to get aerial photos and videos of a home. Or just somebody that likes tech gadgets and wants to take some great aerial photos on their vacation in Hawaii. I mean, it literally, really covers the spectrum. And the cost, with, you know, our consumer Iris Drone, which has everything you need to fly, is only 750 US dollars. So, a very reasonable cost.

  • 12:12:05

    NNAMDIHow hard is it to learn to fly one?

  • 12:12:09

    GUINNIt's actually extremely easy. Again, with the use of, you know, advanced accelerometers and barometric altimeters and magnetometers and all of these sensors, we actually make it very, very easy to fly, so all you're really doing is telling the drone where you want it to go. It uses satellite guided navigation, so that when you take off, it maintains its position in space based on satellite information. So, even if there's a 10 or 15 mile an hour wind when you take off, the drone is just going to sit there and wait for you to command it to go forward, back, left, right. So it only goes where you tell it to go.

  • 12:12:42

    GUINNYou don't have to, you don't have to actively try to fly it and fight the wind and do things like that. And then taking it even one step easier, is that you can literally just use an Android phone, draw your finger on a map and then say go and the drone will literally take off, follow that exact plan, come back and land itself, all without you ever having to use the controller to manually fly it. So, it's very easy.

  • 12:13:04

    NNAMDIColin -- Colin Guinn is Vice President at 3D Robotics, which makes consumer drones. In case you're just joining us, it's a "Tech Tuesday" conversation on the future of personal and photo drones. He joins us from Austin, Texas. In our Washington studio is Jonathan Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service. And joining us from studios in New York City is Clive Thompson, who's a writer for Smithsonian magazine and author of "Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds For the Better."

  • 12:13:31

    NNAMDIClive, Colin says they're all easy to fly, but from what I've been seeing and hearing, some people who have been learning seem to crash them a lot.

  • 12:13:40

    THOMPSONYeah. That's true. Partly because not all drones are created equal, of course. Some are harder to fly than others. The really expensive, the more expensive ones, the ones that we've been talking about here that have really good internal systems, you know, those are a little easier. But if you go on to YouTube, you'll see a lot of really funny outtakes of video of people, you know, attempting to shoot a football game or a wedding and sort of occasionally smashing into people.

  • 12:14:06

    THOMPSONBy and large though, you know, there's an experimental phase right now. A lot of people get one, they start fiddling around with it, they crash it a bunch at the beginning and then, then they figure it out. The really big -- the question is, I think this is something that's come up, definitely when you look at things like national parks, is, you know, what if the first time someone flies it and doesn't know what they're doing, it's in a public park and they crash it in to a body of water. You know, you've just dumped a toxic battery into a public resource.

  • 12:14:32

    NNAMDIIndeed. That's one of the reasons we have Jonathan Jarvis with us. He's the Director of the National Park Service. John, national parks have some of the most beautiful scenery in the country, so they're an obvious destination for drone users who want to take photos or video. What are some of the misadventures that you've seen with drones in national parks like Yellowstone, Zion and Mt. Rushmore?

  • 12:14:54

    JARVISWell, we saw it early on, sort of a proliferation of these drones in the parks. And we decided to do a time out. I issued a policy memorandum in June of this year, directing the National Park Service to do sort of a stand down on their use so we could sort of understand this new technology and its effect on our responsibilities. The National Park Service has a responsibility to protect these incredible resources like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.

  • 12:15:26

    JARVISAlso to provide for visitor safety and a high quality experience. And we were seeing all of these affected. As you indicated, we had a drone, recently, crash into the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone. That water is hot. It's part of the thermal system of Yellowstone, 160 degrees and about 160 feet deep. We have not been able to recover what's left of that drone. We also had incidents with drones chasing bighorn sheep at Zion National Park. We had it flying over a crowd and over the sculptures at Mt. Rushmore.

  • 12:16:09

    JARVISWe had one flying back and forth in front of visitors trying to watch the sunset at Grand Canyon. So we've had a lot of these. So we are sort of doing a time out for bad behavior, shall we say, until we get it straightened out.

  • 12:16:21

    NNAMDIIndeed. You decided to tell all your park superintendents to ban drones until you can develop system wide rules for their use.

  • 12:16:28

    JARVISThat's correct.

  • 12:16:29

    NNAMDIAnd how long is that gonna take?

  • 12:16:31

    JARVISIt'll probably take about 18 months for us to really evaluate. There very well may be places and times where they are appropriate, but that's gonna take us some time to figure out.

  • 12:16:41

    NNAMDIWhat are the rules for operating drones in a national park right now?

  • 12:16:45

    JARVISAs of the 20th of August, every park in the system has issued a prohibition. We have a few exceptions in places where more sort of model aircraft are used, like at Floyd Bennett Field in Gateway. You can get a permit for commercial photography. And there are some administrative uses, very tightly controlled, that will be allowed, but it's all under a permit system now.

  • 12:17:12

    NNAMDIJames in Arlington, Virginia has a question about exactly where drones are allowed to fly. James, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:17:20

    JAMESHow are you? My question is, being in the District of Columbia, what's stopping someone from necessarily standing on the banks of Arlington with, you know, their camera, being able to fly it with, you know, their smart phone or computer, over the monuments in D.C. You know, whether it be flying up the White House, which I guarantee probably would be, you know, taken care of quickly. But what are the regulations that are in place, or guidelines, that are out there?

  • 12:17:48

    NNAMDIClive Thompson, we're now talking about coming under the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration, right?

  • 12:17:55

    THOMPSONYeah. I mean, this stuff is evolving right now. There's a lot of talk in different -- you could go around to like almost every town or every state, at the federal level, and you could see them trying to figure out what rules there are for drones. Now, as we talked about earlier, there are height restrictions that are already in place across the entire country. You know, that you can only fly them at a certain height. But that's only one part of what people are wrestling with.

  • 12:18:21

    THOMPSONThe other things they're wrestling with are, you know, should there be any, you know, privacy restrictions? You know, is there any weird issues about someone like hovering a drone outside someone's window and peering inside? And, you know, the truth is, some of this case law is sort of really up in the air. Because, you know, if you looked at what precedents exist, well, you know, generally, the law of the land, with photography, is that, you know, if you're in public, if you're out in public, you know, you don't really have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

  • 12:18:51

    THOMPSONSo if someone takes a picture of you, you know, they can do that. If you are in a private place where you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, then someone is not allowed to take a picture of you without your permission. So the really -- the question becomes, you know, if a drone is flying outside your window, is that a reasonable expectation of privacy? And this is kind of up in the air.

  • 12:19:10

    NNAMDII guess they're gonna have to draft rules about whether or not you can bring them down, also, if you happen to see it flying outside your bathroom window.

  • 12:19:15

    THOMPSONBut yeah, yeah, no. Yeah. There was a municipality that considered a law to allow people to shoot down drones.

  • 12:19:24

    NNAMDII was thinking of bringing them down with nets or anything else.

  • 12:19:27

    THOMPSONYeah, yeah, yeah, you could imagine all sorts of countermeasures. I mean, the truth is, it will probably take a long time for this stuff to get settled by the courts. Like, you know, as an example, the FBI, they've done things, like they've flown over drug places where they think people are growing marijuana, right? So they fly a plane over, and in the past, there was a case where someone had a panel missing from their roof. And the FBI looked inside and saw they were growing marijuana inside.

  • 12:19:51

    THOMPSONAnd so the actual marijuana growers sort of countersued and said that's an invasion of privacy. You're peering into our house. And the judge essentially sort of said, well, the thing is if the panel was missing from your roof, someone flying even in a regular plane landing could have seen inside. So there was no incursion of privacy. So as you can see, there are very deep waters here that will take a long time to be settled, I think, case wise.

  • 12:20:16

    NNAMDIWell, Congress has directed the FAA to develop rules for commercial drones by September of next year. In the meantime, Clive, do the FAA's rule for model aircraft apply to this new breed of personal drones? And how do you think the rule making will play out?

  • 12:20:33

    THOMPSONA lawyer. My specialty is not really in the law. But that's as I understand it, yes. How I think it's gonna play out, you know, there's a lot of tensions here. The, on the one hand, people are understandably concerned about the way that this affects privacy. On the other hand, there's a lot of very legitimate and good uses of drones. Right? I mean, environmentalists are already very excited by the fact that they can use it to understand what's going on in the community around them in a way that they couldn't before. That's happening around the world.

  • 12:21:01

    THOMPSONAlthough we heard about people chasing wildlife with them, they're also a great way to -- a very non-invasive way to monitor what's going on with wildlife. So there's a lot of fantastic uses. Just aesthetically, they can be -- they're kind of opening up new visas for every day photography, too. I mean, there's something delightful about that. It's like the way the Polaroid changed the way we take pictures with instant snapshots. Or you go back 100 years, the way the Kodak camera changed photography.

  • 12:21:27

    THOMPSONIt suddenly gave people new ways to look at the world. And so those desires for people to do that stuff are legitimate and interesting and aesthetically and culturally quite fun. So they will have to be balanced out with peoples' reasonable privacy expectations.

  • 12:21:42

    NNAMDIColin Guinn, how do you expect this -- how do you think this rule making will play out?

  • 12:21:47

    GUINNWell, I think that's a great question, and one that would take, probably, a crystal ball to figure out. It seems to -- they seem to be all over the place in the last, you know, six or seven years that I've been involved with this. So, you know, trying to figure out, you know, exactly the methodology that it's gonna take -- it seems, it really does seem like it's all over the place. So, you know, we have, we have been very open and vocal with the FAA to say, let's -- you know, we'd love to work with you guys to figure out the best, you know, methodology for integrating these flying robots into our national air space in a safe and responsible manner.

  • 12:22:30

    GUINNYou know, and so we've actually just created this small UAS coalition, run by (unintelligible) Washington, D.C. And we're partnered with Amazon and (unintelligible) and GoPro and a couple of other companies so that we can kind of ban together and say, you know, hey, what can we do to work with you guys to find a reasonable solution? But, you know, I wish I could answer that question accurately. I wish I had that crystal ball, but I guess we're just gonna have to wait and see and try to be as proactive as we can. But at the same time, you know, we're a little bit at the mercy of the FAA and the lawmaking bodies.

  • 12:23:14

    NNAMDIAnd I guess, Jonathan Jarvis, you'll be looking at that process also, fairly closely, to see how the FAA rule making goes, because I guess you can use it to judge or to assess your own rule making efforts.

  • 12:23:26

    JARVISAbsolutely. And we work very closely with the FAA on overflights of the national parks. And so, but within the parks themselves, right now, we think we need to take this little time out to assess and figure out how to use them in the future.

  • 12:23:40

    NNAMDIColin Guinn, we got a tweet from Rich who said, we need to differentiate between a drone and a radio controlled hobby aircraft. How important is that distinction?

  • 12:23:51

    GUINNWell, I think what he's saying, and I would agree with, is that there's a big difference between a 25 or a 54 pound drone that's carrying heavier payloads or maybe cinematography equipment. Or maybe monitoring payloads, versus a two pound or less, you know, hobby drone, that you just want to get some nice aerial photos with, that really, you know, would be very hard pressed to cause any kind of damage. And so, if that's what he's saying, I think that makes very per -- you know, perfect sense.

  • 12:24:22

    GUINNBecause, right now, according to the FAA, you have SUAS, which is small, unmanned aerial system. The ironic thing is that SUAS means anything less than 55 pounds. And obviously, there's a big difference between, you know, a 50 pound single rotor helicopter and a two pound quad rotor carrying a GoPro.

  • 12:24:45

    NNAMDIWell, this brings...

  • 12:24:46

    GUINNAnd I absolutely agree that there should be a distinction between the two.

  • 12:24:49

    NNAMDIWhich brings me to this, before you leave. Can you talk about the innovations we can expect in consumer drones? What will we see next?

  • 12:24:57

    GUINNWell, I think, you know, what everybody's working on and waiting for is, you know, I think in terms of future innovation, it's going to be a matter of making these systems easier and easier to fly and control. So you don't have those new pilots that are accidentally crashing into things. And then another big innovation that everybody's working on and waiting, you know, with baited breath, is object avoidance and object awareness. So, you know, it would be great if you're flying along and maybe the pilot gets confused in his orientation, or her orientation, and starts heading toward a tree or something like that.

  • 12:25:38

    GUINNAnd the drone just stops itself, because it can see the tree there, and it can avoid that object. So, you know, I think object awareness and object avoidance, and then also just advancements in the auto-pilot technology to make it easier and easier for the drone to go where you're wanting it to go. And you don't get confused.

  • 12:25:54

    NNAMDIAnd of course, there's size there. Looking forward to having a drone in someone's pocket, right?

  • 12:26:01

    GUINNYeah. That, you know, that is gonna be a tough one, because you have this thing called physics, which you have to fight wind. And you need a certain amount of mass to fight that wind, so having little pocket drones that can actually be useable is gonna -- that's gonna be a challenging one. I'd like to see pocket drone that...

  • 12:26:19

    NNAMDILook for huge -- the return of huge cargo pockets. We got an email from...

  • 12:26:23

    GUINN...that's right. That's right. Exactly.

  • 12:26:26

    NNAMDI...we got an email from Jean in Annapolis who says it was just announced that Disney has applied for patents for utilizing drone technology for entertainment in its parks. One possible use is drones projecting images on to a screen, held up by drones. A whole new world. An email from Karen pleads, please, no. Humans are fallible and soon they'll be accidentally causing something to crash and maybe causing someone to die. On the other hand, this email from Irene says, all I have to say is I'm getting one.

  • 12:26:53

    NNAMDII can be at the house and send it out to spy on my horses in their pasture and check up on my kids. We're going to be taking a short break. When we come, we'll be continuing this conversation on the future of personal and photo drones. Colin Guinn, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:27:06

    GUINNAbsolutely. Thank you so much for having me.

  • 12:27:08

    NNAMDIColin Guinn is Vice President at 3D Robotics, which makes consumer drones. You can still call us. 800-433-8850. Have you ever flown a drone just for fun or to take photos or movies? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Or send email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:29:14

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our "Tech Tuesday" conversation on the future of personal and photo drones. We're talking with Jonathan Jarvis. He is the Director of the National Park Service. Clive Thompson is a writer for Smithsonian magazine, the author of "Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds For the Better." He joins us from Argo Studios in New York City. You can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you think is the proper balance between fun new technology like consumer drones carrying cameras and the public's right to privacy and quiet?

  • 12:29:47

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. You can send us an email to or tweet @kojoshow. Joining us in studio now is Christopher Vo, President of the D.C. area Drone User Group. Christopher Vo is a PhD candidate in robotics at George Mason University. Christopher, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:30:07

    MR. CHRISTOPHER VOThank you.

  • 12:30:07

    NNAMDILet's look at some of the reasons people buy off the shelf drones and even build their own. How many members do you have, here in D.C., in the D.C. area Drone User Group? And how many are using their drones for some sort of photography?

  • 12:30:21

    VOWell, the D.C. area Drone User Group consists of about 1,200 drone operators in the D.C. area. And they're all interested in the responsible use of drones.

  • 12:30:31

    NNAMDIOne thousand, two hundred?

  • 12:30:33

    VOThat's right.

  • 12:30:33

    NNAMDIWhen was the organization started?

  • 12:30:36

    VOAbout two years ago.

  • 12:30:37

    NNAMDIAnd you're up to 1200. Despite the safety and nuisance concerns about drones, everyone seems to agree that they have great potential, not only for fun, but to help survey and photograph hard to reach places. Park service employees can still apply to use them for research projects. John, where can drones be useful for your team?

  • 12:30:55

    JARVISWell, we think, as has been indicated, that particularly in monitoring wildlife, monitoring natural resources. Even looking at, you know, damage from hurricanes or other things, I think drones have a great potential for getting to places that we might endanger an individual to get to. Or to look at something remotely. So, we're evaluating them now for their use -- utilization for research, monitoring, projects like that.

  • 12:31:26

    NNAMDIChristopher Vo, how many of your 1200 numbers are using drones for photography, and in what ways?

  • 12:31:31

    VOI think that about -- most of our users are using drones for photography, as opposed to other uses. It's probably the most popular application, especially photography for like videography and making movies.

  • 12:31:49

    NNAMDISome drones can fly a pre-programmed route, as Colin was telling us earlier. Or follow you as you ride your bike. Clive, what hardware and software upgrades are on the horizon?

  • 12:32:01

    THOMPSONWell, I think the -- there's gonna be a lot of stuff that's based on where you are related to the drone and the drone's awareness of the world around you. So, one that I -- one that just sort of came out of the gates a few months ago is a pretty cool one that you can sort of program to hover a certain distance away from you. So if you want to, you know, go for a run. If you wanted to go on a mountain biking thing. If you wanted to do something kind of interesting and have it sort of follow you, as if there were like this very expensive Hollywood shot.

  • 12:32:33

    THOMPSONYou know, of what you look like in the sky. You know, you can do that. And that, that -- so that's something that you're gonna see. The other thing you're gonna see, I've seen a lot of people working on, on this, is, you know, and we got a taste of this earlier when we were talking to the 3D robotics gentleman, is drones that can know a little bit more about the world around them and make decisions based on where they are. And that could be helping them not crash, but that could also be like, you know, if you see something interesting.

  • 12:33:00

    THOMPSONOr try and follow this thing, so you could get several drones sort of flying in a configuration, you know, together, which can be kind of fun to look at. But could also itself produce some really interesting photography. You could get a couple of -- you get 3D photography from a bunch of different angles. There's a lot of interesting things going -- we're giving the drones a bit of intelligence to help them make decisions for themselves.

  • 12:33:21

    NNAMDIA couple of questions for you, Christopher. How do you personally use personal drones? Mainly for photography?

  • 12:33:27

    VOWell no, I'm actually a researcher in robotics at George Mason University, and so what I try to do is make algorithms for robots, many robots, to move safely through an environment. Not just like aerial robots, but also other kinds of robots as well.

  • 12:33:44

    NNAMDIWhat's the technical, or what do you see are the next technical advancement that we'll be seeing in personal drones, like I was asking Colin Guinn about earlier? Will they get quieter? Do you think they'll get smaller?

  • 12:33:56

    VOThere's already a lot of start-up projects that are changing the way that we interact with drones. For example, instead of manually operating them with say, joysticks, one day you might have a drone the size of a butterfly fly out of your pocket with voice commands. You tell it, for example, to follow you while you're going down the ski slopes. Or, you can bring a drone to the park with a tennis ball and play catch with it. Or put a leash on it and take it for a walk.

  • 12:34:21

    NNAMDIClive, what's the likelihood that drones will be able to carry things around for us, or that Amazon will be able to deliver packages using drones, as its Chief Jeff Bezos has predicted?

  • 12:34:33

    THOMPSONYou know...

  • 12:34:34

    NNAMDIWhy do you laugh?

  • 12:34:35

    THOMPSON...well, I laugh because I think the idea is so funny of all these -- funny, funny, entertaining/you know, terrifying crazy. Of all these drones flying through the sky, delivering packages. The truth is, drones like that would face one big problem, which is that if you want to carry anything of any weight at all, you need a lot of power. And that means you need a very, very big battery. But now that you've got a heavy battery, you need more power. So you need more battery, so you can see how this sort of scales downwards.

  • 12:35:05

    THOMPSONThe truth is, getting drones to carry anything very heavy is far off in the future, to the point where we have a much more energy dense source of power than current lithium ion batteries. I'm not saying that's not gonna happen, but people have been working pretty hard at thinking of new battery chemistry for, you know, 20 years now because they're trying to make it for electric cars.

  • 12:35:29

    THOMPSONAnd they haven't really hit upon anything very good yet. So until there is some way to store way more power at a much lighter weight, something the military would love and something that the electric car industry would love, drones are not going to be carrying very heavy packages. You're not going to be getting your groceries via drone anytime soon.

  • 12:35:50

    NNAMDIWell, some people believe there should be a distinct separation made between drones as a function of the military and just about everything else. Here's Andrew in Baltimore, Maryland. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:36:02

    ANDREWGood morning, Kojo.

  • 12:36:03

    NNAMDIGood afternoon, Andrew.

  • 12:36:05

    ANDREWYeah, I just wanted to talk briefly about how the term drone, I think in today's zeitgeist, it sensationalizes what's essentially a hobby. You know, people hear the term drone and they think bombing around the Middle East. That's really all I wanted to talk about. It's not a militaristic thing right now. These are essentially helicopters with multi-rotors. You know, you have three, four, sometimes eight. They're not these 40 foot wing span, automated missile dropping contraptions.

  • 12:36:37

    NNAMDIChristopher, have you encountered this during the course of your research, talking about drones, that just the name drones causes people to think oh, this is military equipment.

  • 12:36:47

    VOYeah. A drone really is just an unmanned aircraft. And to compare the kind of drones that I use for my research or the kind of drones that the users in the D.C. area Drone User Group build to military machines is like comparing bicycles to tanks.

  • 12:37:02

    NNAMDIYour feeling, Clive Thompson?

  • 12:37:04

    THOMPSONI think that's an interesting comment about how drones have this kind of multivalent meaning right now. Because it is true. I mean, depending on who you talk to, the word drone, you know, is really a, just a politically freighted term. It's a representation of the way America has been perceived abroad and perceived domestically with its use of power. Or, you know, or if you talk to someone who's really just thinking like, you know, this is a fun hobby, you get a completely different thing.

  • 12:37:39

    THOMPSONYou know, I think, I suppose if the industry that makes the little sort of, you know, hobby drones were thinking carefully, it would probably try and come up with a different name for them. Because I agree. There's sort of a negative connotation, I feel, whenever I hear the word drone. It doesn't sound like a positive term.

  • 12:37:59

    NNAMDIJonathan Jarvis, from your standpoint, how is a photo drone flying over a hiking trail in Yosemite different from a sightseeing plane flying over the Grand Canyon, in terms of disrupting wildlife and well, annoying park visitors?

  • 12:38:13

    JARVISWell, I think the challenge is is that whether one person's experience through using an unmanned aerial vehicle, if you want to call it that, versus a drone, may impact others' experience. You know, if an aircraft is up and we have advisories over our national parks for airplane and helicopters. And these would be flying, obviously, much, much closer to the ground and our experience thus far is these are fairly noisy. At least the current technology.

  • 12:38:47

    JARVISThey can be somewhat analogous to a flying weed eater. And it's going right over your head and you're trying to have a park like experience. It can be very disturbing, so that's one of our concerns.

  • 12:39:01

    NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Keith in Alexandria, Virginia. Keith, your turn.

  • 12:39:07

    KEITHYes, my comment is that I think there should be strict liability on the part of the owners or operators of the drones themselves. You know, if a drone falls out of the sky and damages my car, you know, I think they should be liable. And wondered if there's insurance to cover such claims.

  • 12:39:29

    NNAMDIWhat's the...

  • 12:39:30

    KEITHAnd I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 12:39:31

    NNAMDI...Clive Thompson, what do you know about the insurance aspects of this issue?

  • 12:39:35

    THOMPSONI don't know anything about that, and that would be -- but I think, I'm willing to bet there are insurance people out there pondering this right now. I mean, for example, you look at the policy for my house, it does not cover acts of God like asteroid strikes. Actually mentioned by phrase in the ponderously long policy, which I read, sort of for amusement. So, it would not shock me if I opened that policy a year from now and it includes a drone slamming into my house. They might well consider that to be similar to an act of God like a meteor.

  • 12:40:11

    NNAMDIEmail from Dave in Reston probably having to do with the insurance issue also. "Even a two-pound drone would hurt if it fell 100 feet out of the sky and landed on you. What rules do we need for control of drones? What about autonomous drones without a ground-control link? Until we resolve the rules of the sky, I'm not in favor of drones except in well-defined airspaces." We move on now to Lori in Annapolis, Md. Lori, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:40:40

    LORIHi. My comment is, really, I think drones are, you know, it's the user common sense obviously. They need some rules and regulations. There's some people -- there are going to be people who abuse the, you know, rules and regulations. But my make on it is that the privacy thing -- Google Earth can give you detail. I can look at my sister's house, 600 miles from my own home, and I can see in detail what's -- her back yard, what's in it, everything in very close detail. So what's the difference, you know, if you're driving a drone around taking photographs. It's no different than Google Earth.

  • 12:41:17

    NNAMDIIs it, Clive Thompson?

  • 12:41:19

    THOMPSONYou know, I think the difference is, is that Google -- Google's solid images are still pictures. They don't show what's actually happening right now. A drone is -- that has a camera in it, hovering over your back yard, is showing some -- what you're doing at that instant in much closer granularity. Now, the comment is correct in one sense. It really throws to this question of what constitutes a reasonable right to privacy right now, right?

  • 12:41:46

    THOMPSONAnd, you know, since -- there -- we don't have any legal objection in the U.S. -- although you go to places like Germany and it's different -- we don’t have any legal objection to, you know, a satellite picture on Google Earth or Google Maps of our house. That doesn't seem -- or it certainly hasn't been presented at the courts as an incursion of anyone's privacy. That seems like a reasonable -- a reasonably public thing.

  • 12:42:11

    THOMPSONYou know, a drone flying, you know, not on your property, but near enough to your property that they can see what you're doing in your back yard or front yard, you know, that's a slightly different legal question. And I think it will be interesting to see that come forward. I definitely expect to see lawsuits like that in the future.

  • 12:42:31

    NNAMDIWe are going to take a short break. When we come back, you're welcome to join us in this Tech Tuesday conversation on the future of personal and photo drones. You can do that by calling 800-433-8850. If you had a personal drone, what would you use it for? You can send email to Send us a tweet @kojoshow using the hashtag TechTuesday. Or go to our website, Ask a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:44:39

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on Tech Tuesday on the future of personal and photo drones. We're talking with Christopher Vo. He is president of the D.C. Area Drone User Group. Chris is a PhD candidate in robotics at George Mason University. He joins us in studio along with Jonathan Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service. Joining us from studios in New York City is Clive Thompson. He's a writer for Smithsonian magazine and author of "Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better." Chris, what are some of the possible scenarios for regulating personal drone use? Would it make sense to require people to get a license to operate a private drone?

  • 12:45:17

    VOWell at the very least, the FAA should promulgate regulations that define clear and reasonably limits for model aircraft, based on some kind of straight-forward parameters, like maybe altitude, weight and speed. For example, they should focus on rules that protect the navigable airspace, just like they would with -- and just like they would with kites, balloons and model rockets, they should maybe have some exemptions that -- for the responsible use of small and lightweight aircraft that are maybe flying at low altitudes and otherwise in accordance to local laws.

  • 12:45:52

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Mike in Baltimore, Jon Jarvis, who writes, "It's important to keep in mind that a photographer using a drone or taking a picture on or from public space is not the enemy. Photography has a long history of documenting the American experience from beach life to city life to rural life. A photographer is almost always just doing his or her job and enjoying a hobby.

  • 12:46:16

    JARVISWell, I would agree with that. The national parks are venues for extraordinary photography. And we love that. We love to have both our private and commercial photographers come to our national parks. I think the challenge for me though is, you know, if you go to the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park and you want to stand along the roadside with your camera and your big lens and take photographs of a pack of wolves, that's one thing. But if you're flying a drone out over the valley and disturbing those wolves and disturbing the other photographers' ability to photograph this natural world, that's a problem for us.

  • 12:46:58

    NNAMDIBecause it seems to me that in one of the cases that you mentioned earlier, among the wildlife, the mothers were separated from the children. And that can lead to a serious problem.

  • 12:47:10

    JARVISThat's correct. That was at Zion National Park where we did have a drone basically separating a bighorn sheep family in an attempt to get a good photograph.

  • 12:47:22

    NNAMDIOn to the phones again. Here is Paul in Leesburg, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:47:28

    PAULThank you. My question is about the difference between a drone with autonomy and a remotely-piloted vehicle. I mean retail drones -- the retail quadrotors and such, seem to always have a person at the controls. They don't have intelligence. They generally can't come back to you. If they lose comms, you lose the drone. Whereas the things you read about in the paper seem to have some level of smartness. If there's not a pilot, they can pilot themselves to some degree. Is there really a distinction in what we're talking about here?

  • 12:48:02

    NNAMDIIs there, Chris Vo?

  • 12:48:04

    VOWell, I mean, drones today are mostly remotely piloted. Most people are just using their joysticks to control them. And maybe tomorrow, we'll have a lot more of these autonomous drones. And then we'll have to think about some of the issues related to, well, what happens when an autonomous drone makes its own decision to crash itself into something or harm somebody?

  • 12:48:30

    NNAMDICare to comment on that, Clive Thompson?

  • 12:48:33

    THOMPSONYeah. I mean, this is -- look, this is something that is happening up and down, certainly in the military, where they have been, you know, hiring, you know, philosophers and legal thinkers to think about what are the legal and ethical and moral implications of, say, autonomous robots that hurt someone, that kill someone. Because they've definitely, you know, been developing that type of robotics, you know, for quite some time. And, you know, there's no clear consensus yet, at that level, as to who, in the chain of command, you know, bears moral and ethical authority for that type of stuff.

  • 12:49:10

    THOMPSONYou know, I think definitely, you know, either you're going to see pretty -- it's a little easier to determine who's responsible for something as simple as a collision in a national park. If someone put the drone up in the air, it's -- they're the ones that stood for it. So it'll be a little easier to establish culpability. But I mean, I do think -- I do think that, you know, it's interesting we're talking with National Parks here. Because I think that, you know, you could almost divide where it's going to be easy to sort of -- or easier to figure out the rules of drones and where it's going to be harder.

  • 12:49:40

    THOMPSONNow the easier stuff is going to be situations where the government and the civic sphere already has a well-defined sense that there's a special place we're protecting. The national parks is a good example of that. I mean, I think a lot of people would probably be in favor of strong limitations on drone activity there. You could even say, you know, I'm living here in New York City, I could see the same thing with, say, Central Park, you know? The city could go, well, wait a minute. You know, we don't want drones flying around necessarily in that area.

  • 12:50:11

    THOMPSONIt gets -- it'll get a little more complicated when you get to, you know, someone's private property, something you're doing on a private property, something you're doing, you know, on a small scale. It's going to require some pretty nuanced thinking. Because, you know, as again, you know, we've mentioned several times here, there are some very positive aspects of drones. I mean, when you think about photography in national parks, well, you know, the photography that emerged in the late 19th century with expert photographers, and then with amateurs in the nineties, as you got like the Kodak Brownie, you know, it gave the public a way to look at these absolutely majestic spaces and see them and understand them.

  • 12:50:49

    THOMPSONAnd that created the public consciousness that made us want to protect these national parks in the first place. You know, National Geographic revolutionized the way that we understand the national -- natural world by having these lovely, beautiful photographs that made it special. And it actually helped us, you know, feel a sense that we need to protect these things. So photography has a role. And I suspect drones -- drone photography has a role, even in those types of spaces. But it's going to need to be very carefully determined.

  • 12:51:18

    NNAMDIOn to Thomas in Springfield, Va. Thomas, your turn.

  • 12:51:22

    THOMASYes. I have -- my question is how do you identify these guys? I mean, they're up there in the air. They're flying around. It's not like they have a number or a license or anything. And you -- they do something naughty or illegal, they are totally anonymous. And it might be cheaper for the individual who has it to abandon it rather than bring it back -- try extraordinary measures to bring it back to base.

  • 12:52:00

    NNAMDIWell, there are two aspects to that. One, in which you talked about earlier, Jonathan Jarvis, in which it goes into 150-deep of water that's about 160 degrees temperature. And then the people who put it there just go away. And so you have no idea of what to do next.

  • 12:52:17

    JARVISWe did get their license. So...

  • 12:52:19

    NNAMDITheir license plate number.

  • 12:52:20

    THOMPSON...we did track them down over time, when they turned in their rental vehicle. But you're correct. I mean, I think as Christopher indicated, right now, the technology is -- usually there's somebody with a joystick somewhere nearby that we can find. But I think as these things become more autonomous, that's going to be a bigger challenge.

  • 12:52:41

    NNAMDIChris, Clive, I'd like to hear your opinion about the email we got from Mark who said, "I think there should be a law that requires every UAV to have an identification label. I one crashes and does real damage, the user may just run away rather than own up to having done the damage." What do you say, Chris?

  • 12:52:57

    VOWell, it's really important to have the users be accountable for their actions, you know? And we think that, you know, people who use drones in bad or unsafe ways should be accountable through, you know, appropriate civil and criminal penalties. You know, it's different -- it's different from saying that I think we should ban all drones or anything like that. I certainly love the technology and I want to see this technology being used in all types of things. But in -- I think that the way to really approach this is to make sure that we have free and open access to the technology, but have perhaps things like licensing or perhaps a way to register drones so that we can identify those people and give them the appropriate penalties.

  • 12:53:43

    NNAMDIWhat do you say, Clive Thompson?

  • 12:53:45

    THOMPSONWell, it probably, you know, probably it depends on the size of the drone. I mean, a comparable point might be, say, cars versus bicycles, do you know? You have to register your car so we know, you know, who did something. Because we recognize in society that you can do a lot of damage with a car. We don't do that with bicycles. You don't need to license them, you know? So you do -- you can get hit by someone on a bicycle. They ride away. You never see them again. You know, there's no way to identify them unless you sort of see them. And that's because society has decided that this sort of -- the relative value of allowing bicycles to not be registered is a function of the value they provide and the limited -- more limited damage they can do.

  • 12:54:25

    THOMPSONAnd when they do do real damage, you know, someone sees someone and hunts them down. So it -- probably there's some sort of a line to be drawn between the very tiny drone that can't do much harm, can't fly for very long, can be found, versus the big one that can really do some damage.

  • 12:54:41

    NNAMDIHere's Bernie in Rockville, Md. Bernie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:54:45

    BERNIEYes, sir. I just wanted to say, you know, last night I was watching the Internet -- I'm sorry, watching cable and Formula One racing somewhere in Europe was using drones very effectively -- 14-, 18-, 20-second shots, full 360-degree turns. They were magnificent. And the quality is superb. They've been using drones for photography way back in the old -- I wouldn't say real old, but older James Bond movies. Most of these things are done with someone who's piloting the drone and another fellow who's doing the photography. It's a two-man operation, especially when you get into the semi- or fully-professional stuff.

  • 12:55:22

    BERNIEAnd most of these guys don't play around just like in your local ball field. They go to model-airplane parks that are, you know, I know out in Poolesville there's a lovely one to fly airplanes and fly helicopters that are -- you have to be even qualified to do with. There's an organization called the AMA, American Model Association, that is very big on this stuff.

  • 12:55:46

    NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, I was reading someplace, Jonathan Jarvis, that there is a national park that collaborates with a model airplane group. Where is that?

  • 12:55:53

    JARVISAt Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City -- the old Floyd Bennett Field. We work with the model aircraft group.

  • 12:56:02

    NNAMDIThat's what I'd read. And what do you think about Bernie's view, Clive Thompson, about the beauty -- well, you've already talked about the kind of photography that can be done. Bernie's call, I guess, just underscores that. Clive?

  • 12:56:17

    THOMPSONI can see all sorts of really fun things happening. I've already -- like, for example, I'm in a band. And, you know, I've already thought, you know, I should find someone who has a drone that can do, you know, video shots in my neighborhood. Because it would be fun to have us go out in Prospect Park and play some songs while they fly around and get some great shots of us. Because it would just be kind of fun to have that type of YouTube video, you know, for my band. So, you know, I think anytime someone gets exposure to maybe not looking at a drone, but seeing it and thinking, oh, what could I do with this? You'd definitely see some creative possibilities open up.

  • 12:56:55

    NNAMDIProspect Park is going to be busy this weekend. This is the weekend of the annual Labor Day Carnival in New York. There'll be millions of people around there. Gerald...

  • 12:57:04

    THOMPSONYeah. Maybe not the time to do it.

  • 12:57:06

    NNAMDIRight. Gerald in Warrenton, Va. Gerald, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:57:11

    GERALDYeah, Kojo. Thank you and I liked your show. The earlier caller talked about seeing a lot of detail on Google Earth. You know, those big satellites probably have a resolution of about 12 inches or something like that and that's probably regulated by the National Reconnaissance Organization. (sic) But the resolution of any photographic devices is determined by the aperture. There's a formula which spits out the resolution in arcseconds.

  • 12:57:35


  • 12:57:35

    GERALDIf you can get real close with a small camera, you can get very finely detailed pictures. And you -- that would be compared with a very big platform at a much higher elevation. So, you know, determining these regulations by weight of an aircraft is not quite...

  • 12:57:53

    NNAMDIAnd guess what? You...

  • 12:57:53

    GERALD...the way to go about it.

  • 12:57:54

    NNAMDIYou get the last comment, because we're just about out of time. Jonathan Jarvis is director of the National Park Service. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:01

    JARVISThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:58:02

    NNAMDIChris Vo is president of the D.C. Area Drone User Group. Chris, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:06

    VOThank you.

  • 12:58:06

    NNAMDIClive Thompson is a writer for Smithsonian magazine and the author of "Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better." Clive, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:58:14

    THOMPSONGlad to be here.

  • 12:58:16

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:58:28

    NNAMDIComing up tomorrow on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," from pulled pork to beef brisket, a look at regional barbecue styles and why D.C. has adopted them all. Then at 1:00, best seller versus critical darling. Why a highly-praised literary title doesn't always catch on with the readers. But a fun read can sell millions. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," noon till 2:00 tomorrow on WAMU 88.5 and streaming at

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows