Drone hobbyists can buy their craft complete out of the box, but many are going the open-source, DIY route to radio-controlled flight.
With legislation on the way to clear drones for flight in U.S. airspace by 2015, surveillance, security, law-enforcement, agriculture and hobbyist markets are poised to get a new, and maybe open, view of the world
"I owe a lot of what I know about drones to hobbyists," says Matt Waite, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the founder of Drone Journalism Lab. He says that's because FAA restrictions have forced interested civilians to do it themselves.
"Because of FAA restrictions, we've had two groups really doing interesting things: the military, which we all know about, and hobbyists and DIYers because they can fly under hobbyist rules," Waite said.
Among DIYers, journalists are leading the pack.
Wired magazine Editor-In-Chief Chris Anderson has been a vocal proponent of DIY drones for years. In addition to launching DIY Drones to help prop up the amateur drone market with open-source info, Anderson has also founded 3D Robotics, which sells drone kits and equipment.
Waite calls Anderson's site, which offers open-source help for ambitious creators, a haven for those who want to learn.
"You're seeing this situation, like Chris Anderson describes, where hobbyists are crowdsourcing the military-industrial complex," he explained. "Most of what I'm looking at for journalism can be accomplished with what these hobbyist-class aircraft people write about on DIY Drones. They're solving the problems I don't know I have yet, and doing it in an open way."
Matthew Schroyer, the founder of Dronejournalism.org is developing drones for educational use under a National Science Foundation grant. Schroyer has built airplanes since he was a kid, and was introduced to drones in 2011. He realized the potential for drones in gathering data during major events like the Arab Spring and Hurricane Katrina.
Schroyer parts are getting less expensive just as longer-lived lithium polymer batteries are proliferating. Both are major factors in broadening interest in drones. He says he started by lurking on message boards and learning from programming guides.
"You get a lot of freedom that comes with" open-source development.
"People can exchange information, post aerial photos or videos and basically advance the hobby," Schroyer said, noting that he has four planes in his office in Illinois. "You can build one for about $1,000."
Do It Yourself
Drone kits make getting hooked that much easier. Assembled radio-controlled helicopter drones are available at retail stores like Brookestone for as low as $300. Some can even be controlled with smartphones and tablet. Super easy.
Schroyer says hobbyists are using drones for everything from photography, to low-cost aerial mapping and first-person videography.
"It's really as involved as you want to get," he said.
There are two types of drones: fixed-wing, or mini-airplanes, and rotary, or helicopters with one or more blades.
Drone creation is getting even easier with 3D printing, Schroyer says. "Micro-controllers are continuing to evolve," like the $35 raspberry pie single-board computer, Schroyer explained.
"It's basically a tiny computer with all the bits to do the processing," and you can go down to Radio Shack and buy this or an Arduino microcontroller without breaking the bank." These micocontrollers allow users to get an input from a sensor and turn that into an action or command for the device.
Schroyer suggests newbies to do a lot of research, and to fly ordinary radio-controlled, or RC, airplanes or helicopters to get used to manual flight.
"Training on an RC simulator, such as RealFlight or Flying Model Simulator, is an even better first step, because then you'll be learning the mechanics without the risk of crashing," he said.
While the ethical debate of civilian drone use is still up in the air the direction of the drone environment seems to keep going up. And with the FAA soon to ease restrictions, it looks like the culture is poised to keep flying.