December 3, 2023

In This Sky, the Planes Fly Alone

So one weekend in 2007, Mr. Anderson brought home a model radio-controlled airplane and a Lego Mindstorms robotics kit. Soon he and the children put the two toys together, making the Lego robot fly the plane. The result was a clunky Lego drone.

His children moved on to other playthings. But Mr. Anderson was captivated. And that led him to found an online network for amateur drone enthusiasts, DIY Drones, and to co-found a new business, 3D Robotics, which features an online store for those hobbyists.

“This is the future of aviation,” Mr. Anderson, 49, said. “Our children will not believe that people used to drive cars and drive airplanes. We are the weak link in the chain.”

Unlike traditional radio-controlled planes, unmanned aerial vehicles, or U.A.V.’s, have the capacity for autonomous flight and navigation. A radio-controlled plane becomes an autonomous drone when it is given an autopilot, which Mr. Anderson calls “giving the plane a brain.”

Mr. Anderson was among the enthusiasts here recently attending the third annual Autonomous Vehicle Competition, where teams of software programmers and robot tinkerers from across the country faced off in robot races.

Though many of the racers focused on antics like dressing their robots as dinosaurs, Mr. Anderson believes that unmanned aircraft are not just for fun-loving hobbyists. He argues that small drones outfitted with sensors could be used to assess emergency situations like that at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, to find survivors of natural disasters, to assist law enforcement and to monitor pipelines, agricultural crops and wildlife populations.

He is not alone in his thinking; many companies and research institutions are working to design drones for commercial and other uses. The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that around 50 companies, universities and government organizations are at work on at least 155 drone designs in the United States alone. Some companies already manufacture sophisticated drones. AeroVironment, based in Monrovia, Calif., designed the 4.2-pound, hand-launched Raven aircraft currently used by United States military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, there are privacy and safety concerns, which the F.A.A. mitigates by limiting commercial opportunities for U.A.V.’s and by requiring special permits for unmanned vehicles to fly in the National Airspace System — a complex web of more than 19,000 airports that involves about 100,000 flights a day and thousands of air traffic controllers.

So far, the agency has issued 240 such permits — the Department of Homeland Security received permission to patrol the border with drones, and NASA was allowed to fly unmanned aircraft to spot wildfires across the West.

The F.A.A. has an additional 164 permit applications pending, and early this fall expects to release new rules, which Mr. Anderson hopes will be more lenient toward unmanned aircraft.

Mr. Anderson said DIY Drones had 15,000 members and had about one million page views a month, tapping into a world of do-it-yourself hobbyists who build their own small drones and fly them around parks and neighborhoods. Many of the site’s members, he said, work day jobs at major technology companies like Apple and work in their off hours to develop open-source software that can fly seagull-size drones.

Mr. Anderson founded 3D Robotics with Jordi Muñoz, 24. The two met soon after Mr. Anderson trolled the Web for fellow homegrown drone makers and saw a video of Mr. Muñoz flying a helicopter using a repurposed Wii controller. The company now sells the autopilot hardware, cords and sensors needed to build unmanned planes and quadcopters, small helicopters with four rotors.

“We are growing really fast,” said Mr. Muñoz, the company’s chief executive, who assembled early prototypes at his home. “When we first started I was working 24 hours a day, seven days a week for almost a year.”

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