If you present people with a new, exciting technology, chances are they will use it to take photographs of themselves.
Take drones, those hovering, helicopter-like flying devices that the military has used for years and that are slowly, in miniaturized form, finding their way into the consumer world.
Over the last few years, drones have been finding jobs in industry. They are used for gathering news, checking crops on farms, as well as photographing houses for real estate agents, and — at least in the imaginations of some Amazon executives — drones will one day deliver packages to consumers who just can’t wait for the UPS truck.
Yet mainstream users have had trouble figuring out where an unmanned aerial vehicles fits into their lives.
It looks as if we may have an answer, and it’s some serious stuff: Among the first mainstream uses for drones will be airborne selfies.
Recently, a number of new products and social media services have popped up, in a noble effort to help people take better pictures and videos of themselves with the aid of a drone.
Last week, two drones made their debuts on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, both designed to allow people to shoot drone selfies, or dronies (that is, a selfie shot via drone).
The Hexo Plus, which comes with the tagline, “Your Autonomous Aerial Camera,” is compatible with a GoPro camera and is billed as an “intelligent drone that follows and films you autonomously.” A competitor, called the AirDog, treats a drone like a dog on a leash, tracking and following you wherever you go and snapping video and pictures of you as you do action sports.
Based on sales, consumers seem eager to buy these kinds of products. Hexo Plus hoped to raise $50,000 on Kickstarter. In three days, it passed $700,000, or 1,300 percent more than its goal. AirDog quickly flew past its $200,000 target, too.
The drone selfie movement even had its modern Gilded Age moment when the Marquee Dayclub, at the Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas, announced a new type of bottle service where patrons in bikinis at an outdoor pool can have their drinks delivered via a drone. Then it’s time to smile for the camera as your drink delivery vehicle snaps a picture. The price is a cool $20,000, but imagine how many likes you’ll get on Instagram.
Putting the cost aside, the idea of a drone going about its business over a crowded club (even if an outdoor club) seems a bit risky — not to mention that it poses all sorts of etiquette questions about tipping. Representatives from Marquee did not respond to a request for comment.
I should note that this isn’t the first drone drink delivery service. In a fine example of entrepreneurialism and innovation meeting a market need, a local brewery in Minnesota sought to airlift cases of beer to ice fishermen this year. The Federal Aviation Administration put the kibosh on the idea, saying the service would break commercial drone use laws.
Drink delivery, clever as it is, seems to be an outlier for drones. These days, it’s all about the selfie.
At the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity this week, Twitter showed off a company-sponsored account, Dronie, which let people at the festival take free drone selfie videos.
— Dronie (@dronie) June 15, 2014
From a photography standpoint, this all sounds wonderful. “Having a drone with a camera on it feels like you have a giant tripod in the sky,” said Amit Gupta, the founder of the online photography store Photojojo.
But take it from me, the drone craze is not all $20,000 bottle service and aerial photos of the bald spot on top of your head.
When I tried to fly a drone recently, it was as difficult as the first time I drove a car. I crashed drones into the San Francisco Bay, concrete sidewalks, trees and walls, and though I didn’t hit any innocent bystanders, I did fly one into myself a couple of times. Luckily, I was uninjured. (My pride, however, remains bruised.)
Drones sometimes crash into other people, too. In April, a runner at the West Australian triathlon was hit on the head by a drone that was being used to photograph the event. The Sydney Morning Herald described the injury as a “river of blood.” Last year, a drone crashed into a crowd in Virginia, injuring spectators, and another crashed into a crowd at the Coachella music festival. (How many people were hurt was unclear.) And there have been several reports of drones almost colliding with commercial and private planes.
And that doesn’t even include the deaths that involve toy helicopters, close cousins of drones.
“When things go wrong with a drone, the operator should be held accountable,” said Michael Toscano, president and chief executive of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit group devoted to advancing the unmanned systems and robotics community. He suggested that the F.A.A. require that people take a short online course before they can fly a drone in a public place, almost like a miniature pilot’s license.
Under the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress asked the agency to develop of safety guidelines that would enable the use of drones in American skies by September 2015. The F.A.A. did not respond to a request for comment.
Last year, Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, warned the F.A.A. that it needed to figure out regulations for drone use before the skies were filled with thousands of little flying copters, affecting people’s privacy and safety.
But Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, who specializes in robotics and drones, said the accidents that were occurring from private use of drones would become less common as the vehicles became safer and more autonomous. For now, fly with caution.
“From a product liability standpoint, it’s pretty straightforward,” he said. “You buy this thing, you fly it, it’s likely your fault if something goes wrong.”
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com