At Drone Conference, Talk of Morals and Toys

At Drone Conference, Talk of Morals and Toys



The people came for the technology, certainly, and for the flying demonstrations they were promised. They came to find the hobbyists and dreamers who shared their vision of drones as a force of good — or at least good business.

They did not come for this.

“Find a partner,” a philosophy professor instructed on Friday from the stage at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference, held at New York University. “I would like you to look him or her in the eyes for just five seconds.”

Most of the dozens in attendance initially refused. The teacher pleaded until the partnering was complete. Then the counting began, and never seemed to end. At least one attendee appeared to surrender midway, looking away to compose a Twitter message after about three seconds.

“You feel that little quiver in your stomach?” the professor, John Kaag of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, asked when it was over. “It’s called a sign of being human. Drones don’t feel that.”

It has been a trying period for defenders of the drone. Public perception has been shaped in large part by the Obama administration’s use of drones in counterterrorism efforts, and civil liberties advocates have long decried the drone’s seemingly boundless capacity to restrict privacy.

Then there was the blemish for local hobbyists last week, when a drone was said to have crashed near Grand Central Terminal, narrowly missing a pedestrian.

And so, at times on Friday, the forum seemed equal parts acknowledgment of the technology’s perils and a self-affirmation exercise for its proponents, who have cited the potential of drones to improve agriculture practices and monitor endangered species, among other applications.

Speakers appeared intent on softening the drone’s image — likening it to a kite, a cellphone, a pet on a leash.

Others drew parallels to the work of Steve Jobs and the Wright brothers.

One presenter, Raphael Pirker, brought his lawyer on stage. Mr. Pirker, who has used remote flying devices to capture sweeping videos of landmarks, is contesting thousands of dollars in fines sought by the Federal Aviation Administration over a drone flight at the University of Virginia.