By John Brandon
I looked over my shoulder, trying to avoid direct eye contact. A chill went down my spine as I walked near a marina in Berkeley, Calif. on a warm sunny day. I checked again, but couldn’t figure out what was causing my mild sense of dread.
“Someone is following me,” I thought.
That “someone” was a 3D Robotics Iris+ drone, which will debut this fall at a price of $750. It’s the first widely-available consumer drone that can use a “follow me” mode.
Several years ago, pundits in technology and the hobbyist market started talking about how aerial drones will one day follow us around, recording videos from a few hundred feet in the air. The idea is partly Orwellian in nature and partly a fun exercise in self-absorption.
Now it’s here. On the day of my test, two 3D Robotics employees launched the Iris+ drone into the air. It looks a bit like a metallic bug, measuring about two feet across. There’s a distinctive whirring sound, but the follow-me tech (which they call 3PV Follow Me) is unique in that you can set the drone to follow behind you in front, to the side, or in orbit.
The drone lasts about 16-22 minutes per charge. (Wise drone operators carry extra batteries to keep the fun going.) The remote control connects to the drone at a distance up to about 6 miles. The Iris+ can carry a payload of almost 1 pound (about 2-3 apples)
So what’s it like to have one follow you? A bit scary. The drone, technically known as an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, seemed to have a mind of its own. Developed by a 20-something Brazilian employee at 3D Robotics who used to write code through the open source community, the follow-me tech can be used to record your escapades while skiing in the mountains or riding a bike. It’s like a flying GoPro for the adventure crowd.
The drone connects to the controller and then keeps a safe distance away from you as you walk. Run into trouble, and you can easily hit a “return home” option.
Yet, it’s the personal surveillance angle that interests me. Some day, high-flying drones may record our entire lives as we walk around. We could take “dronies” (as they are called) instead of selfies. If someone tries to steal our wallet, we could record the altercation.
As you can imagine, the idea of having a drone follow you at all times could prove to be a bit controversial. Colin Guinn, a 3D Robotics spokesperson, told me there are strict regulations about flying in the U.S. national airspace and his company, based in Berkley, discourages drone operators from flying over roads or in populated areas.
As for privacy issues, that’s another matter.
“We understand the concerns about flying cameras, but drones— which are really loud and conspicuous, with flashing lights and a limited range and line-of-sight radius—are much less of a threat to privacy than all of those sleek surveillance devices that we each have in our pockets right now,” says Guinn, saying drones are much more conspicuous.
Elizabeth Cory, a spokesperson for the FAA, says that “current local, state and federal laws protect an individual’s privacy as it relates to [drone] operations. The FAA’s mission does not extend to regulating privacy, but we are also actively engaged in a whole-of-government effort to develop additional privacy safeguards as UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) are integrated into the national airspace.”
Will we all have a personal drone that follows us around?
Mike Fortin, who is a drone advocate and runs CineDrones, a company that sells drones and does on-location filming, told me that there are appropriate uses for the follow-me tech, such as adventure sports or using one in an open field to record aerial maneuvers. “Anyone walking down the street with a drone over their shoulder would be a bit of a creep,” he insists.
Touché, Mike. Point taken.