How I Accidentally Kicked Off The iPhone Drone Revolution

iphone photo
The very first aerial iPhone photo

While this seems like an outrageous claim, it’s not any more outrageous than a lot of other claims people have made in the dronesphere. In any event, allow me to share a short story of how I captured the first iPhone aerial drone photo.   

At the time I had teamed up with a group of guys from Pict’Earth who were working on getting this, stitching and georeferencing photos, from drones. I know you’re thinking big stinking deal, but this was way back in 2006, and 7. 3G was what 5G is now and the whole idea was to do all of this live and in the air.

There was such a buzz about this that the folks from TED approached us about doing a demo at an upcoming conference. I said sure; we’ll give it the old college try and see if can get the stars to line up for a live demo. Now at the time, the whole notion was very ambitious, and I had serious doubts that we would be able to get the photos and stitch them up in real time, as technology and the best-laid plans of unicorn and men don’t always line up.  Anyway, Chris Anderson took it over with a demonstration on how autonomous Arduino balloons struggle not to get sucked into the HVAC return when the air-conditioning clicks on. After seeing the video, I realised things might just happen for a reason after all.

The iPhone photo was kind of by accident as we had planned on flying the Nokia N95, but it got damaged during a test flight that ended by ditching in the Pacific. As we all know, salt water and electronics don’t get along. So we endeavoured to persevere by employing the iPhone alternative.  Only one problem, the iPhone didn’t have a button or switch to fire the camera. Roh-roh, what engineering solution could we use to overcome that hurdle in short order?

On the ride up to Sacramento, Stewart and Jeff stopped off at Carl’s Junior drive-thru for lunch. Just by accident, Jeff touched a French fry to the screen and the fry would take photos or activate apps, etc.  I deduced that somehow a little bit of electrical charge must somehow transfer from finger through the French fry to screen. I don’t know for sure what the hell was going on with the french fry and flow of current, but I had an idea for a flyable substitute. I employed what I termed the Carl’s Junior method which consisted of a servo, a little voltage, a Q-tip head and some saline solution. The salt may have been superfluous to make everything work, but if it was good enough for the fries logic dictated that we not mess with a winning combination.  

While the photo may lack aesthetic flair, it makes up for it with historical significance.  It was Sacramento summertime and 105 + degrees in the late afternoon when we went out to make all of this magic happen. We were using brushed motors that were overheating and a Q-tip that was drying out in the heat, but like other pioneers, we were able to overcome adversity and make history!   

The story went worldwide . The reader comments were priceless and ranged from “Genius” to “time to change the bong water!”

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Patrick Egan
Editor in Field, sUAS News Americas Desk | Patrick Egan is the editor of the Americas Desk at sUAS News and host and Executive Producer of the sUAS News Podcast Series, Drone TV and the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition. Experience in the field includes assignments with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command Battle Lab investigating solutions on future warfare research projects. Instructor for LTA (Lighter Than Air) ISR systems deployment teams for an OSD, U.S. Special Operations Command, Special Surveillance Project. Built and operated commercial RPA prior to 2007 FAA policy clarification. On the airspace integration side, he serves as director of special programs for the RCAPA (Remote Control Aerial Photography Association).