In the Mu­seum Good Sa­mar­i­tan drone

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rou­tinely ap­pear­ing in the news, usu­ally ei­ther for some new (and of­ten im­prac­ti­cal) ap­pli­ca­tion—such as beer de­liv­ery—or for pos­ing a hazard to air traf­fic, spec­ta­tors at sport­ing events, or backyard sun­bathers. As a cu­ra­tor, I some­times find it a chal­lenge to keep pace with an up-and-com­ing tech­nol­ogy, es­pe­cially given the Mu­seum’s pref­er­ence for see­ing where the chips (i.e., his­toric sig­nif­i­cance) ul­ti­mately fall be­fore com­mit­ting scarce ex­hibit and stor­age space to new ar­ti­facts. How­ever, in the case of the Dra­gan­flyer X4-ES, the de­ci­sion was a no-brainer.

This Dra­gan­flyer quad-ro­tor, pro­duced by Dra­gan­fly In­no­va­tions Inc. of Saska­toon, Saskatchewan, was the first pub­lic-ser­vice drone to save a hu­man life. Cor­po­ral Doug Green of the Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice op­er­ated it in the mid­dle of the night on May 9, 2013, to lo­cate some­one who had suf­fered a head in­jury in an au­to­mo­bile ac­ci­dent and wan­dered away in sub­freez­ing weather with­out suf­fi­cient cloth­ing. Ground teams and a he­li­copter team equipped with a night-vi­sion tech­nol­ogy had failed to lo­cate the in­di­vid­ual. Un­like the he­li­copter, the Moun­ties’ Dra­gan­flyer was equipped with a re­mark­able in­no­va­tion: an un­cooled For­ward Look­ing In­frared (FLIR) cam­era that weighs all of 260 grams (0.8 pound). Built by FLIR Sys­tems, Inc., the drone’s ther­mal imag­ing quickly did what the he­li­copter crew’s night-vi­sion gog­gles could not, and lo­cated the in­di­vid­ual— in the later stages of hy­pother­mia, miss­ing his shoes and clad only in pants and a T-shirt.

Founded by Zenon and Chris­tine Dra­gan in 1998, Dra­gan­fly In­no­va­tions has be­come one of the lead­ing sup­pli­ers of pub­lic-ser­vice drones in the United States and Canada. The rea­sons are ob­vi­ous. They are rugged and easy to fly, and can be prepped for flight in un­der a minute. While Dra­gan­fly­ers are more ex­pen­sive than most hob­by­ist mod­els by an or­der of mag­ni­tude (a unit costs around $30,000), they are cheaper than nearly all mil­i­tary mod­els. The Moun­ties con­tinue to garner head­lines with Dra­gan­fly­ers, find­ing a fam­ily lost in the woods in Nova Sco­tia this past Septem­ber. That prov­ince’s branch of the Moun­ties op­er­ates five Dra­gan­fly­ers. Saskatchewan owns 11: three in its foren­sic col­li­sion pro­gram and eight in the foren­sic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram. Its great­est util­ity at present is for doc­u­men­ta­tion and in­ves­ti­ga­tion of multi-ve­hi­cle col­li­sions, where the aerial per­spec­tive speeds the Moun­ties’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion process with­out loss in ac­cu­racy.

“The use of the Dra­gan­fly­ers in our units has al­ready proven valu­able in

two ma­jor court cases,” says Green.

The Cana­dian ori­gins of the Dra­gan­flyer, and the his­toric na­ture of this air­craft’s op­er­a­tional “first,” are no co­in­ci­dence, as the small drone in­dus­try is in a state of flux. While the United States and Is­rael tra­di­tion­ally dom­i­nated the mil­i­tary un­manned aerial sys­tems in­dus­try, other na­tions are lead­ing in civil drone in­no­va­tion (see “Brought to You by Drones,” p. 22). France’s Par­rot has been dom­i­nat­ing the mar­ket for what might be con­sid­ered train­ing drones. China’s DJI has rapidly be­come the lead­ing player in the en­thu­si­ast and light com­mer­cial pho­tog­ra­phy mar­kets. Ja­pan’s Yamaha has been ahead of the field in agri­cul­tural drones, and Dra­gan­fly has been a fa­vorite of law en­force­ment.

With a low pop­u­la­tion den­sity and plenty of rugged ter­rain, Canada is ideal for test­ing small drones. This is not to say Amer­i­can man­u­fac­tur­ers aren’t in­no­vat­ing, but the com­pe­ti­tion is fierce, and the slow pace of FAA reg­u­la­tion has placed the Amer­i­can mar­ket at a sig­nif­i­cant dis­ad­van­tage.

While the mar­ket for hob­by­ist and light com­mer­cial uses has ex­ploded, even with­out clear reg­u­la­tions, U.S. po­lice de­part­ments have been slow to adopt drones. Neg­a­tive pub­lic re­ac­tions that in­volve is­sues from pri­vacy con­cerns to the “mil­i­ta­riza­tion” of law en­force­ment have damp­ened en­thu­si­asm. How­ever, the ad­van­tages of small drones over con­ven­tional he­li­copters and other forms of mon­i­tor­ing, par­tic­u­larly in a hostage cri­sis, dis­as­ter re­sponse, or other emer­gency will likely over­come this am­biva­lence.

With the ad­di­tion of the Dra­gan­flyer, the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum has taken an im­por­tant step in doc­u­ment­ing what is the most sig­nif­i­cant aero­nau­ti­cal revo­lu­tion in decades. The abil­ity to de­ploy low­cost aerial plat­forms with ca­pa­bil­i­ties that ri­val a mil­lion-dol­lar he­li­copter and FLIR sys­tem is open­ing aviation to many new users, from real es­tate agents and wed­ding pho­tog­ra­phers to in­dus­trial in­spec­tors and search-an­dres­cue units.

Like most rev­o­lu­tion­ary tech­nolo­gies of the past cen­tury, the drone poses chal­lenges for so­ci­ety, such as safety and pri­vacy. These are not in­signif­i­cant is­sues. Hob­by­ists have long had the po­ten­tial to in­ter­fere with aviation, with ra­dio-con­trolled air­craft, model rock­ets, and even kites, but se­ri­ous in­ci­dents were ex­ceed­ingly rare. The pro­lif­er­a­tion of small drones and op­er­a­tors un­fa­mil­iar with the aviation en­vi­ron­ment is re­sult­ing in daily re­ports of near col­li­sions. In the fall of 2014, Ama­zon was sell­ing 8,000 small drones a month, many to peo­ple with lim­ited aware­ness of the haz­ards as­so­ci­ated with flight. We are clearly at a turn­ing point in the ways in which we use airspace. For this rea­son, the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum’s col­lect­ing of the Dra­gan­flyer as its first non-mil­i­tary small un­manned aerial sys­tem marks a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone in the Mu­seum’s col­lec­tions as well as the his­tory of aviation.




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