Personal Drones Fly Above Burning Man

The desert festival’s handling of safety and privacy issues may influence government regulation

6 min read

Personal Drones Fly Above Burning Man
Photo: Carolyn Marut

Burning Man—the annual bacchanalian summer festival on the playa of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert—is well known for touting the arts and experimental living. It’s also gaining a reputation as a hotbed of early technology adopters, like the temporary village of sustainable engineering we profiled last year.

This year, the hot technology was personal drones—remote-controlled unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. The craft, which included fixed-wing planes and multicopters, were typically equipped with stabilizers, GPS, and first-person view systems. These enabled precision maneuvering while allowing the operator to see from the UAV’s point of view.

“It’s the perfect petri dish to test the technology in very harsh conditions,” says Sergei Lupashin, a postdoctoral researcher in aerial robotics at the University of Zurich, who flies a tethered quadcopter-like drone, called a Fotokite, that he’s hoping to commercialize. “The scale of the event lends itself well to aerial photography,” he says. “Once you reach those high altitudes—50, 100 meters—you get a whole different sense of how huge this thing is, which is really neat.”

Artists and theme-camp bars at the festival have used drones to display giant ground drawings or flights over the surrounding playa, while a couple of participants have made unsuccessful attempts at GPS-driven drone delivery of food and event souvenirs. This year, San Francisco–based professional aerial cameraman Ziv Marom operated a high-end Red Epic camera from his octocopter while a European IMAX crew used an elaborate multicopter-propelled balloon to guide their footage.

Some Burning Man UAV enthusiasts build their own aircraft from scratch. “I think I have about $1500 invested in all of it,” chuckles Ed Somers, a retired sound engineer from Manhattan Beach, Calif. “There’s the airframe, motors, motor controllers, computer, five different kinds of battery chemistries to choose from, the chargers, and on and on. I thought it would be an incredible education, forcing me to learn all that stuff.”

But most users shell out about US $700 for ready-to-fly models and add robust GoPro HD cameras and gimbaled stabilizers for steady bird’s-eye views of the event grounds, which encompass roughly 14 square kilometers.

 “There’s always been an experimental technology undercurrent to Burning Man,” says Eddie “Ekai” Codel, a consultant on live-video streaming projects who is based in San Francisco. Codel’s footage (embedded below), which he shot from a DJI Phantom quadcopter, went viral within a few days of posting on YouTube, with over 1.4 million views. “Technology is used to further art out here,” Codel says. “It’s a giant sandbox to figure these things out. So there’s a lot of R&D and interesting technology that’s tried out here.”

But the outside world may be most interested in how UAVs are being regulated at Burning Man. With the rise in civilian drone use, how these rules play out on the playa could serve as a template for local governments either looking to UAVs to assist in law enforcement or surveying or interested in controlling their personal and commercial use. The festival is keeping the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration abreast of developments, along with Nevada’s law enforcement agencies and the state’s Bureau of Land Management: “The FAA is looking at rules for civilian use of drones in the United States, and we just happen to be a testing ground for them right now. The BLM is going to send in their aviation person to talk with our drone pilots,” says Jim Graham, Burning Man’s director of communications.

The FAA is supposed to release new rules for UAV operations by 2015 at the latest, “but it hasn’t happened yet, and no one really has a sense of whether it’s going to,” says robotics researcher Lupashin. “It recently approved two high-end UAVs that can be used commercially, but that doesn’t handle the 99 percent of people flying their own quadcopters, drones, and multicopters, who basically have to do it as a hobby.” He notes that despite the fragmented nature of Europe’s national drone regulations, the continent is still quite progressive: “In Europe, you can actually make money as an aerial drone operator, shooting for things like real estate, events, journalism, and surveying oil pipelines.”

Many of Burning Man’s drone issues are hashed out on a mailing list. Discussions began in earnest last year when a buzzing drone disrupted a silent, solemn event called the Temple Burn, prompting a flurry of angry e-mails to the Burning Man organization. Organizers responded with a Drone Summit last July, which took place online and at Burning Man’s San Francisco headquarters. Roughly 140 participants expanded the Academy of Model Aeronautics rules to include quirks specific to Burning Man. Among them are injunctions against flying over crowds, close to certain events, or during the frequent dust storms that blow in.

Other rules, such as registering drones with the media center, pertain to privacy. Despite the festival’s crazy costumes and clothes-optional dress code, organizers try to protect participant privacy, including urging photographers to ask permission before taking pictures—something not possible with a drone.

“You may not have a [legal] right to privacy out here, but we try to give people the opportunity to express themselves how they want, and sometimes it’s a balancing act,” says Graham. “A drone with a camera is separated from its operator. That’s why there’s this extra sensibility training that we do with the drone pilots, and we let the community know about it as well.”

Burning Man’s UAV fliers are themselves divided on the issue of drone photography. With a camera, “there’s a negotiation, even if it’s without words, when you’re going to be taking someone’s picture,” says Sam Baumel, a filmmaker and installation artist in Brooklyn, N.Y., who also flies a DJI Phantom quadcopter. “You’re making eye contact with the person; you have to be in close proximity. If they feel uncomfortable, you’re probably going to know it. If you’re operating a drone, you no longer have that negotiation. I can understand people feeling violated because of that.”

Others are less sympathetic. “If I was concerned about my privacy here and I didn’t want people to see me walking round naked, it’s on me to disguise myself or not do it, not to put it on everyone else’s responsibility,” says Wayne Miller, better known as Sweetie, a San Francisco handyman and event planner who operates a remote-controlled fixed-wing Dynam C-47 Dakota model cargo plane.

 “What they really don’t want is people flying UAVs where there’s a potential of hurting someone,” says DIYer Somers. “You have to realize that even a 10-inch [25-cm] plastic propeller spinning at 10 000 rpm can cut up a person real quick.”

The verdict thus far on Burning Man’s regulatory regime: This year’s rules were a good start, but they need tweaking. There were reports of near crashes, and event organizers confronted Sweetie for flying his cargo plane near the eponymous Burning Man figure on the day they were packing it with explosives (unexpected crashes and static discharge from the drones could trigger the fireworks electrical igniters). And in the weeks following the event, UAV operators have hotly debated the definition of a crowd, whether an operating proficiency test should be required, the creation of designated flying areas, and how rule violators should be penalized.

What no one wants is too tight a rein, especially given UAV technology’s contribution to the event’s artistic scene. “I’m not only operating a camera; I’m operating a remote-controlled flying vehicle, and I feel like I’m playing when I’m using it,” says Baumel. “And in that space of playing, that’s where I feel I can be most creative.”

This story was corrected on October 8th, 2013.

About the Author

Susan Karlin is a regular contributor to IEEE Spectrum. Her last article was a profile of bioinformatics researcher Gonçalo Abecasis in the October issue.

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