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Eye in the Sky

What strange bird is this thing, the hexacopter? It's a drone you can own, marking a new stage in the consumerisation of military technology. Apart from its industrial uses, it has phallic-symbol appeal, retooling the middle-aged hobbyist dad into James Bond.

Original publication: Private Edition, 2013.

It fills the back of a bakkie and looks at first like something you might net off the continental shelf or in Joburg’s ailing water supply: part crustacean, part dragonfly, and faintly extra-terrestrial.

Then its outline comes into relief, along with its core parts and intricate tweaks and add-ons: six outstretched arms, each with a propeller; landing skids, braided wires, the stalk of a GPS antenna, a Velcro’d battery-pack, black steel tubing and strips of orange tape; and, ensconced under a helmet on the central plate, a ‘main-brain’ chipset packed to the pan with Chinese radio-control mojo.

hexacopter

Berthed on grassland, its lights start to pulse, and as the multi-rotors flicker into a blur, dust swells upwards in the buzzsaw noise. The hexacopter, guided from the ground by Gary McDonogh and his associate Neville Pienaar, hovers to eye-level, favouring us with a view of its undercarriage and raison d’être, the object whose weight it is designed to lift – the silver ingot of a tiltable camera, the nozzle of its lens erect.

Before you can say Crikey Moses, the machine is effortlessly aloft, chasing in circles over the field and then bounding off high and soundless into the wind above Kempton Park – crane the neck, shield the brow – to fade into a smudge and, finally, nothing at all. Where in creation is it, this costly device? With a flying time of around 20 minutes, a speed of 80 km/h and range of five clicks, it can easily elude the naked eye and emptied wallet. Well, who cares? Have a cigarette. If it has trouble, or the radio signal fails or the operator is a klutz, the thing can auto-pilot its own way home.

A point Gary dramatically illustrates on the hexacopter’s later return. He throttles off on the remote control and lobs it onto the grass. Look, no hands. Churning up grit, caught in the riptides of a stiff breeze, the aircraft self-adjusts its balance and remains imperturbably vertical, easing down bit by bit until its hindquarters have nestled on dry land.

For now it’s still on the hoof and out of sight, though in truth there’s been no break in visual contact. We might not be able to see it, but – vividly, exhilaratingly – we see what it itself is seeing. The camera records video footage, takes Google-beating, high-resolution photographs, and, thanks to a downlink working on a licence-free frequency, transmits that imagery in real-time to a tripod-mounted screen back at base, transforming the latter into a virtual cockpit.

Far below this soaring eye, houses, treetops and the suburban geometry glide past as in a dream, a marvel called first-person-view flying, or FPV for short.

What strange bird, then, is this hexacopter? Like its four-bladed sibling, the quadcopter, not to mention their faster and endurance-built fixed-wing cousins, the hexacopter has long been a rage in the United States, but Gary believes it made its debut in South African stores and flying circles as recently as 2010. He himself, assisted by Neville on the technical front, is both a hobby-shop owner as well as championship-level hobbyist – model boats, model off-road cars, the lot – and is among the entrepreneurs looking to develop a market for this new generation of radio-controlled aircraft.

Key to the undertaking is getting a fix on what these craft are, because they go by various names: aerial robots, aerial robotic media, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and more. Nonetheless, a better-known term exists. Drone. Hexacopters are drones you can own, right? Gary considers for a moment, finding the term ‘somewhat emotive’. Then again, he frequently uses it himself. People know what you mean, and for all its potential stigma it’s pretty cool. On the other hand, if drone calls to mind war in Afghanistan, soft-opting for model aeroplanes makes the UAVs ‘sound toyish’. Denel would be miffed if you implied its missile-equipped Seeker 400 was just a weekend lark.

There is, Gary suggests, a larger picture overshadowing questions of terminology. ‘The big change in the market is that military technology has become consumerised. The military tech of 20 years ago is now consumer technology. The average person can walk into a shop and buy it off the shelf.’ No one bats an eyelid about GPS, say, but not long ago it was the preserve of the American military. Today it’s ubiquitous, and with drone know-how entering the open, it’s conceivable that in the long run it too might find a myriad of unsuspected uses in mainstream life.

Already there are signs of shakeup in Toytown, indicators of product adaptation and market-shift. Gary’s store is a case in point, at once soothingly nostalgic and busily cutting-edge. Shelves are laden with scale-model kits, spare parts and balsawood warbirds, the ceiling above them festooned with aeroplanes hung from the ceiling. At the far end is the workshop, a place for walk-in repairs but, more particularly, testing and hand-tooling the bespoke accessories fitted to Gary’s range of drones, chief of which is the FPV hexacopter, his ‘high-end, niche’ offering.

Excluding birthday shoppers and school-project call-ins, your typical customer is he whom folklore predicts and repeated observation proves. He is a married man, Gary explains, ‘married to aviation. He’s got AIDS, Aviation Induced Divorce Syndrome, and is addicted … Men often go through a life-crisis or maybe have troubles at home. The hobby store takes a man back to his childhood, to a time of less stress.’

Yet while the customers traipsing through the grille-gate year after year might in effect just morph into the same guy all the time, his background and job interests do change over the decades, trends which Gary explored in his business-school thesis on the impact of technological advances on the hobby market. ‘For example, when model aircrafting was about getting a box of sticks and gluing them together, it appealed to people like architects and engineers. With the swing to electronics, there was interest from the likes of programmers, software developers.’

Ditto with drones, he says. ‘For the many hobbyists who buy them, it’s literally a hobby. But we’re also seeing increased interest from non-traditional users, people who’re in it to achieve a business outcome.’ In the case of the hexacopter, this functional approach is almost necessitated by the price-tag, as competitive as Gary declares it to be. ‘You can have lots of fun, but when you’re spending upwards of R100k, the craft has a job to do. We don’t do loops and flips with this one. It’s a hovering platform, the eye in the sky.’

Current and projected uses of drones cover wide ground, from residential photography by homeowners and estate agents to promotional videos for casinos, golf courses and entertainment complexes; indeed, film companies are starting to cut costs by using drones rather than helicopters for aerial footage. Then there are deployments for property valuations, high-rise inspections, game-counts, check-ups on farming crops, the monitoring of public works and property developments …

The drone’s security applications are especially diverse, given its surveillance capabilities and ability both to fly pre-set missions along the perimeters of farms, mines or luxury estates as well be dispatched to specific incidents ahead of security personnel.

It’s also stealthy, meaning that, unlike a normal helicopter, it can creep up on game in a reserve without making them charge off in alarm before you see the reds of their eyes – good for nature documentation, and even better for anti-poaching efforts, because the infrared lens can detect hot bodies at night. Similarly, the drone can facilitate crowd-control during strikes and riots, gathering intel for here-and-now response and evidentiary material for post-mortems; it’s mere hovering presence has deterrence-value. An eye in the sky.

‘The range of applications comes down to your imagination,’ Gary says, keenly aware how dark that imagination could run: having been consumerised, the technology could be re-militarised, black-ops-style. But that’s another story, and for now the nascent community of early-adopters – retailers, users, interested parties – is taking steps towards self-regulation to pre-empt any heavy-handed reaction by the government.

‘Let’s not forget this comes from wanting to have fun. What’s the attraction of having an unmanned vehicle? That it’s unmanned – but there’s a man behind it. Maybe it has a James Bond feeling. People might have illusions of spying on the neighbour’s swimming pool. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But the fact is that they feel they can do it.’ Gary laughs, tousle-haired, gravelly-voiced. ‘It brings a certain amount of power back home.’

A point Gary dramatically illustrates on the hexacopter’s later return. He throttles off on the remote control and lobs it onto the grass. Look, no hands. Churning up grit, caught in the riptides of a stiff breeze, the aircraft self-adjusts its balance and remains imperturbably vertical, easing down bit by bit until its hindquarters have nestled on dry land.

For now it’s still on the hoof and out of sight, though in truth there’s been no break in visual contact. We might not be able to see it, but – vividly, exhilaratingly – we see what it itself is seeing. The camera records video footage, takes Google-beating, high-resolution photographs, and, thanks to a downlink working on a licence-free frequency, transmits that imagery in real-time to a tripod-mounted screen back at base, transforming the latter into a virtual cockpit.

Far below this soaring eye, houses, treetops and the suburban geometry glide past as in a dream, a marvel called first-person-view flying, or FPV for short.

What strange bird, then, is this hexacopter? Like its four-bladed sibling, the quadcopter, not to mention their faster and endurance-built fixed-wing cousins, the hexacopter has long been a rage in the United States, but Gary believes it made its debut in South African stores and flying circles as recently as 2010. He himself, assisted by Neville on the technical front, is both a hobby-shop owner as well as championship-level hobbyist – model boats, model off-road cars, the lot – and is among the entrepreneurs looking to develop a market for this new generation of radio-controlled aircraft.

Key to the undertaking is getting a fix on what these craft are, because they go by various names: aerial robots, aerial robotic media, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), and more. Nonetheless, a better-known term exists. Drone. Hexacopters are drones you can own, right? Gary considers for a moment, finding the term ‘somewhat emotive’. Then again, he frequently uses it himself. People know what you mean, and for all its potential stigma it’s pretty cool. On the other hand, if drone calls to mind war in Afghanistan, soft-opting for model aeroplanes makes the UAVs ‘sound toyish’. Denel would be miffed if you implied its missile-equipped Seeker 400 was just a weekend lark.

There is, Gary suggests, a larger picture overshadowing questions of terminology. ‘The big change in the market is that military technology has become consumerised. The military tech of 20 years ago is now consumer technology. The average person can walk into a shop and buy it off the shelf.’ No one bats an eyelid about GPS, say, but not long ago it was the preserve of the American military. Today it’s ubiquitous, and with drone know-how entering the open, it’s conceivable that in the long run it too might find a myriad of unsuspected uses in mainstream life.

Already there are signs of shakeup in Toytown, indicators of product adaptation and market-shift. Gary’s store is a case in point, at once soothingly nostalgic and busily cutting-edge. Shelves are laden with scale-model kits, spare parts and balsawood warbirds, the ceiling above them festooned with aeroplanes hung from the ceiling. At the far end is the workshop, a place for walk-in repairs but, more particularly, testing and hand-tooling the bespoke accessories fitted to Gary’s range of drones, chief of which is the FPV hexacopter, his ‘high-end, niche’ offering.

Excluding birthday shoppers and school-project call-ins, your typical customer is he whom folklore predicts and repeated observation proves. He is a married man, Gary explains, ‘married to aviation. He’s got AIDS, Aviation Induced Divorce Syndrome, and is addicted … Men often go through a life-crisis or maybe have troubles at home. The hobby store takes a man back to his childhood, to a time of less stress.’

Yet while the customers traipsing through the grille-gate year after year might in effect just morph into the same guy all the time, his background and job interests do change over the decades, trends which Gary explored in his business-school thesis on the impact of technological advances on the hobby market. ‘For example, when model aircrafting was about getting a box of sticks and gluing them together, it appealed to people like architects and engineers. With the swing to electronics, there was interest from the likes of programmers, software developers.’

Ditto with drones, he says. ‘For the many hobbyists who buy them, it’s literally a hobby. But we’re also seeing increased interest from non-traditional users, people who’re in it to achieve a business outcome.’ In the case of the hexacopter, this functional approach is almost necessitated by the price-tag, as competitive as Gary declares it to be. ‘You can have lots of fun, but when you’re spending upwards of R100k, the craft has a job to do. We don’t do loops and flips with this one. It’s a hovering platform, the eye in the sky.’

Current and projected uses of drones cover wide ground, from residential photography by homeowners and estate agents to promotional videos for casinos, golf courses and entertainment complexes; indeed, film companies are starting to cut costs by using drones rather than helicopters for aerial footage. Then there are deployments for property valuations, high-rise inspections, game-counts, check-ups on farming crops, the monitoring of public works and property developments …

The drone’s security applications are especially diverse, given its surveillance capabilities and ability both to fly pre-set missions along the perimeters of farms, mines or luxury estates as well be dispatched to specific incidents ahead of security personnel.

It’s also stealthy, meaning that, unlike a normal helicopter, it can creep up on game in a reserve without making them charge off in alarm before you see the reds of their eyes – good for nature documentation, and even better for anti-poaching efforts, because the infrared lens can detect hot bodies at night. Similarly, the drone can facilitate crowd-control during strikes and riots, gathering intel for here-and-now response and evidentiary material for post-mortems; it’s mere hovering presence has deterrence-value. An eye in the sky.

‘The range of applications comes down to your imagination,’ Gary says, keenly aware how dark that imagination could run: having been consumerised, the technology could be re-militarised, black-ops-style. But that’s another story, and for now the nascent community of early-adopters – retailers, users, interested parties – is taking steps towards self-regulation to pre-empt any heavy-handed reaction by the government.

‘Let’s not forget this comes from wanting to have fun. What’s the attraction of having an unmanned vehicle? That it’s unmanned – but there’s a man behind it. Maybe it has a James Bond feeling. People might have illusions of spying on the neighbour’s swimming pool. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But the fact is that they feel they can do it.’ Gary laughs, tousle-haired, gravelly-voiced. ‘It brings a certain amount of power back home.’

 

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