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The Drones Of Burning Man

Burning Man is known for flouting rules, not making them. But the advent of drones hovering above 70,000 scantily clad revelers has engaged a balancing act between freedom of expression, safety, and privacy. How Burning Man regulates their use is now being studied by local law enforcement and government agencies as a template for how they can be regulated in society.

[Images courtesy of Carolyn Marut (Top) and Susan Karlin]

The day the giant wooden Man effigy was slated to burn, a crisis erupted in Burning Man’s media center.

It was the first time the rule-adverse desert arts festival tried to regulate its proliferation of personal drones—camera-toting remote-controlled airplanes and multicopters. But spinning blades over a sea of nearly 70,000 revelers was cause for concern. "Burning Man didn’t want to come from above with a lot of rules for drone flyers," says Jim Graham, Burning Man’s director of communications. "But we needed some best practices to operate responsibly. It’s an experiment."

Things were going smoothly until some wanna-be anarchist decided to challenge a top rule and fly his drone over the Man while a pyrotechnic crew packed it with explosives—an explicit no-no, given that crashes and drone-generated static electricity could trigger the fireworks. This self-regulation idea was turning out to be a lot trickier in practice.

Unexpected Trailblazers

Burning Man—an annual bacchanalian, clothing-optional experimental community in Nevada’s Black Rock desert—is regarded as a weeklong end-of-summer party and escape from the outside world. But it’s now attracting real-world attention for how it balances drone use with freedom of expression, privacy, invasion of space, and commercialism—issues that have been vexing the FAA, law enforcement, and municipalities as hobbyist flyers and commercial potential proliferate.

"We’re kind of a Petri dish for what’s going to happen out in the 'default world,'" says Graham, evoking the festival term for "real world." "The FAA is looking at certain types of rules for civilian use of drones in the United States and we just happen to be a testing ground for them right now. The Bureau of Land Management is going to send in their aviation person to talk with our drone pilots and see what they can learn from it."

Currently, the U.S. is more restrictive than Europe on commercial uses for drones—also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the more PC term used by flyers wanting to distance their hobby from combat use. "In the U.S., the FAA is supposed to implement rules that enable commercial use of UAVs by 2015, but it hasn’t happened yet and no one really has a sense of whether it’s going to," says Sergei Lupashin, a postdoctoral researcher in aerial robotics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Lupashin spoke at the first annual Drone and Aerial Robotics Conference in New York over the weekend.

"It recently approved two high-end UAVs that can be used commercially, but that doesn’t handle the 99% of people flying their own drones, who have to do it as a hobby," he adds. "In Europe, you can actually make money as an aerial drone operator shooting for things like real estate, events, journalism, and surveying oil pipelines."

(L-R) Video consultant Eddie Codel demonstrates his quadcopter for filmmaker Sam Baumel and NASA engineer Kevin Panik.

Back in Nevada, the Bureau of Land Management—which can’t comment on drone use for investigative techniques, like surveillance—is considering drones for firefighting, and is more interested in regulating safety than privacy. "As far as a long-term vision goes, you’re going to see the BLM state office and aviation manager taking a look at how this is run to make sure everything is as safe as can be," says Mark Turney, the public affairs officer for the BLM’s Winnemucca, Nevada, district office. "We will certainly take lessons learned from this and perhaps incorporate it into a larger overview."

Early Technology Adopters

The rise of the drones at this year’s event was hardly surprising. Burning Man has long been a hotbed of early technology adopters, applying real-world engineering to fire-spewing art cars, computerized LED-lit installation art and clothing, and solar and wind energy-fueled power grids. There are even science-themed camps, like Phage (offering science lectures), the Alternative Energy Zone (sustainable energy engineering tours), and Math Camp (invitations to "drink and derive").

"There’s always been an experimental technology undercurrent to Burning Man, and a lot of R&D that’s tried out here and taken into the default world," says Eddie "Ekai" Codel, a live video streaming consultant based in San Francisco. Codel’s footage (below), which he shot from a DJI Phantom Quadcopter, went viral within a few days of posting on YouTube, with more than 1.4 million views. "Technology is used to further art out here. It’s a giant sandbox to figure these things out."

Most of the UAV users here fly ready-to-fly models, like the $700 DJI Phantom Quadcopter, and add GoPro HD cameras and gimbaled stabilizers for steadier views. But there are also serious professional aerial photographers and hard-core DIY enthusiasts who build their own from scratch. This year, Ziv Marom, a professional aerial cameraman now in Bulgaria shooting Expendables 3, operated a Red Epic camera from his octocopter, "Big Mama" (see lead photo), while a European IMAX crew used an elaborate multicopter-propelled balloon to guide their footage for Sand To Ashes, an upcoming film about Burning Man art.

"I think I have about $1,500 invested in all of it," says Ed Somers, a retired Los Angeles sound engineer of his self-made quadcopter. "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, by forcing me to learn all that stuff. I’m a tech head anyway, so this is right up my alley. It’s just a gigantic learning curve."

The IMAX balloon drone hovers above the Temple, Burning Man's spiritual center. Last year, a drone interrupted the solemn Temple burn, prompting calls for regulation.

Drones and Art

Drones offer a particularly interactive way into the Burning Man art scene and unique views of the event’s five square-mile expanse. Artists Bruce Tomb and Maria del Camino used a UAV with first person view (FPV) technology—allowing folks on the ground to see the craft's viewpoint in real time—to display giant ground drawings only decipherable from above. Death Guild Thunderdome, a Mad Max-like cage fight with foam rubber clubs, attempted close-up combat footage with a drone before accidentally smashing it in the process.

Aerial roboticist Sergei Lupashin and his self-made Fotokite quadcopter.

"It’s the perfect Petri dish to in very harsh conditions," says Lupashin, who flies a tethered quadcopter drone, called a Fotokite, that he hopes to commercialize. "The scale of the event lends itself well to aerial photography. Once you reach those high altitudes—50, 100 meters—you get a whole different sense of how huge this thing is."

Last year, Lupashin, in conjunction with the non-profit ReAllocate, attempted a project called Blue Sky, involving GPS-driven drone delivery of event souvenirs (a proof-of-concept for real-world aid delivery). He used a Kinect scanner and 3-D printer to create 3-D models of participants and tried to deliver them by UAV using a GPS locator. "We did get to the point of printing people and kind of demonstrating the delivery, but the technology just wasn’t there," he says.

Wayne Miller, a San Francisco event planner and handyman better known as Sweetie, attempted to project live video footage from his fixed-wing Dynam C-47 Dakota model cargo plane, Duststar, onto two giant screens at a stage at his camp, Dustfish. "I’m also pretty sure I’m the first person to do aerial bombardment," he laughs. "I just dropped six plastic paratroopers on the Esplanade. I have lots of 'em!"

Event planner Wayne "Sweetie" Miller and his cargo plane drone, Duststar

Privacy Vs. Expression

Discussions about UAV regulations began last year after a buzzing drone disrupted a silent, solemn burn of the festival’s spiritual center, called The Temple. It prompted a flurry of angry emails to the Burning Man organization, which responded with a Drone Summit in July at its San Francisco headquarters and online. Roughly 140 participants expanded the Academy of Model Aeronautics rules to include Burning Man quirks—among them, don’t fly over crowds, at the Temple burn, by the airport, during the playa’s frequent dust storms, or near the Man on burn day.

Retired audio engineer Ed Somers flies his DIY drone by his camp

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

Other rules, such as registering drones with Media Mecca, the event's media center, pertain to a grayer area of privacy. Despite the festival’s mantra of radical self-expression, Burning Man takes pains to protect participant privacy and commercialization. Professional journalists and photographers arrange photo passes and sales contracts with Burning Man granting different types of image use. Burning Man disallows sales to stock photo agencies, but takes a 10% commission on fine art sales, as well as joint copyright so it can stop inappropriate usage. It also urges all photographers to ask permission of subjects before taking pictures.

Media Mecca volunteer John "Munney" Rosenstein (right) reviews UAV regulations with drone operator Guy "Kekoa" Powell.

"You may not have a 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."

The UAV community falls on both sides of that line. Sweetie, for one, balks at privacy restraints.

"I think that anybody who comes to Burning Man and walks around naked or wears a dildo on their head or whatever silliness they feel they need to do, if they need to protect their privacy, I think that should be on them, not on the rest of us," he says.

Then you have Sam Baumel, a Brooklyn filmmaker and UAV flyer who believes privacy rules actually enable expression.

"There are a lot of exhibitionists. But there are also people like myself," he says. "Yesterday, I went out to deep playa. I was completely by myself at sunset and got naked. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to photograph me. But the reason I did it was because, how often do I get to just stand on this Earth, in my body, and nothing else? If someone were to have flown a drone over my head, it would have made me uncomfortable."

Carlos Abler, the global manager of online content strategy for 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota, found his reaction running that gamut when a drone interrupted a wedding he attended there.

"We were embracing the couple as a group when we suddenly heard this buzzing, whirring sound, and saw this thing hovering over us with a camera," he says. "At first, it felt like a violation—it was really disturbing and distracting. But then we realized, 'Oh my God, this is the best shot ever!' So now we’re pretty excited to get our hands on the footage."

(L-R) Burning Man director of communications Jim Graham being interviewed by Simon Rentner of NPR-affiliate WGBO-FM

Now what?

This year’s rules were a good start, but need consensus, considering the vitriol spewing on the Burning Man drones mailing list. Subscribers clashed on how to define a crowd, whether to designate special flying areas, and how to penalize rule-breakers, like the wiseguy who flew his drone over the Man on burn day. Turns out, it was our very own Sweetie.

"They said to me, 'Don’t you realize you could have set off the remote detonators?’" Sweetie recounts. "I said, 'If I can set off the remote with an RC plane, you guys are amateurs!'"

Apprised of Sweetie's comments, Graham shakes his head and sighs. "Sweetie’s got a lot of self-confidence."

And so this tug of war over UAV rules continues, while being watched by the outside. But what happens in the desert will be only so useful to bureaucrats dealing with drones in the real world. Because at Burning Man, freedom of expression will almost always trump anything else.

"I’m not only operating a camera, I’m operating a remote-controlled flying vehicle," says Baumel. "I feel like I’m playing when I’m using it, and in that space of play, that’s where I can be most creative."

For an aural take on the Burning Man drones, listen to my piece on Los Angeles NPR station, KCRW.

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