WASHINGTON, D.C. — Two years ago, Timothy Reuter bought a 3D Robotics unmanned aerial vehicle kit but had a hard time putting it together, so he reached out to others in the Washington area who might be able to help him. He said he thought he’d be lucky if he found 30 people.
“I thought if I could form a community, I could find people to teach me,” he said.
He never predicted how much the community idea would take off. Today, the Drone User Group Network, or DUGN, has more than 5,000 members, meeting in cities across North America, Australia, Europe and Asia.
The group teaches people to build and operate their own UAVs and also collaborates to encourage rules that allow for social innovation in drone use, Reuter said. The possibilities range from search and rescue to delivering vaccines in remote areas.
“Most people are just going to use it to take aerial selfies, but a small portion of people are going to creatively use them to change the world,” Reuter said. “And that’s what we’re trying to encourage, is the democratization of this technology.”
To that end, the group is hosting the first Drone Social Innovation Award. In partnership with NEXA Capital Partners, a financial company interested in the drone industry, DUGN has asked people to submit by Aug. 20 plans for a socially beneficial use of UAVs that would cost less than $3,000. The project with the strongest possibility for positive change wins $10,000.
The network of drone users is organized online and has meet-ups in various cities. They attend university events and try to spark conversations about commercial and hobbyist drone use, Reuter said. They also work to prove UAVs’ usefulness with certain challenge activities.
For instance, the DC Area Drone User Group recently did a search and rescue challenge to test the feasibility of drone usage in that field. Teams went to a farm with their personal drones and tried to identify as many scattered pieces of clothing and cardboard cutouts as they could.
“Our hope is to eventually be able to offer support to first responders. We wouldn’t go out on our own, because a lost-person situation is not a time for freelancing,” Reuter said.
Part of the DUGN’s mission is to promote learning so the machines are used safely, Reuter said. By getting together to disseminate knowledge, he said, the members help create a culture of safe UAV use.
“Learning in public is a very powerful thing. It brings people together,” Reuter said. “This is a reflection of that approach.”
While drones have many possible social uses, their origin in the military has stigmatized them, he said. But GPS started the same way, he added.
“[GPS] has gone from helping people fire artillery to helping people find food or a bar,” he said.
People tend to think of drones in terms of what the devices might do to them, as things they have no control over, Reuter said. But private users can manage drones as well.
“Drones are not just something that are inflicted upon people. They are a tool to the people,” he said.
The people who make up DUGN are hobbyists, Reuter said, and the rules for commercial use are still being written.
“We, as hobbyists, actually have more flexibility than anyone else, as long as we don’t charge any money,” Reuter said.
But in order for the U.S. to remain competitive in the drone industry, the Federal Aviation Administration needs to take some steps forward, Reuter said. As president of a multinational, cross-continental drone user network, he has had the unique opportunity to observe UAV regulation in many countries. And the U.S., he said, is behind.
In Japan, commercial drone services have been commonplace for a decade, he said. In the U.K., private users can get permits for commercial use. But in the U.S., commercial use is fully grounded.
“We think the FAA is undermining U.S. competitiveness, because other countries are moving forward and allowing people to use this technology in ways that go beyond recreation,” Reuter said. “Nobody thinks the FAA is doing a good job in this.”
He said many DUGN members, who are trained to safely operate their small craft, have business plans in their back pockets and are just waiting for the FAA to set regulations that will allow them to start. But Reuter doesn’t think that will happen anytime soon.
So in the meantime the DUGN exists to teach best practices for small personal aircraft and to provide users a forum for discussion and brainstorming beneficial future uses.
“The most exciting applications are probably the ones that haven’t been thought of yet,” Reuter said.