The interview: Romeo Durscher, NASA and Stanford University

4 Nov 2014

Romeo Durscher, NASA Solar Dynamics Observatory at Stanford University, STEM educator, and aerial drone photographer

Concerns over privacy are overshadowing potential commercial use of drones, says Romeo Durscher from US space agency NASA who is also a STEM educator and aerial drone pilot and photographer.

Squadrons of drones are headed for Co Mayo in Ireland this weekend. No, not Web Summit speakers who still want to drone on about themselves and their fantastic accomplishments, but actual aerial drones.

CEOs from tech companies including DJI, Skycatch and Joby Aviation, as well as Cisco and Silicon Valley Bank, will attend the Drone and Data Conference, the first of its kind.

The event organisers believe Ireland, as a neutral country with an uncomplicated airspace, has an opportunity to position itself as the best country in Europe to test new technologies and utilise new trends.

One of those attending is Durscher, from Stanford University in California. He works on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory and educates schoolchildren about STEM.

At Stanford, Durscher works on various space missions for NASA which mainly involve obsverving the sun.

“Solar flares can damage satellites and even take out entire power grids on the ground,” he advises.

It was while imparting his love of STEM – which he augments with an A for arts can calls STEAM – Durscher found that showing children aerial drones was a good way of inspiring the next generation.

“The more I started to fly drones the more I realised that there is so much potential in the technology.

“Every big invention of the last 100 years had a group saying no this can’t be done. When automobiles people said too many people will be killed and when the internet came along people were afraid of it.”

Durscher has been able to channel is love of photography and fascination with drone technology to change the way we think about location travel photography.

His shots of cityscapes like San Francisco and various European locations are compelling to observe.

“Aerial drones provide you with a different perspective and when you do the aerial panoramas and stitch them together it’s even more impressive.”

The subject of drones is both exhilarating for some and annoying for others. On the one hand you can fly and capture images on the ground, but on the other hand there is the commercial opportunities and players like Amazon are looking at delivering goods over 5km using drones.

And of course there’s the tricky topic of privacy. In the US recently people were threatened with gunfire when an incensed neighbor shot one out of the sky. In China authorities have installed laser weapons on drones to shoot unauthorized drones out of the sky from 5km away.

“Critical mass has been reached in that there are enough people owning and flying drones that even if a government were to forbid it, people will still do it.

“Legislation needs to be enacted whereby people can’t fly drones in the path of airplanes and to stay within certain restrictions.

“There is also a need to educate the public.”

Visual-Aerials; Sailing in the Bay from Visual Aerials on Vimeo.

Durscher says that the privacy fears about drones are both valid and overblown.

“At any given point there are more cameras pointed at you on the ground than there are from the air in terms of CCTV, cellphone cameras.

“People go crazy over privacy in the US. They are afraid of GoPro cameras in the sky yet they are okay with the NSA and US government spying on their own citizens and big corporations selling their data for marketing purposes.

“If you want to be consistent you have to be worried about all privacy and not just the flying GoPro camera.”

Durscher said that drone manufacturers like DJI have integrated technology into their drones that prevents them flying within three miles of a major airport. “It won’t let you spool up the machine.”

However, Durscher said it is for everybody to play a part – including the drone manufacturers, the legislators and security and police services – to come up with ways of allowing drones to be used in a productive and safe way.”

Commercial use for aerial drones

He continued: “In the past we wondered what 2000 would look like and it turned out completely different to what we expected. The drone technology is one of those imaginary, amazing technologies that actually came true.

“Amazon had a great idea for doing deliveries via drones but the reality is different. It will take longer to come up with drones capable of flying for 5km with goods on board.

“But in trying to get there we will discover new things. There are so many opportunities for the use of commercial drones, from the farmer who wants to monitor the farm to the real estate who wants to use aerial images of the property he or she is selling.

“The Fire Dept can install thermal cameras on drones to look down on a burning building. Search and rescue can use drones to drop medical supplies to remote locations after earthquakes,” Durscher concluded.

“I really think we will see this technology evolve, but how fast right it’s really difficult to say. I think the next 10 years will see major advancements in battery technologies.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years