Drones over Burning Man

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Burning Man is the 27-year-old bacchanalia held in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada — part party, art show, and social experiment. It’s also a place where people play with technology, like solar and wind power.

This year, the newest geek magnets were drones. Not the unmanned million-dollar military aircraft, but hobbyist remote-controlled planes and copters with cameras.

“There’s always been an experimental technology undercurrent to Burning Man,” says Eddie Codel, a live video-streaming consultant from San Francisco whose aerial drone footage of this year’s festival went viral with more than 1.4 million viewers. “Technology furthers art out here, then taken into the default world.”

The “default” — or real — world is grappling with a myriad of safety and privacy issues raised by drones — also called unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — as they become cheaper and more advanced.
“The FAA is supposed to create rules for commercial use of UAVs by 2015, but it hasn’t happened yet and no one has a sense where it’s going to go,” says Sergei Lupashin, an aerial robotics researcher at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, who was testing his homemade drone.

The outside world is watching the little social microcosm of Burning Man for clues about how to deal with these issues. “The FAA is looking at rules for civilian use of drones and we just happen to be a testing ground for them right now,” says Jim Graham, Burning Man’s director of communications. “The Bureau of Land Management is going to have their aviation person talk with our drone pilots and see what they can learn.”

Burning Man’s drone drama started when a buzzing UAV disrupted last year’s reverential burn of the Temple, the event’s spiritual center. When angry participants complained, organizers held a Drone Summit last July, attended by 140 people, to hash out rules, like don’t fly over crowds or near the giant Man effigy on burn day, because drone static could set off explosives.

“They don’t want people flying UAVs where there’s a potential of hurting someone,” says Ed Somers, a retired Los Angeles sound engineer with another self-made drone. “Even a 10-inch plastic propeller spinning at 10,000 rpm can cut up a person real quick.”

This year, operators also had to register UAVs with the event, which concerned more privacy than safety — odd, given that clothes are optional here.

“You may not have a right to privacy, but we try to give people the opportunity to express themselves how they want, and it’s a balancing act,” says Graham. “We ask people taking photographs to ask permission. But a drone with a camera can’t. So there’s this extra sensibility training with the drone pilots.”

This year’s guidelines were a good start, but need more consensus, considering the debate among participants. Some balk at privacy restraints. “Anybody who comes to Burning Man and walks around naked or wears a dildo on their head — if they need to protect their privacy, that should be on them, not on the rest of us,” says San Francisco event planner Wayne Miller, who flew his drone over the Man on burn day.

Others believe privacy rules actually enable expression. “There are a lot of exhibitionists,” says Brooklyn filmmaker and UAV flyer Sam Baumel. “But there are also people like myself. Yesterday, I went out to the deep playa alone and got naked. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to photograph me. I did it, because how often do I get to just stand on this earth, in my body, and nothing else? If someone flew a drone over my head, it would have made me uncomfortable.”

UAV rules here may only go so far with real world bureaucrats. Because at Burning Man, freedom of expression almost always trumps everything else.

Ed Somers, a retired Los Angeles sound engineer, shows off his DIY quadcopter. (Photo: Susan Karlin)
The sun rises at Burning Man. (Photo: Susan Karlin)