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From Issue #13 March 28, 2013

Ground Control, Part 1

What happens when there’s a flying robot in every garage?

By Eli Sanders Twitter icon 

“Droney,” part 1 of 3, from This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow.

Last August, before domestic drones had become a concern worthy of a 13-hour Senate filibuster, I found myself inside a stretch limousine with a bunch of engineering students. We were on a rural highway in eastern North Dakota, rolling past bales of hay and soybean fields, the limo’s mirrored bar set with a row of empty champagne glasses. No one paid attention to them. Instead, the student engineers were deep in a marathon conversation about flying robots.

We had just come from Grand Forks, where they had competed in the granddaddy of all drone-building competitions. Now we were en route to the afterparty, which sadly was not a bacchanal. The first stop was a hop across the state border to Thief River Falls, Minnesota, for a tour of the headquarters of Digi-Key, an online purveyor of drone parts and other electronic innards. Then it was back to Grand Forks for some ribs.

Sitting next to me on the leather limo bench was Ryan Skeele, a willowy, thick-eyebrowed young man who goes by the nickname “Skeeler.” He’s a mechanical engineering major at Oregon State University, and at the time of our limo ride he was 21 years old — exactly the number of years that had passed since the first appearance of the drone-building contest, which is officially known as the International Aerial Robotics Competition (IARC). The contest encourages the current boom in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a term organizers much prefer to “drones.”

Cartoon by Tom Tomorrow.

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