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Is "Drone" a Dirty Word? 

A new world takes (unmanned) flight


In 1959, a year before Bono was born, U-2 was the name for a classified, unmanned plane that flew past the Iron Curtain and across the restricted airspace in the Soviet Union. Concerned about sending pilots into hostile air space, the US Air Force launched a program—code name "Red Wagon"—to send "unmanned aerial vehicle"—or, what were then called U-2 and what is popularly now known as "drones"—into the Soviet Union to take photographs of military installations. Less than a year later, one of the U-2 planes was shot down and the cover blown off the Americans' secret missions.

Throughout the Vietnam War, the use of drones intensified. In 1973, in testimony before Congress, military officers finally admitted that they had flown some 3,500 secret missions with drones throughout southeast Asia during the decade long war.

At the same time, the military also was experimenting with another digital tool that would move the world out of the analog age: Networked communications between computers. And what began as a military tool during the 1960s, slowly entered into everyday life as email and the World Wide Web, fundamentally shifting the nature and tone of communication in the 21st century.

But drones have been slower to take hold. Until the past few years, they remained almost exclusively a military tool—and more so than ever, with the Obama administration ramping up the use of drones in the Middle East, with an amassed death toll of 2,400 people in the past five years, and in the process, have cemented their reputation as dangerous killing machines.

Yet, that is changing. Rapidly...

. . .Like the internet before it, drones are moving away from military applications and finding peaceful uses in everyday life. In December, Seattle-based Amazon announced it would use drones to provide quicker delivery of purchased items. The police department there already was using two drones for traffic monitoring (but, last February, temporarily grounded the program). Likewise, police departments from Miami to Montgomery are using drones to chase thieves and patrol remote locations. (In Oregon, Cthe lackamas County sheriff has submitted a permit request from the FAA.)

While most approved applications remain in police hands, an increasing number of academic institutions have drones permitted for research, like Oregon State University, which monitors potato fields in eastern Oregon.

Oddly, the FAA has denied permits to the US Forest Service, which tried to launch a pilot program as long ago as 2007. That program would seem upmost logical, as drones could easily monitor forest fires and search for lost hikers—much safer than sending in human crews to dangerous zones. As well, privacy issues certainly seem less acute in unpopulated forested areas, except perhaps to a bear not wanting us to know what he really is doing in the woods.

But even those federal restrictions seem to be loosening, as evidenced by a recent loan of 41 small drones by the Army to the Department of Interior to track migratory wildfowl.

The demand by drones for airspace over Oregon—and the other 49 states—has become so great that the FAA has agreed to unveil by 2015 a comprehensive plan for permits and even use by recreational users who want, for example, to use drones for filming snowboard sessions on Mt Bachelor (currently not permitted by the FAA).

Yes, drones have arrived.

X Marks the Spot

Drones push filmmaking to the next level

"First of all," XProHeli co-founder Wes Coughlin says with a laugh, "if we were spying, would we tell anyone?"

He and his partner-in-crime, founder Hans Skjersaa, easily pass amongst the Bend crowds and streets undetected. Dressed in plaid shirts and jeans, they move smoothly among the brewery crowd enjoying a drink with friends, talking of their latest exploits in the outdoors. But the two are something unique, and part of a cutting edge market of creating and marketing video drones.

XProHeli launched into being in a scene more out of "MacGyver" than a James Bond film.

Almost three years ago, Skjersaa was set to capture aerial shots in the Ochoco National Forest north of Prineville for a commercial he was shooting with his video production company, Flick Five Films. The scene was set, the light was right, but one elemental problem: the professional radio control helicopter pilot never showed.

Not deterred, Skjersaa Frankensteined his own device using a hobby helicopter with a six-foot propeller and a GoPro camera. But building the contraption was only part of the battle; flying it was as befuddling as any encrypted code. Alternating between laughs and grimaces, Skjersaa watched as his new $700 "toy" soared into the sky, only to take several crash landings—including hitting a parked car—before successfully gaining the sweeping footage he was after.

"That was an expensive day," says Skjersaa.

But it also was Day One for a new company: Joined by Coughlin, the two began to create camera mounts for various copters. They formed XProHeli (the "X" coming from the shape the copter blades make from above) and started selling attachments online, with accompanying YouTube videos of the footage they got with their product. In the first month, they sold 20 mounts made out of sheet aluminum.

Soon, people were inquiring, "Can you just build the whole thing for us?"

And, they have done just that. XProHeli has expanded its production from basic camera mounts to the complete kits, as well as a diverse line of various props, motors and platforms. They work out of a 6,000-square-foot office space in northeast Bend and have four full-time employees.

Yet, in spite of their success in the filmmaking world, the young business owners understand that "drones" is a term that more readily conjures images of metallic military hawks swooping across the Afghani desert, rather than small camera mounts shooting a commercial for a culinary institute (one of the company's recent requests), and that drones are a catalyst for discussions about privacy and spying.

"They are not the best spying device," assures Coughlin. "They're best operated line-in-site, usually a half-mile max, with a fly time of about 10-15 minutes. Wind can affect it. Rain can affect it. And the batteries for that one session cost around $100. It would be easier to hack into someone's computer or cell phone if you really wanted dirt on them."

Skjersaa agrees. "The word 'drone' comes with such a negative connotation, that they're made for spying or somehow someone is going to put a gun on it. We made these to get killer aerial video. Never once was the idea that these be used for something other than that. We wanted to save money and fuel on real helicopters. We can get an awesome shot in five minutes rather than five hours."

Skjersaa adds, "These things are loud. If you wanted to spy on your neighbor, you're better off putting a camera on a broomstick and holding it over the fence."

Yet, in spite of the partners explaining the limitations of their machines, they are well aware of the wide-reaching applications. At a film shoot this past year at a monster truck race, they were surprised that there was as much buzz over the machines with four bladdes hovering above the action, as those with four wheels on the ground.

Other current projects using XProHeli designs have Coughlin heading to Hawaii to do aerial shots for an upcoming television show called "Tree House Nation," while another XProHeli pilot, Jared Leisek, has been in Colorado getting ski jumper shots of those headed to the Sochi Olympics. The company also works locally, shooting footage for Prineville's Sampson Motor Company and its flying car design (yes, you read that right).

And, more than simply grabbing cool videos, XProHeli is reaching into some life-and-death applications for its machines; the Bend SWAT team has done training with quadcopters to scout out a site, and XProHeli has performed demonstrations with Deschutes County Search and Rescue.

"I'd rather one of these things get shot out of the sky or get destroyed than a person who was sent in to get preliminary information on a dangerous police or rescue mission," says Skjersaa. Coughlin adds that hunters are another group seeing if they can use them to scout out sites, with at least one customer requesting a camo version.

Yet, in spite of their quick success, Coughlin assures that the business is far from easy, as it is such a new market that the advancements and new gear are constantly changing. "There's a race to see who can be the best, but it's exciting and fun."

For more coverage, including videos shot by XProHeli products and pilots, visit our website

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