Going to Extremes With Drones

Going to Extremes With Drones

A photo Illustration of using a drone replacing in lieu of a clay pigeon for target practice

Sourcewwing/Getty

Why you should care

Because drones aren’t the danger — you are!

“Are you ready to blow some shit up?” That’s the tagline of Gnat Warfare, an Arizona-based drone manufacturing and events company catering to adrenaline junkies who want to bag some drones. And not just any drones — exploding ones. Yep, traveling to one of their roving gun ranges lets you experience the gratifying boom of a direct hit — satisfaction guaranteed. “It’s a childhood fantasy come true,” says Austin Hirsch, one of Gnat Warfare’s enthusiastic visitors, and clearly an anti-aircraft gunner manqué. James Arrowood, Gnat Warfare’s legal counsel, warns, “It’s a humbling experience — [hitting] a moving target is hard!”

If the Federal Aviation Administration ever signs off on delivery drones, one fine, lazy day your 18-inch sushi pizza, the latest Liu Cixin sci-fi best-seller or maybe a backcountry medical kit will come buzzing your way in a sling dangling from a brainy flying machine. Until then, fixed-wing drones and their quadcopter cousins are playing a more bellicose role — as flying targets on shooting ranges and as competitors in drone-on-drone aerial combat. Since the FAA ruled in 2015 that shooting down a drone is a federal crime — private property has different rules — a growing number of outfits are offering the only legal way for novelty seekers to experience the thrill of the drone kill.

When we do combat, we’re in a netted area and can’t hurt anyone. Let kids fight drone against drone. Shooting, that’s not what I want.

Werner von Stein, owner, SF Drone School

Gnat Warfare has staked its claim in the target-practice arena with a sort of high-tech variation on skeet shooting. It works like this: A minimum of four participants with shotguns stand on the firing line and take aim at a remote-control model plane buzzing past that’s carrying a small but impressive explosive charge. The target drone makes five passes. If it’s hit, well, kaboom! If it’s only winged and hits the deck, a range safety officer hustles into no man’s land to replace damaged parts and launch the bird back into action. After about 10 minutes, the next set of shooters toes the line. “No one really does what Gnat Warfare does with aerial targets,” Arrowood tells OZY. He estimates that a couple thousand people have experienced this adrenaline adventure over the past two years. These childhood fantasies don’t come cheap, though. Gnat Warfare charges $600 to $4,000 for a group — costs vary depending on travel and setup expenses.

Another way to get your gun on: the biannual Big Sandy Shoot, which is extreme enough to complete any Mad Max fantasies. The Arizona range accommodates 200 machine-gunners at a time, and the three-day event involves blitzing land — and drone — targets. The bring-your-own-gun entry fee: $250. At the other end of the spectrum are outfits that fly the “Kids Welcome!” banner to bridge the aerial-combat age gap. In 2016, Paris-based Parrot and China-based Wingsland began marketing weaponized toy drones, the Parrot Mambo ($119) and the Wingsland S6 ($500), palm-size quadcopters that shoot tiny pellets — perfect for sniping your kid brother’s legs or taking down his drone.

An even faster-growing phenomenon is drone-on-drone action (think aerial battle bots). On a recent Saturday morning at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California, I watched about 10 goggle-wearing pilots, ages 16 to 60, battle it out, fingers flying across controllers. The audience was about 50-50 adults and kids; remember, this is a Bay Area children’s museum. The fighting area was surrounded by floor-to-ceiling netting and illuminated with purple and blue LEDs. In one bout, two drones collided with a nasty whirring sound. One thumped to the floor while the other veered wildly, trying to regain its balance. It stabilized and took a shaky but triumphant victory lap. The child in front of me tugged her father’s hand. “Daddy, can I have one?”

Prepubescent pilots who follow the mandatory safety procedures (goggles, gloves, no carbon fiber propellers, etc.) are also welcome to join the Game of Drones, a combat event where the goal is to crash opponents’ aircraft in a last-drone-flying duel to the death. Open to public participation and viewing — at Maker Faires and Meetups across the country — the GoD has grown from small gatherings in 2013 to competitions that attracted 250,000-plus spectators in 2015.

The recreational battle droners occupy two philosophical camps. Fans of the skeet-shooting model see their activities and events as entertaining and educational ways to get into aerial robotics. Critics see the outings as “gateway guns,” provoking concern. “When we do combat, we’re in a netted area and can’t hurt anyone,” says Werner von Stein, owner of the SF Drone School. “Let kids fight drone against drone. Shooting, that’s not what I want.” Sally French, editor of the Drone Girl blog, is also conflicted. “It varies on every circumstance,” she says. “If people are dressed appropriately and protecting themselves, maybe that’s enough.”

Gnat Warfare’s Arrowood recommends calmness. “We’ve had duck hunters come — it’s something different,” he says of their target drones. “It’s more bark than bite.” Quack, quack.

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