L.A. has become a drone development center, in part because of Hollywood's desire for great aerial shots, and in part because of the tech explosion in Silicon Beach and Downtown L.A. A journalist can pick up a phone and find out if any of the city's hottest drone companies has the time or interest to shoot the route of the long-awaited Expo light rail, whose Phase II is currently unfolding between Culver City and its terminus not far from Santa Monica Beach.
Ctrl.Me, a Venice drone manufacturer with an established track record, staffed by pilots qualified in aerial photography for the film and other industries, volunteered to take on L.A. Weekly's task. The result is a first-ever bird's-eye look at how Expo cuts through L.A. to deliver commuters between Santa Monica and downtown. The actual ride will take people 46 minutes from DTLA to the beach. But the drone zips along the route's Phase II, between Robertson Boulevard and the ocean, in a three-minute video.
The time-lapse video, which required several weeks of prep, special permissions, location scouting and finally the shooting—the drone had to be launched from about a dozen spots to capture Expo Line's entire Phase II—was taped by a modified DJI S1000 Octocopter equipped with a Panasonic Lumix GH4 camera with feature film-quality 4K resolution.
All that gadgetry illuminated the extensive work ahead for the Expo Metro Line Construction Authority, the independent planning and construction agency created by the legislature in 2003.
The Expo Authority faced tremendous struggles finishing Expo Line's Phase 1, the 8.6-mile section between downtown Los Angeles and Culver City, where the last two stations finally opened on June 20, 2012 after big delays and huge cost overruns.
Now the Expo Authority is working on the rest of what will ultimately be a 15.2-mile, $2.5 billion line.
Officials say Phase II will be completed by 2015—but the drone flyover offers some tantalizing images of the tremendous work still to be done. Design and construction on the 6.6-mile second segment started in September of 2011.
What come off as the most eye-popping scenes in the drone video are the many construction holes west of the 405 freeway.
On the ground, Ctrl.Me's drone-flying crew drew a lot of spectators wherever it went, with an L.A. Weekly crew in tow. The fans included an entranced Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who tagged along at two locations, fresh from an anti-terrorism conference that featured discussions of aerial anthrax drone drops.
Public fascination with drones is phenomenal, yet the public has deep fears about their use by law enforcement and others.
Nobody knows what the future holds, from possible privacy intrusions to the technology growth that could turn drone startups into major firms. And then there's the simple danger of a drone falling from the sky due to a mid-air fail, and smashing onto the busy 101 or a sold-out baseball game.
Critics ask whether the skies will be darkened with swarms of these noisy birds if the FAA decides to further loosen the rules it has approved so far.
But it can't be denied that there's a rush when we see ourselves from a startling new angle, a bigger-picture view than selfies and sexting can provide.
And maybe that's why Los Angeles was host, over the weekend, to the First Annual Los Angeles Drone Expo. It was held by the Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle Systems Association (UAVSA) on December 13 and billed as the first commercial drone expo in the U.S.
The expo illustrated the excitement and fear drones generate as protesters briefly disrupted its opening on Saturday, chanting against keynote speaker Austin Blue. Blue is president of Spectrum Aeronautical, whose family owns General Atomics, which produces unmanned predator aircraft.
“Austin Blue, shame on you, how many deaths were caused by you?” the group chanted, according to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, before security guards escorted its members out of the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena.
According to that newspaper report:
Blue said the protestors – who were led away by security – had a right to speak out, just as people have a right to pilot drones. That kind of perception is what the drone industry has to overcome as it becomes more mainstream, but Blue said he is already seeing a shift.
The L.A. Robotics Club praised the drone expo as featuring “the best cinematographers and drone operators in the film and drone cinema manufacturing industries. Top manufacturers and industry leaders such as DJI Global, 3D Robotics, Zeiss 3D, Drone Dudes and Ctrl.Me.”
Not only manufacturers, but amateurs are jumping in. There's now a Los Angeles and Orange County Drone User Group (LA/OC DUG), an organization for amateurs and professionals that “seeks to promote the responsible use of flying robots for community service, artistic, entrepreneurial, and recreational purposes.”
The Weekly tapped a drone firm to check out the Expo Line route, and it seems others will use drones for everything from news gathering to filmmaking. One hint that drone fans may be gaining the upper hand is the fact that drone advocates once avoided the very use of the word “drone.”
Those days are gone.