It all began a year ago, when I first visited DragonMart.
DragonMart is a building in Dubai, shaped like a 1.2 kilometer long dragon. It houses about 4,000 shops the size of small closets and is the biggest reseller of Chinese goods outside of China.
You can buy everything at DragonMart, from “iPads” running Android to industrial-sized chicken hatcheries. It is like the source code for global material culture and you can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the weird and wonderful things on display. Take, for example, this t-shirt, which I picked up for about $4 USD. Is that even a real language?
The thing that captured my imagination most was the remote-control helicopters. With cameras. Yes, remote-control helicopters with cameras; aka, a DIY drone.
You can see where this is going… Who hasn’t dreamed of owning a drone? It’s like catnip for futurists. The bragging rights alone would be worth it.
“Yeah, I built my own drone. Check it out on YouTube.”
Becoming a Droner
This weekend, in honor of Father’s Day, I decided to act on my fancy. My son and I went back to DragonMart and, after digging around in a few shops, found a helicopter with an HD video camera for about $75 USD.
“Don’t you have anything that broadcasts live footage,” I asked. No, apparently those are illegal in the UAE.
As we were paying, I could hear early an early Bruce Sterling/Gibsonian voice-over in my head…
He slipped on his mirrorshades, jacked into the local blacknet and checked out the going rate for ‘copter drones. The Chinese expat living in the shop (a neon slit the size of a closet filled with mostly legal tele-robotics fresh off the fabs) couldn’t have been older than 16. But the kid haggled well and looked like he hadn’t slept in days, so there was no point in fighting over a few extra creds. Besides, once this gig was over, he’d certainly be able to afford it.
Afterwards, I noticed a TV playing live CCTV footage from the Chinese space mission.
I was buying a DIY surveillance drone in a Chinese outlet shop in Dubai. And a Chinese space craft was docking with the space station high above me.
I was sure that, at that moment, I was the the coolest futurist alive.
I was so excited that the disappointment of how flimsy the thing was, and how not HD the camera was, barely even registered once I got home and opened the box. Heck, if I only got one good shot of the neighbor’s yard for YouTube, that would be cool enough.
So laughing with glee, my four year-old son and I snuck outside, dropped it in the driveway, and powered it up.
At which point it shot straight up 50 feet, got caught in a crosswind, flew over the garden wall and out of sight.
“OH NO!!!!” I yelled. “What is happening?!?!”
My son started crying.
It All Goes Wrong
Visions of the helicopter dropping out of the sky and smashing into a passing car began running through my head.
I did the only thing I could do; jammed it to maximum altitude, tried to keep it pointed towards the wind, and jumped into my car to chase it down.
Of course the bloody thing’s motors weren’t strong enough to contend with the breeze! What did I expect for $75 dollars? I bought it at DragonMart!
My son started laughing again.
What transpired next what a comedy of errors.
By now, the drone had drifted out of sight and, by my reckoning, was right above the four lane highway nearby.
I tore out of my driveway, RC controller waving, craning my neck out of the window to catch sight of it. What I saw took my fear of vehicular manslaughter and turned it to Level 10. Coming around the corner, I saw two police-cars already on the scene, driving slowly past where I imagined the drone to have crashed.
It was at this point I realized my son hadn’t put his seat belt on, nor had he decided to wear trousers out of the house. How was I going to explain that to the cops?
“STAY DOWN!”, I yelled, jamming the RC controller in his lap and hiding him as if he were a wanted criminal.
He stopped laughing and started to cry. Again.
Thankfully, the drone hadn’t smashed into the highway and killed anyway, at least as far as I could tell. And the cops weren’t looking for me.
But unfortunately, neither had it drifted quietly to a stop in a nearby vacant lot.
In fact, it had totally disappeared!
After racing around the block a few times, peaking over my neighbors’ walls, and checking Google Maps, I decided that I was going to have to take extreme action; knock on the neighbor’s doors.
In America or the UK, this would have been no big deal. But in Dubai, you never know what you’ll find. Many people consider the privacy of their home to be sacrosanct; especially when it comes to their wives and daughters. Some people just don’t take kindly to strange, sweaty white men ringing their bell at odd hours on a Sunday afternoon.
Thankfully, no one called the police on me and, in fact, I found out that I have some pretty nice neighbors. But no drone. I had to conclude the my first DIY drone experiment was a failure.
I fought the drones, and the drones won.
By now, my son was laughing again and was as happy as could be with our crazy adventure. I hadn’t killed anyone with the thing (that I know of), so at least that counted as a win, too.
But what was the lesson? Should I give up my drone fantasies?
No, my friend. Quite the opposite.
Next time, I just have to buy a bigger helicopter.