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Q&A with Romeo Espana, Freelance Drone Builder

Romeo Espana is many things -- father, makerspace member and drone builder extraordinaire. He co-founded the NTDUG (North Texas Drone Users Group) and has led several how-to workshops on drones. I recently sat down with him to make sure he wasn't spying on the city or secretly carrying our personal vendettas via predator drones.

What made you interested in drones? It's two-fold. One I'm colorblind and I can't fly; I'm kind of vicariously using this and it's awesome. The spark for me to start doing this was the wildfires in 2009 in Texas where we lost a lot. And it was this idea that this little plane that I'm building could tell firefighters, 'Oh, a backfire has gotten behind you guys, you need to exit.' It's not even an expensive system. What's $5,000, $10,000 compared to a fire crew?

What exactly is a drone? If it's got a computer in it and its tries to fly itself, in layman's terms, that's a drone. But it's kind of a dirty word. You have people, even in the community, saying we shouldn't call them drones, we should call them computer-assisted airplanes or this or that ... I don't care what you call it, they're going to call it a drone.

So drones aren't necessarily flying killer robots? One of the things that people forget are the limitations of these things. Sure there are drones that are big enough to carry heavy payloads and can do a lot of destruction, but they're owned by the military. I guess people just have this fear that people can just go online and buy a kit and they magically have a predator, and it's like nooo.

Why do you think drones have become so popular now? I credit DIY drones for a lot of this. One, it's kind of the perfect mix of this technology. The batteries, the cell phones, have made all of the individual pieces cheap and at the same time you have the maker movement which has just exploded all over the country. Everyone has just gone back to making. Why shouldn't I make my own beer? Or brew my own wine? Or make my own electronics?

You recently taught a drone class. What type of people came? You have everything from dads who are doing this stuff with their sons. You got the 70-year-old retiree who wants to look for meteorites out in the desert. We've got guys that are artists who want to do landscape photography. We got another guy who used to fly drones in the military.

Tell me about the NTDUG. It's been three months and were at 90 people and growing rapidly. We just had our first class, it was a huge success. The NTDUG is specifically focused on education and outreach. We're not a commercial organization; we're just a group of people that have a passion for something.

Where do you think that passion stems from? For me personally as a young engineer, it's like this is cool. There's no real NASA for me. Right now, as an aerospace engineer, you work for Lockheed Martin, you work for Boeing. You work for one of those big companies, and you're one tiny little cog in this huge industry.

Do you acknowledge the potential dangers of drones? For me as a hobbyist I understand and respect and I support a lot of the push-back that people are giving. But as for me and the NTDUG, we want to make sure in that push-back we don't push it so far the other way that universities can't do research. It's a really, really complicated issue. There's no one standpoint you can have.

Where do you see the future of drones? There's money to be made in this on the commercial side. There are going to be unmanned air systems flying around, but it's definitely something that should be in the national debate. It's definitely something everyone should be considering. It's the toy the police chief is buying for your police department and the not so toy the government is using. And they're all linked, and we need to have discussions about each one, without allowing ourselves to get emotional or start mixing things up.

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Katharine Heim
Contact: Katharine Heim