From eye level, everything looks normal. Dogs rest in the shade, Jobot Coffee Shop customers sip iced drinks, a child eagerly searches for entertainment. This is an ordinary September day — to anyone who isn’t looking up.
About 20 feet above the ground, a machine hovers, its four propellers whirring. The apparatus is reminiscent of a large insect: four legs with propellers on the ends protrude from the oblong body, while a bright teal and orange design on the side evokes images of some enormous, tropical beetle weaving its way through the rainforest canopy.
The contraption flying above the streets of downtown Phoenix is an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV. Its two cameras stream live video to the iPhone in the hands of Dave Brookhouser, who controls the machine’s flight from below.
As the craft lowers and lands itself gently in the middle of the street, Brookhouser runs to pick it up. People nearby perk up and a couple call out with questions or with their approval.
“That’s the embarrassing part,” Brookhouser said. “It draws a lot of attention.”
Personal UAVs like Brookhouser’s are becoming hobbyists’ toys in the United States but are still fairly unknown. UAVs are remote-controlled flying vehicles, better known as drones. Brookhouser owns the Parrot A.R. 2.0 model, which costs $300 and can be controlled from an iPod touch, iPhone, iPad or Android phone or tablet.
The UAV works like a wireless router. It creates a wireless hot spot to which the remote control device can connect. The A.R. 2.0 has its own app, which, once the Wi-Fi connection has been made, is used to control the drone’s flight.
“It gets a lot of a lot of talk in tech communities because it was released at the consumer electronics show, CES, and because you can fly it through your iPhone or Android phone. And so that makes it a geeky thing,” Brookhouser said.
There are several factors about the Parrot A.R. drone that lead people to question its identification as a vehicle. Brookhouser’s UAV is run by a small internal computer and stabilizes itself in the air. It spans about two feet across and weighs next to nothing.
“The helicopter hobbyists who have had model helicopters, they don’t really consider this a legitimate flying machine because it flies itself, essentially,” Brookhouser added.
While Brookhouser regularly uses the label of drone to describe his UAV, Wayne Rainey, Brookhouser’s landlord, was wary of even titling the machine an unmanned aerial vehicle.
“I wouldn’t call it a drone … it’s a kid’s toy,” Rainey said. “It doesn’t even come with its own remote; you fly it with your iPhone.”
Stacey Champion, a downtown Phoenix-based public relations consultant, also said she wouldn’t call it a drone.
Brookhouser’s drone has elicited nothing but interest and excitement from fellow downtowners. Equipped with cameras on the front and on the bottom, the A.R. 2.0 streams live video to whatever device is controlling it — in this case, Brookhouser’s iPhone.
Brookhouser has posted several of these videos online on his YouTube channel. Champion expressed hope for capabilities of the flying machine and its aerial video in downtown Phoenix.
“It’s a really fun and interesting tool to help us bring awareness to what’s cool in downtown Phoenix,” Champion said.
Champion and Brookhouser have been talking about potentially working together on a video project to promote downtown, but no plans are in place yet. Though Brookhouser has been an advocate for downtown Phoenix since he moved here eight years ago, he said that his videos had no relation to his interest in downtown.
Rainey disagreed with his statement.
“You can see where his passions lie,” Rainey said. “Even if they are completely disconnected, there’s overlap. Because that’s where his heart is. He loves downtown.”
Many have expressed enthusiasm for Brookhouser’s videos. Daniel Bryant, a fellow downtowner who also owns an A.R. 2.0, is another supporter of Brookhouser’s work.
“I think it’s awesome,” Bryant said. “Any time he posts a video I’m excited to see (it).”
Brookhouser rejects the impressed reactions he has received from the community. Brookhouser compared his drone use to the Adobe program PageMaker, which was one of the first programs that allowed users to design their own page layouts.
When PageMaker came out, publications were full of fonts and hacks would just load them up with fonts and make it look nice, Brookhouser said. Drones are similar in the sense that they will be important later on, he added.
“These are just going to be prevalent in the future,” Brookhouser said. “Just because I’m a hack that shoots video doesn’t mean I’m actually able to tell a good story with it.”
Whether it’s a tool for promoting downtown Phoenix or “a geeky thing” for tech-heads like Brookhouser and Bryant, the A.R. 2.0 elicits excitement.
When Brookhouser sat down with his drone, a small blonde girl began to ask him questions.
After a couple minutes, she leaned forward and shouted, “I wanna see you fly this right now!”
Whether it’s being used for taking video or experimenting with new technologies, the drone does have one universal benefit.
“It’s just fun to play with,” Champion said.
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