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Five questions for Romeo DurscherFive questions for Romeo Durscher

Editor's note: The responses below to an email Q&A have been edited to conform with AOPA publication style, but are otherwise unchanged.

DJI Director of Education Romeo Durscher explains how he learned to love drones, recalls watching drones get personal with whales, and shares what it takes to improve the public image of drones as he answers five questions from AOPA Drone Pilot.

Five weeks flying a drone in France helped convince Romeo Durscher that drones would "contribute to a big change in thinking." Photo courtesy of Romeo Durscher.

At InterDrone 2015, you gave a talk about the negative public perception of drones being fueled by negative media coverage, and the need to educate both the media and the public that drones have many good things to offer, not just mayhem. How’s that going? 

[One-and-a-half] years ago the environment in this space was very different. The term “drone” alone evoked a negative feeling and impression. The technology back then was strong, but not anywhere as impactful as it is today. The biggest reason for the change in perception has been the very many positive real-life examples we have been seeing. Back in 2015 this technology was still a hobbyist platform for videography and photography. Today, all of this has morphed into a so many commercial and beneficial applications, involving more than “just” a picture or video. And of course with the release of a more solid regulatory environment here in the U.S. with [Part] 107, it legitimatized the technology and its uses further. I have been working with first responders the past 1.5 years and we are now seeing fire departments using aerial drone technology almost daily, helping incident command with more and different data, leading to better and faster decisions, which can save property and lives. We are now seeing these predicted positive impacts and it is impacting how we think of this surging technology. And this is only the beginning! 

What’s a SnotBot? 

This is still one of my favorite applications. SnotBot is a research project that utilizes drones to collect the whale’s “snot” as the whale blows it out of its air hole. It’s a very safe, non-intrusive and cost effective way to collect physical and biological data from the whale. Researchers can study the health of the whale, its behavior, snap pictures and videos of the whale. This is truly a fantastic story, lead by Ocean Alliance. I often wonder what it was like to say “Hey, why not use an off-the-shelf drone, fly behind a whale, wait for the spout of snot to be pushed out and then fly through it!” I am sure there was some head shaking involved at first… Here is a story about this.

Did you ever have an “ah-ha” moment with drones, a distinct experience that transformed your view, or have you always been enthusiastic?

Almost five years ago I spent five weeks in Provence, southern France, traveling with a drone with a small action camera attached to it. My goal was to see if a drone would, eventually, become a tool to document a trip and change the way we think of vacation photography. For five weeks my friend Mark Johnson and I flew our aerial cameras several times a day, usually in the morning or then at sunset, capturing some of the most beautiful locations. We always included the locals in our adventures and provided them an opportunity to see their homes, their towns and their surroundings from the air. We captured some of the most beautiful views, over towns that were hundreds of years old, visited structures that were built at a time when only gods could fly. We learned about the challenges of trying to find spare parts in a foreign country (at a time when nobody really knew much about these types of drones) and how 5 minutes of flight time really makes you plan your flights. And when we were not flying, we enjoyed the most wonderful food and wine. But even then, we spaced out the “bottle to throttle" sufficiently! We wanted to be ambassadors and not reckless operators. After that five weeks I knew this technology would contribute to a big change in thinking. 

What’s the "next big thing” in the drone world? 

Photo courtesy of Romeo Durscher.I spent almost 13 years working on NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, a spacecraft observing the Sun. I did not think I could ever have a more amazing job. I also did not think I would ever experience a field that moves lightning speed; hardware continues to improve, additional sensors are being added that provide even more data, chips are processing the data and helping the operator with information or even with the autonomous execution of a mission, avoiding obstacles along the way. Cameras are getting more powerful, capturing more helpful data. And all of this wouldn’t be as powerful without better software, without third party developers having access to DJI’s Software Development Kit, creating apps that execute specific tasks. Just like we download apps onto our smart devices, these apps allow the drone operator to achieve a mission success easier, safer and with more accuracy. Often I ask myself “What can possibly be next?” just to learn that there is something impressive awaiting around the corner; again. For right now the big thing is the newly announced DJI Matrice 200 series platform; this platform has incorporated many of our learnings from the first responder community and is truly one powerful platform to help public safety, inspection, and construction projects. 

How can pilots help maximize the potential for good in drones while minimizing the risks?

One of the key elements is education. We learned very quickly that 99.9 percent of drone operators have good intentions, but potentially along the way could operate in an unsafe manner. Not because they meant to, but because they didn’t know any better. Through various educational approaches and with partnerships, like with AOPA, we are constantly adding additional pieces of education and ways to ensure people are using the technology smartly. Any pilot and operator can be an ambassador of and showcase how to safely navigate and use the technology. As this industry is maturing, so are the operations, missions and the potential uses—and more safety features are being incorporated to maximize the potential.  

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Topics: Unmanned Aircraft, Safety and Education, Technology

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