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Spare Parts: Peril from above

By Ernie Copper

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This is a tale of long odds with a less-than-desirable outcome. A longshot. The kind of odds less likely to happen to you than hitting the Powerball or getting struck by lightning. I know a guy who was struck by lightning more than once, and I don’t know anyone who has ever hit the Powerball. What are the odds of that?

This is the kind of story that I probably wouldn’t believe if you were telling it to me. I’m not a tinfoil hat kind of guy. The enemy isn’t around every corner for me and I don’t imagine Blackhawk helicopters outside my window every time the life flight lands at the nearby hospital. But I understand the world to be an ever-changing environment that creates danger we may not expect.

I never gave public outcry and governmental oversight a thought when I decided to buy my dad a drone for Christmas. And by “drone” I guess I technically mean a “quadcopter,” the cheap, four-rotors-and-a-digital-camera kind as opposed to the full-on, ordnance-carrying, GPS-guided, unmanned aerial vehicles used to take out the bad guys. This was more of a neat toy. So, I have plenty of pre-holiday digital footage of the interior of my house, including close-ups of my carpet nap, a crash landing on the mantle and a close brush with our tree. Dad’s nearly 85 and he seems to be getting along well with his new high-tech toy. People of all ages have these things now, so what I’m about to share shouldn’t really come as a big surprise, but it did to me.

My friend Richard was enjoying a summer weekend at his camp recently. His weekend itinerary included motorcycling, fishing, boating, swimming, barbecuing and likely even a beer or two. But this weekend would include some special, unusual and unexpected entertainment. Another camper had brought a drone to play with. Speculation ran wild through the campground that perhaps the aircraft was AWOL from the military. It reportedly had a control board that was described to me as “big as a Casio keyboard.” This control panel rig was so big that the operator had a neck strap on it so he could manipulate all of the dials, joysticks and video controls with the utmost precision. I’m picturing Jan Hammer at the controls.

Richard watched the drone fly back and forth, hundreds of yards in each direction with its operator barely visible. After several sorties, it paused and hovered over Richard at more than tree-top height. Then, suddenly, all was quiet. The whisper of the powerful drone engines was gone. There was no whoosh of the air spinning off the rotors. Just an eerie silence. Then it happened. The drone dropped straight from the sky, plummeting directly onto the roof of Richard’s minivan. A direct hit, so to speak, and in an instant against all odds, Richard had become the very first victim of a drone strike that I knew personally! Thankfully, he survived the incident unscathed. His first instinct had been to swat at the failing drone like you would if you were shooing a fly. Thankfully, he missed. Pandemonium followed at the campgrounds and reportedly the wife of the drone pilot was the first to state the obvious. “You just hit his car!” came the screech from the distance. The pilot soon approached, with his now overly-engineered and under-effective control rig swinging uselessly from his shoulders to apologize and begin the exchange of information that resulted in an insurance claim of several thousand dollars in damage to the van from the hefty aircraft.

Knowing this kind of accident really happens makes me a little more aware at rallies and concerts these days when the requisite drone flyovers occur. It seems they are everywhere from Uncle Teddy concerts to local Bike Blessings. They really do capture events from a different point of view.

There are several entertaining videos online involving drones and motorcycles, which should be no surprise, I guess. From touring footage to terrorist strikes, it’s all on the web. One of the most creative uses I’ve seen for drones as far as bikes are concerned was a bunch of riders using a drone to capture video of a fun-riding hill climber ripping up a local trail. They edited and synced multiple cameras so you could see it from the rider’s and the drone’s points of view. The end result was fun to watch.

Watching out for distracted drivers, road conditions and traffic patterns when I ride keeps me busy. If you throw in the occasional darting wildlife and changing weather conditions I’m still up for the challenge. I’m just not sure I’m ready to add periodic overhead drone checks to my rider radar just yet, but it could be down the road.

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