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A Drone of My Own: Toys and Technology

This Christmas an online commerce company (you know which I’m talking about) failed to cancel an order in my wish-list and so delivered to our front door a foot-long, remote-controlled, battery-powered, blimp-shaped, gyro-stabilized toy drone. At the museum, I’m up to my ears in thinking and writing about play and toys, but playing is another thing entirely. I hovered over sending the package back, but decided to keep it, putting my money where my mouth is, with hilarious, chaotic results.

Such is the effect of globalized manufacturing that my encounter with the flying machine began with instructions written in the most meandering and unhelpful Google translated, square-wheels English I’ve ever encountered. (To be fair, I need to also admit that my Mandarin doesn’t extend beyond “hello,” “please,” and “thank you.”) But luckily, the world is also a great deal easier to understand because without much effort you can find almost anything documented on YouTube. After charging the batteries as directed, and without any flying that we could detect in the inert toy, I was grateful to find a video review from one enthusiast who called himself the “Taoist Flyer.” He pointed out a switch—tiny almost to the point of invisibility—that activates the craft’s motors.

Advertising copy for the toy had promised “you’ll be amazed how accurate you can maneuver it,” but the more meditative reviewer who called the blimp, “intriguing” and “enjoyable,” advised that “it does take a little skill to fly.” More than a little, I quickly discovered. (Predicting disaster, the illustrated instructions eloquently pictured a blimp flying into a computer monitor.)

On its maiden flight, after a startling liftoff from the coffee table, I learned about “trim” and “rotation” by immediately flying the aircraft through the piano’s top board and backwards into the Christmas tree, liberating several ornaments, then hanging it up on a mechanical Santa. I learned about relative speed, too. Where a real buoyant airship will lumber aloft at a top speed of 60 or 70 miles per hour, if scaled up, this little speed demon would travel near the speed of sound. And that puts the living room at risk.

It’s not just speed that the novice pilot deals with; flying an indoor drone for the first time requires the pilot to discover and then remember how thumb and forefingers can direct the console to govern the basic three-dimensional dynamics of flight—the pitch of the craft (whether it’s pointing downward or upward); its yaw (the way a craft moves up or down); its roll, from side to side; its rotation clockwise or counterclockwise; and its direction of flight, forward or backward. Levers and dials govern each of these movements that in theory move the craft on three axes in graceful parabolas. But trying to remember all these factors while the blimp is bearing down on the fireplace brings the new, self-teaching pilot to the brink of sanity.

And I’m not the only one. This aircraft also sets our dog barking crazily, because to him, I expect, it seems like the only other thing that will fly indoors is an errant, invading bat. So to lower the risk and save our ears, I took my drone (against instructions) outside to practice in three dimensions. There I found that its springy, spindly frame, which consists mostly of empty space, can take a licking and keep on ticking. Fly it too high, and it will lose the guiding infrared signal and then plummet. But crash land it on the neighbors’ garage, and the blunted ends and rounded middle, will help it roll. Apparently there are only a few ways to straighten up and fly right, while there are many, many ways to fly wrong.

With a broken crossbeam to superglue and a missing strut to improvise—not so bad really, considering several catastrophic flights—the clever little mechanism now needs minor repair. Though this blimp is a toy, it’s not so far from the real thing, and the real thing includes new and controversial instruments of foreign policy, the unmanned aerial vehicles that deliver guided munitions. Learning to fly this toy loaded my mind with play; but designers and engineers of combat drones are thinking “payload.”

Looking backward though, the close link of toys and technology is nothing new. Most of the machines we use as transportation—trains, planes, boats, and automobiles—began as models or toys. Nicholas Tesla, the playful, enigmatic magician/genius, launched a radio controlled toy boat before an appreciative audience in Madison Square Garden in 1898. Toy hydrogen-filled radio controlled dirigibles appeared soon after. The Italian air force first used dirigibles’ in strategic bombing raids against Turkish forces in 1912. Though we may never know for sure since the idea is so ancient, the wheel itself may well have begun as a part of toy. In fact, the spirit of invention lies so close to the character of play that the two cannot be separated.