Gifts from Above

Whose heart wouldn’t be tugged by cool-looking drone delivering an iPhone, iPad or GoPro surprise gift to someone who really, truly needed it. eBay, digital agency Razorfish and Droneheadz must have known they’d dreamed up a winning idea.

It’s one of those glorious summer mornings in which Sydney is showing off what she can do. She can, and has, turned Bondi’s Marks Park into a latter day Garden of Eden. Retirees Lourdes and Emmanuel have been coaxed down to the Bondi to Bronte coastal walk by their daughter, Lorraine.

A reporter approaches. He points with puckish eyes to the drone that has appeared overhead, “Do you guys know what’s going on here?”

Only Lorraine does. The drone lands at their feet and completes his assignment. It delivers the gift from Lorraine to her mum and dad that eBay has organised – a new gen iPad.

It’s an emotional moment for Emmanuel who has never been on the internet. “I know it’s going to change my life.”

Tears begin to blur your vision. And you are only watching the video. Imagine what you’d have felt had you been there.

The idea, #DroneAFriend, had come from eBay Australia’s digital agency, Razorfish, and was put into action by Sydney-based drone operator and aerial photography specialists DroneHeadz. Five Sydney eBay shoppers were selected from 2,500 entries, to send the ultimate tech gift by drone to a deserving friend or family member. The idea was to reward and give back to valued eBay Australia shoppers, surprising them with the latest in technology products, delivered in an extra special way.

Grant Trebilco was nominated by his surf mate, Jack Warick, to receive an iPad to help promote his mental health charity service ‘OneWave is all it takes’.

Charlie nominated Chris, “the luckiest unlucky guy I know,” who’d triumphed over a couple of bouts of cancer and a lung transplant. In fact, he’d gone on to run a triathlon.

These were Droneheadz Chief Pilot Craig Newlyn’s first words in our interview with him: “How good is Emmanuel’s story? This ended up being rewarding on both a personal and professional level.” Yes, it really is a powerful campaign.

Droneheadz had been asked by Razorfish to provide the drones that would act as couriers to deliver the surprise gifts. Of course, that was the simple part of the brief.

“We were asked if the drone could release the package on landing, so the winner could approach it after shut down, open the lock box and retrieve their prize. On top of that we suggested we could make the drone talk. We weren’t exactly sure how we would do that initially but it seemed like a great idea,” Newlyn recalled.

Drone magazine: Once you got into pre-production, what were the main things you had to prepare for to make the stunt work?

DRONEHEADZ: There were two modifications made to the drone. First, it needed to carry a lockable box that could be released remotely. So we had to select a box that would be light, easy to modify and capable of being mounted to a mechanism under the drone. This wasn’t too difficult. A servo hooked the package in place, and could be released by the pilot from a switch on his remote controller.

Second, we needed the drone to talk. This was the fun part. At first we imagined the host talking into a microphone that would be transmitted to a speaker on the drone. Sure, that’s pretty cool, but we thought we would make it even more difficult for ourselves and give the drone a robotic voice. We ended up triggering personalised announcements for each of the five winners, generated remotely from a laptop via a wireless audio signal.

You must have run into more than one challenge?

There were a couple of challenges to overcome. The first was the actual loudspeaker. We had one of those UE Boom bluetooth speakers in the workshop. They’re pretty loud, and they had recently released the UE MEGA Boom. We took the drone, a DJI S1000 Octocopter, up for a test. It has eight motors and it sounds like something between a swarm of bees and a small aeroplane.

As loud as the MEGA Boom was, we needed more and decided the only option would have to be megaphones. Fortunately, we found some cool yellow ones, a colour that works for eBay. We re-wired them to work with our audio receiver, did some tweaking and went for a test fly.

We were pleased to find that the neighbours down the street all heard about the winner of eBay #DroneAFriend!

Was it difficult to get permission to do this in public places?

The simple answer is yes.

You don’t get to fly a commercial drone anywhere near people in a major city like Sydney without a lot of careful planning, risk management and permits. The councils are encouraged to allow commercial filming in public spaces, but drones are a very new thing. This was, in fact, the first time they’d been asked to approve filming with a drone on both Bondi Beach and the Botanic Gardens. A lot of boxes needed to be ticked, including CASA permits, public liability insurance, safety briefs, risk management plans, marking of exclusion zones, notifying the public, notifying the police…and probably a bunch of other things I’ve forgotten. Rest assured the councils did all the due diligence required to keep the lovely citizens of our beautiful city safe from the potential danger of crazy flying robots.

What were the technical and safety restrictions and considerations?

Battery power and flight times on drones are a constant consideration for pilots. Drones, especially the bigger ones don’t get heaps of flight time. Ten to fifteen minutes is average, so flight planning is essential to ensure you get the job done and land safely with plenty of juice in the tank. LiPo battery packs, which power all commercial drones don’t like to drop below about 30% charge or else power drops off exponentially. And if you’re not near the ground, you will be really soon.

A commercial drone can operate over a kilometre away from the pilot, but as it’s a CASA regulation that the pilot remains in line of sight of the drone, we never get that far. As you can imagine, it’s not so easy to see which way a drone is facing when it’s more than a few hundred metres away. But to surprise the #DroneAFriend winner we needed to be relatively close, anyway, so we could embarrass them by telling them they won a prize from eBay over the loudspeakers in a public place.

Safety? You can’t fly within 30 metres of people, or over the top of people. So we had to set up exclusion areas where the drone would take off and land and a number of safety staff had to notify people nearing the operation area about what was going on.

How did the public react?

Not just with this operation, but whenever we take the big drones out, people look at them like they’re spaceships. They always attract a crowd and during #DroneAFriend there were a lot of people taking photos and watching. You don’t often see a space ship with eyes and a big eBay logo fly in and start talking to someone in a public place. 

It was awesome!

What were some of the major considerations for directing the video?

We were thrilled that our first choice for the host, Scott Tweedie, was approved – he was great. He loves this stuff and his style, look and personality were perfect. We went with a RED camera for shooting the on-ground video, and it looks great. We didn’t want it to look like a typical YouTube prank.

What’s in drones’ future. Could they be used as couriers? Patrol beaches for sharks? Help police patrol outdoor concerts and other big events? Scour bushland for lost bushwalkers...?

The potential uses for drones are only limited by your imagination. Maybe one day you’ll see drones delivering pizza. Do I think it’s going to happen in Sydney in the next few years? Unlikely. The technology has a long way to go before we’ll be ready to let drones run wild by themselves over our cities. New tech is still being developed to help them avoid people, trees, buildings, cars, power lines, etc.

Drones patrolling our beaches for sharks is a far more realistic image of the near future. The technology is available now and once the councils deal with privacy and safety issues, I’m sure you will see that soon.

The campaign

#DroneAFriend, a competition to reward valued eBay Australia shoppers.

The drone brief: To use drones as couriers to deliver surprise gifts on behalf of the five competition winners.
Client: eBay Australia
Creative agency: Razorfish
Drones & video: Droneheadz
Drones used: 2x DJI S1000 Octocopter
Other gear: RED camera for on-ground filming, megaphones, wireless audio TX/RX.