Raphael “Trappy” Pirker is the founder and front man of Team Black Sheep, a group of hobbyist drone pilots who have gained global renown, and infamy, for their aerial videos of landscapes and cityscapes from Rio de Janeiro to New Zealand. Trappy first came into the public spotlight when he flew a fixed-wing drone over Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty and then posted the video on Youtube. The stunt drew widespread outrage; it also made Trappy a celebrity. ABC, an Australian television network, described Trappy and his team as “aerial anarchists.” Trappy again made headlines this year when he announced that the FAA had levied $10,000 of fines against him for flying a drone over the campus of the University of Virginia “in a careless and reckless manner.” Trappy is challenging the fines; if his challenge is successful, the precedent will undermine the FAA’s claim that it has the authority to regulate the use of hobby drones. Everyone is watching.
Arthur Holland Michel spent two days hanging out near or with Trappy, whose background remains largely mysterious to us, at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference in New York. After lunch on the second day, Arthur sat down with Trappy and turned on his voice recorder.
Center for the Study of the Drone What’s the background? How did you get into flying drones?
Raphael “Trappy” Pirker We started doing this as a hobby, and just pushed the limits and pushed the envelope of what was possible. We improved technology, and through that we opened up new possibilities of doing stuff with drones. The background has always been in aviation. All of our team members either want to be pilots or are pilots. So it’s more of a flying thing than a technology thing, and we’re using the technology as a means of achieving our dreams.
Drone Do you have a specific technical background?
Trappy I don’t have any technical background.
Drone So this developed as a hobby?
Trappy It developed as a hobby and I learned quickly.
Drone When did you start making videos?
Trappy In 2008…
A woman approaches, asks if we want to to do the interview somewhere else.
TrappyTo the woman] We are fine where we are.
Drone And when did you have the idea that you could actually publish the videos?
Trappy I never really intended to make videos that were going to be as popular as they are today. It was more meant to show people my town—and this is like a 3,000 person village—how the town looked from up above. We live in a very beautiful place, a tourist place in St. Antoine, in Austria, but we always only see stuff from the ground. We go up the mountain and we look down, but there’s never really a mid-valley shot into the valley. This was what I was mainly interested in.
Drone Do you think there is an educational value for the general public in watching your content?
Trappy Well, the content is actually made to inspire viewers to get into the hobby. And the hobby is a tremendous educational experience. It’s not just about technology—it’s about law, it’s about social issues. I’ve been confronted with so many disciplines while performing this hobby. There is no other hobby like it.
Drone What sort of disciplines does a person need to be aware of if they’re trying to get into this?
Trappy Well, they should have at least a basic knowledge of electronics, like plus is red and minus is black. Nothing too deep: voltages, amps and stuff like this. If you want to fly out further you need some basic RF [radio frequency] knowledge. Frequencies, attenuation, decibels, and what all that means. You need to be not gifted with handicrafts, but you should be able to solder and screw stuff together so that it doesn’t fall apart in the air.
Drone When we look at these videos, they’re very interesting, they’re very aesthetically pleasing. I think you recognize that in putting them together. Do you see a line between the value of having a hobby and the ideal of creating something that actually achieves the condition of art?
Trappy Yes, of course there is a line. We have one guy that just makes the video. For him it’s about the art. For him it’s predominantly about producing videos that other people would enjoy watching. We just deliver the footage, and he makes pieces of art on his own. For us it’s mainly about flying.
Drone So, for you, is it more about the actual experience of flying, the thrill in the moment, rather than actually seeing the videos afterward?
Trappy By watching the videos you’re re-playing the moment. So you re-live all these emotions—for example, today we actually hovered with a quadcopter over the statue of liberty, and immediately when we got back we watched the HD video, and immediately we were transported back into that moment. I was there, you know. I think that with the HD video this has become more of a permanent feeling, because before we couldn’t record any of the footage in that quality. Before, it was just like “oh yeah it was a cool flight.” But now I get to watch the flights, and all the memories come back.
Drone Would you call yourself an artist?
Trappy Um, maybe an activist.
Drone What is the reason for that distinction?
Trappy Well, we try to demonstrate that the current law [governing drone use] is not really helping anybody. We do that not in a “let’s sit down and talk about this” way, but we show a world where if the law were better; we show what could be done.
Drone Let’s go back to the the idea of promoting this as a hobby. In the past, you have talked about how this hobby can be dangerous, and how there can be legal risks, as you well know.
Trappy I’m the first one, though, in the United States, so the legal side is not really a huge issue for regular people.
Drone Would you ideally like to see drone flying become as prolific as other hobbies that young people have? Would you want to see people doing it all the time, and everywhere?
Trappy Five or six years ago, when we started, there were maybe 1000 people worldwide practicing this hobby, and now there are 1,000 people just in the state where I live. This is exploding worldwide—it already is a more or less common hobby, probably not as much as for example like biking, or rock climbing or stuff like that, but it will get more popular over time.
Drone Can you describe what it is about flight that thrills you?
Trappy No, it’s very difficult to describe. My theory is that it’s because we can’t do it. You know, flying is what we dream about. We can swim and we can walk, but we can’t fly. That kind of makes it something special.
Drone What’s next? Are you going to keep trying to push it further and harder?
Trappy We’re already facing a lawsuit, so pushing it further would probably not be very smart. But I’m just in the moment wherever I am, just having fun. I don’t mean to push or upset people. I don’t get a kick out of that. We are just going to make more videos in more locations,. We’re going to see new places with new people, and hopefully have fun.
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