The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Only in Washington: Drone lobby throws free OK Go concert to promote responsible flying

OK Go singer Damian Kulash holds up a quadcopter onstage at the 9:30 Club on Wednesday in Washington. (Andrea Peterson/Washington Post)

In the latest OK Go video, members of the rock band ride around on robotic unicycles amid a crowd of umbrella-wielding women creating geometric patterns. A camera attached to a drone flies overhead, with each umbrella becoming a mere dot as it soars through the sky.

"If we had tried to shoot that here, we would have been killed -- by the government," OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash told the audience in the middle of a set at the 9:30 Club in Northwest Washington on Wednesday night. "That drone went up 700 meters in the sky, which is so fully ...  illegal here."

OK Go made their drone video in Japan.

The fight over allowing commercial drones into national airspace has reached beyond the halls of Capitol Hill and into the packed venue in Washington's U Street corridor. While drone enthusiasts wait for the Federal Aviation Administration to issue rules for using unmanned vehicles, the industry is looking for fresh ways to drum up support.

Drone advocates are eager to get OK Go involved in the debate after the popularity of the drone-shot video for "I Won't Let You Down," which has already been watched more than 17 million times on Youtube.

At its recent concert, the music even seemed to match the soaring theme.  “I just want to get you high tonight,” Kulash crooned as cannons unleashed waves of confetti raining down on the audience during the song “The Writing's On the Wall.” Kulash also offered to trade backstage passes at an upcoming show for a drone and struggled to figure out how to turn on a quadcopter.

But Kulash's drone obsession was no accident -- and this was no ordinary show. The OK Go concert was free (except to government employees) and sponsored by a group of unmanned aerial vehicle enthusiasts and businesses hoping to promote commercial uses of the flying machines. The event raised at least $35,000 for “Know Before You Fly” campaign, said Small UAV Coalition executive director Michael Drobac.

The money, Drobac said, came primarily primarily from sponsors -- including Google X and the Motion Picture Association of America. (It’s unclear how much money went to renting out the 9:30 Club, a major D.C. venue, and paying the band.)

The crowd was a mixtures of drone enthusiasts -- some of them wearing blue shirts saying “Small UAVs, Big Deal,” others in suit and ties -- and OK Go fans. It was a quintessentially D.C. event mixing policy obsession and pop culture, where the singer’s jokes about the government murdering drone entrepreneurs hit almost too close to home for a group frustrated by the slow progress on rules for commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

The FAA is developing rules for the commercial use of drones but has not given an exact date for when the industry might expect the rules to drop.  The lack of regulations is giving other countries a head start on their commercial UAV industry, Drobac said, citing OK Go’s decision to make their music video in Japan.

The band is known for making quirky, highly coordinated videos that take off online. It has been involved in technology policy debates before -- most notably on net neutrality. Kulash, who grew up in the Washington area, wrote an editorial  in support of strong net neutrality standards for The Washington Post in 2010 and has testified on the issue before Congress.

But the band also had a personal connection to drone policy beyond their own use of a flying robot to shoot a video: Drummer Dan Konopka is old  friends with someone who works at one of the UAV groups that organized the concert, publicist Bobbie Gale told The Post.

“Overall the band is very pro-tech, pro-innovation, pro-nerd," Gale said, "and having just used a drone to make their latest video, “I Won’t Let You Down,” this seemed like a natural fit.”

But the band's support does have its limits. OK Go, for example, doesn't encourage drones being used as spyware, Gale said.