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Jim Kenyon: Drone Wherefore in Hanover

I got a hot tip last week that a lithium battery-powered drone equipped with a high definition camera had gone missing while flying over Hanover.

My first thought was that it was bad enough that Hanover attached surveillance cameras to the outside of Town Hall a few years ago to monitor the comings and goings of downtown pedestrians. Now do we have to worry that Big Brother is keeping tabs from high above on who’s leaving the Hanover Inn after last call?

But then I came up with another theory: Having secured a Homeland Security grant, Hanover cops are using a drone to spy on Dartmouth students stumbling across the Green. Anything to stamp out underage drinking. But fraternity brothers foiled the strategy by shooting down the drone with a slingshot. The drone is now stashed in a frat house basement.

I shared my theory with several colleagues. For starters, they pointed out, it wasn’t as though the tip had come from Edward Snowden. A thoughtful reader was just passing along information posted on the Hanover listserve.

Not exactly classified material. Still, a story worth pursuing.

The listserve posters wrote, “We lost a remote-control helicopter/quadcopter with a GoPro camera while flying in Hanover. It’s about one square foot, white, with four rotors.” The drone’s owners were offering a $100 reward for its recovery.

I traced the listserve posting to Dartmouth genetics professor Claudio Pikielny. Last Wednesday, I dropped by his lab at the medical school. Pikielny, I learned, is an expert on fruit flies. It was starting to make sense. He must have been using the drone to track the migration pattern of the Drosophila (the type of fruit fly, he specializes in) and something went horribly wrong. Did a swarm of mutant killer fruit flies attack the drone?

A research assistant told me Pikielny wasn’t in the lab. She ushered me next door to see Yashi Ahmed, another genetics professor who studies fruit flies. Ahmed is also married to Pikielny.

The drone? I asked.

“It’s my son’s,” she replied.

Adam Pikielny, 14, is a freshman at Hanover High. Adam and his 11-year-old brother, Noah, received the drone and camera for Christmas.

I wondered what parents would spend $880 on a camera-equipped drone for their kids to fly around Hanover. But Ahmed and Pikielney are a lot smarter than me. Both have doctorates. Ahmed also has a medical degree from Duke.

“He (Adam) had been dreaming of it for a long time,” explained Pikielny, when I met with him and Adam on Thursday. The two boys also chipped in money they earned for doing household chores.

Adam told me that he’s made videos since third grade. (You can find his work on his YouTube channel, LiveFreezeandDie.) From what I’ve seen, he has a talent for action video photography. He’s created videos set to music of his brother and their friends playing soccer, skateboarding and skiing. He’s also taken his camera underwater to capture marine life.

So a small drone with a camera mounted on the bottom of it was a natural step in his budding videography career. Just in case you’re wondering: There are no laws against flying drones for a hobby in New Hampshire or Vermont. And the Federal Aviation Authority says the recreational use of model aircraft is OK as long as they stay away from airports and are not more than 400 feet above ground level.

On Jan. 28, Adam and Noah were flying their DJI Phantom at the Dartmouth rugby field after school. The field is a short downhill hike through some tall pines from their house on Foxfield Lane. “I was trying to get shots of the sunset,” said Adam.

As the drone soared above the trees, “I lost sight of it,” he said. Using the drone’s remote control, he tried unsuccessfully to bring it back. In the drone world this is known as a “fly-away,” Adam said. He speculates that some kind of electromagnetic interference caused the drone to go haywire (that’s my scientific word for it) and he lost communication with it.

The drone was equipped with a GPS that’s supposed to guide it back to its home base, in this case, the boys’ backyard. Adam and Noah hurried home. The drone hadn’t returned.

With help from their parents and friends, the boys have searched the woods around their neighborhood. No luck. I’m guessing that winter probably isn’t the best time to locate a white drone the size of a square laundry basket.

In response to the listserve posting (apikielny@gmail.com), a walker reported hearing what could have been the drone, which makes a fair amount of buzzing noise, flying overhead near Hanover Country Club.

Adam suspects the drone could be stuck in a tree. As for my worry (some might call it paranoia) that the skies will soon be filled with spy drones, Adam is skeptical.

“I don’t know if you’re going to see many drones in Hanover,” he said. “There are so many trees.”

In last Sunday’s column about the debate over the collection of delinquent property taxes in Strafford, I goofed. A sentence (poorly worded, I’m afraid) made it sound as though Jeanne Castro, the town’s delinquent tax collector, supported abolishing an 8 percent penalty on property taxes paid after the deadline. Castro supports keeping the penalty. But as I mentioned in the column, she’s not against changing the current system, which allows the delinquent tax collector to pocket the 8 percent penalty in lieu of a salary.

The two issues will be voted on separately at Town Meeting.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com .