Bubo Process

My design partner Joe Frankl and I worked together on this.

This is the real-time design process that led us from vague ideas about rethinking police body cameras to Bubo. It was posted in chronological order so we could see it all in one place as we worked. It's mostly unedited since then.

Overall, this project was borne of our frustration with the current state of police accountability, and the poor health of police-civilian relations. We did our best to make a tool that helps everyone, but particularly the victims of violent crime police already have a support system with outsized power. Still, it's worth noting: one of our first research findings was that police departments everywhere report fewer false complaints and feeling safer while body cameras are in use.

Bubo would help keep civilians safe during interactions with police by reducing that feeling of unease, which holds up in court as a valid reason to shoot an unarmed civilian. If this makes you angry, by the way, do something about it.

We're still talking and thinking about tools for truth. We felt compelled to think through a system for storing all this footage responsibly. It's called asio, and it's massive in scope. Let us know if you want to talk about it.


This project began 12 months before graduation. We worked on it for 4 months as a semester-long school project, bringing it to a finished state after our first round of process. On a semester long internship, we decided while across the world from each other to drop our senior capstone projects for a collaborative effort.

This is us when we made that decision.

We stuck to our Gantt chart, played plenty of Rocket League, and didn't pull any all nighters that semester.


Unarmed civilians are gunned down by police, and the victims of unjust murders face immediate character assassination. Police are commonly vilified as a whole—largely because the few murderers among them are sheltered by their institution from legal recourse.

The only thing about which everyone seems to agree is that we could benefit from better knowing what the hell is going on. How do we make this happen without making the police (and the civilians they are sworn to protect) feel like they're under a microscope?

Semester 1

Body cameras work.

With the generous help of Sergeant Ryan Smith of the Cincinnati Police Department (CPD), we were able to compile thousands of pages of research on Body Worn Cameras (BWCs). These tools have been instrumental in many precincts, and studies in Mesa, AZ and Rialto, CA provided several hard data points to confirm their effectiveness. CPD also performed an comparison study of two BWC solutions, and generously provided their results with us. When deploying cameras in situations where an officer will be interacting with the public in their capacity as a public servant, the department saves thousands of dollars in frivolous complaints alone.

Another helpful set of documents were policy guidelines established by the ACLU and the International Association of Chiefs of Police regarding BWCs and new technology in general.

The July 2015 shooting of Samuel Dubose by University of Cincinnati Police officer Ray Tensing is one of many examples of the use of body camera footage to make sense of a situation involving the police. Tensing was indicted for manslaughter, and is facing a criminal trial in October 2016. Without the footage from Tensing's camera, the investigation of this incident would rely on his testimony alone, and the truth would likely never have come to light.

Perspective bias & the airborne camera

A major turning point in our research phase occurred when we found this article in the New York Times about perspective bias, and the huge potential for footage used in investigations to be misleading and difficult to parse.

We decided the best way to overcome this drawback would be to create an airborne solution that could capture as neutral a viewpoint of the situation as possible. With this in mind, we set out to tackle the new set of challenges designing an airborne camera poses.

Sticky Sesh 01 / Broad Strokes

We defined "research lenses" in blue, which are questions we had set out to answer about body worn cameras from the research we had done. Combining these research lenses after the fact led to broadly defining potential solution spaces.

Street Looks

We conducted informal interviews with random members of the public, and formal interviews with police officers to get opinions from a wide range of perspectives on the use of BWCs and surveillance in general. We then posed questions specific to drone-mounted cameras, and how it might be possible for the public to feel comfortable with their existence.

In general, they're not. The idea of airborne surveillance brings dystopian images to the minds of anyone asked about its potential efficacy. We needed to make sure an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) system has the same favorability shift in the public eye that BWC systems have seen. If people aren't comfortable with the solution, it will simply be an added wedge between the police and the public.

Access to footage

There are already standards in place for public access to footage, although the laws around BWCs are evolving and still being formed at this time. Airborne cameras are also in the process of being legislated, but there are no clear overarching standards or practices. To test the Freedom of Information Act and Public Records Act, we requested footage from Ray Tensing's BWC on the day of his fatal confrontation. It took 21 days for the record to be made available. One of our goals is to streamline footage access while adhering to the same privacy policies that are already in place at most police departments.

What have we learned so far?

We need this device to put people at ease with its presence. It should not be an overhead UFO silhouette, but hover near head level. It should be kind of cute, and not look like an alien or spider, because people need to like it. It should be taken seriously, and look like it is doing its job, because people need to trust it.

One product, multiple deployment options

Taser makes products for civilian and police use, with different functions. Part of the reason people are more comfortable with police carrying stun guns may be that they are available to everyone on an equal playing field, and see use as an emergency non-lethal solution. We decided that Bubo would be the same tool whether used by civilians or police.

Sticky sesh 02 / Design goals

We wrote down all the design goals we had arrived upon through the research we had done up to this point, and made iconographic interpretations of their implementation. How would these solutions be different for police vs civilian UAV systems? How are these stakeholders different? What are their goals? How few products could address all of them?

Sticky sesh 03 / Group feedback

We held a small group session of rapid ideation on six broad topic areas. These ideas are often absurd, stimulating disruptive and truly innovative solutions.

First formal use cases

Use case 01 / Dark Alley

If the user is feeling threatened or experiencing an emergency, they can press a button to summon a UAV. Bubo leaves its post from a nearby building to record the scene, provide live video and location to the police, and make its presence known to prevent potential violence.

Use case 02 / Traffic Stop

A police officer exits his vehicle for a traffic stop and Bubo automatically rises from the vehicle to hover over the scene. It buffers video of the scene, and if it senses an altercation, it saves the preceding footage and begins recording.

Use case 03 / Wayfinding

A user wants to navigate an unfamiliar environment without looking down at their phone, so they summon Bubo to help them through the city at whatever pace they set. They can later view their route to help them remember things they saw along the way. Bubo tracks where they spent the most time window shopping or enjoying a view.

Use case 04 / Camcorder

A user wants to document a sporting activity without the hassle and expense of owning their own UAV. They summon Bubo to get a smooth, bird's-eye view of their activities, which can be viewed and saved later. These paid services help finance the important emergency utilities which occupy only a small amount of Bubo's time.

At some point, it became obvious that owls could drive a lot of design decisions and branding for Bubo. It's also how we got the name—Bubo is the genus name for North American Horned Owls, which are capable of changing their appearance from cute to authoritative in a matter of moments. This dichotomy—combined with owls' ability to perch in a spot and take in a scene with their powerful eyes and 360° swivel neck—led us to borrow their name. And maybe some of their features.

Physical design

Foam studies / Form studies / Foarm studies

It's time to start designing! We made forms that range from large to small, and from a traditional quad-copter shape to a totally neutral circle. We used these for holding in our hands, drawing on, poking with wires, and making airplane noises.

Mr. Potatohead Study

We gave a variety of people foam models, a variety of scavenged crafting materials, and one of two scenarios to choose from: recording a birthday party for their 4-year-old child, or being followed down a dark alleyway by a stranger. What should the drone look like in each of these situations? We want a product that can look friendly when it needs to interact with the public outside of emergency situations, but effective and intimidating when it is taping a potential incident. These studies gathered data for a random civilian's gut feeling about how form affects perception.

Sketch bash 01

We sketched a lot. Our philosophy is that there are no bad ideas, weird stuff welcome.

Sketch CAD bash

We made a bunch of 5-minute sketch models and picked 5 camps we like for form factor—Pillow, Mushroom, Balloon, Fin, and Basket.

We made a few more refined CAD silhouettes. We picked a final direction for basic construction and form factor. Now the shape bucket is just called "Bubo."

At this point it became clear that some sort of stiff, molded mesh would be a good way to create a pleasing form while allowing air to flow freely.

Bubo also needs to let everyone know when it's recording.

Sketch bash 02

We sketch through the whole process. Here are our sketches from figuring out structure, camera, and light placement.

Refining camera features on our basic form.

This is the final shape of the camera. The outer ring hugs the shape of the body, so it's not an evenlytruncated cone—we like the way it looks like the eyes of a barn owl. It also sticks out a little farther above the lens like an eyelid or shade.

We did light studies in Illustrator. Flood lights, status lights, recording lights. Animated LEDs. When it's dark, the lights are all you'll be able to see. What will that look like?

Brain studies

We have plenty of space for the technology that needs to go inside, but we need to package it properly. You'll be able to see the brain through the mesh somewhat, so its form is important too. How should echo and contrast the main housing? How should it attach to the main housing?

This is Bubo's final iteration for our presentation at the 4 month mark. In our second semester we gave the 3D model a detail pass, as well as updating the mesh and designing lighting features.

Semester 2

Mesh design

We used the incredible Vectoraster to quickly prototype mesh gradient shapes and patterns, for micro detail and macro impression.

We built a modular 3D printed rig to hold a different mesh iterations onto a Parrot Mambo drone. We wanted to test the airflow required to get the drone in the air, and measure the effects of different mesh densities. The mesh should keep people safe and make Bubo look less like a drone and more like a flying bubble. If it stops Bubo from working properly, it needs to be less dense, and if it's too open you see the individual mesh holes and it's not friendly looking. Eventually we found that the ideal density is about 90%.

The 3D printer lays down the hexes in a seemingly random pattern that is hypnotizing to watch.

User map

We made sure we knew exactly what possible steps a Bubo user might go through, to make sure we were covering the gaps. This was hugely helpful when it came to developing the dock, app, and keychain—we found one or two gaps and mapped out the framework of the app.

We sketched a lot.

The dock

At first, we thought it would be cool to put Bubo kiosks in highly populated areas. No matter how simple or cute we tried to make them, they intimidated everyone who walked in the room when these were on the wall. Bummer. We moved away from this idea and decided to make a community-integrated dock that would hold the drone, not something designed to be a huge, grounded brand statement.

We sketched a lot more. Should the dock be interactive at all? Head level? On top of buildings? Invisible?

The keychain

We set out to make a device that calls a Bubo when you push a button, which features a panic button that is difficult to accidentally activate. We researched and sketched a bunch of mechanisms and rough shapes.

These are useful to hold in your hand and turn around when you sketch. We carried them in our pockets.

These are useful to hold in your hand and turn around when you sketch. We carried them in our pockets.

These were a little more useful.


It's important to figure out what works best in context. Some of our favorite ideas on paper just didn't work on the keychain because they were too bulky or didn't make it easy enough to access Bubo.

This is the genealogy of our final direction.

Head back to the finished product