What’s With All These Drones?

You’ve probably seen and heard a lot about drones lately. That kid down your street has one. That wedding you went to was filming video with a drone.  The airports seem concerned about them flying into airplanes and I think there was a movie about drones taking over the world.  Now people are talking about these new rules that just came out. So what’s the big deal?  If you’ve been out of the loop or are looking for a little clarification, look no further.

Rise of the Drones
The sort of drone that you are hearing so much about is actually called a quadcopter, but we call them drones because they are all in the same family of unmanned flyers as the military drones – those super high tech remote controlled airplanes with incredible surveillance equipment and/or firepower.  You’ll also see them referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aerial systems (UAS).  Military drones are nothing new, but since technology advances in the 2000s allowed for much cheaper and more lightweight electronics, the quadcopter drone market has skyrocketed. With so many drones in the hands of people like you and me, I can only imagine the FAA decision makers sitting around a board room table, situation room style, looking at some statistics and concerns on the screen, saying “these things are really taking off – get it? Ok we gotta make some rules before this gets out of control.”  In 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) started requiring any drone weighing over a half pound to be registered with the FAA and the registration number written on the drone. While there were naysayers upset about having to submit personal information, I feel like if some guy’s wayward drone ever came smashing through my window, I’d like to be able to tell who it belongs to – you know, so I can get it back to them.  As cameras on drones become more popular, privacy concerns also starting coming up (like drones hovering and filming outside of your window) as well as people flying drones where they shouldn’t, like over crowds. The problem with drones being flown over a crowd is the challenge of getting it down. It might not be immediately obvious who is controlling it and you can’t just shoot it down or you have an immediate falling debris hazard.  One clever solution was to train an eagle to fetch them.  Necessity breeds innovation.  Brilliant.

A common professional drone can be very stable and take high quality photos and video.

A professional drone can be very stable to fly and take high quality photos and video.  Photo: The Walking Drone

Drone Innovation (Dronovation)
Although you might think of a drone as a novelty toy to fly like any other remote controlled thingamajig, we humans can get pretty creative.  Here are a few uses, both basic and dripping with vision. Some are still in the idea phase:

1. Photography
A camera is a common drone accessory. Real estate listings can now feature a fly over video or aerial shot of the property.  Movies can use drones as a lower cost option to a helicopter for aerial shots.  News stations can cover the action with greater versatility.  Concert shots, weddings, sporting events, and well, anything that was previously filmed can now be shot with a new and exciting angle by using a drone.  Take a look at a drone footage reel by Cinechopper.

2. Surveillance
Viewing things from the air has its benefits, but hiring an airplane or helicopter for the job has a cost worth considering. The ability to survey crop growth, monitor the progress of construction, or map an area is now a much easier endeavor by using a drone.

3. Search and Rescue
Whether searching a wooded area for a missing person or delivering medical equipment or supplies to someone in a remote or inaccessible area, drones are a low cost and safer option that we’ve had before.

4. Deliveries
Could we get pizza delivered by drone?  Delivery services might seem far fetched, but Amazon released a video about its plans to launch its own drone delivery service for the products they offer. Order online and a drone gets packed with a crate of your goods and sent to your house.
Good luck ordering that new couch, though.

5. Racing
Most anything that can move can be raced, and drones are no exceptions. The huge benefit to the viewing of drone racing is the first person or point-of-view perspective you can gain from its camera.  And the awesome crash videos that come from it.

6. Fishing
Although I like to fish, it isn’t known for its action and excitement. But if you string a line from a drone, you can pull out a fish and fly it right over to the grill. Take a look here.

7. Taxi Service
If you had told me ten years ago that I would soon be driving on the same roads as cars that drive themselves, I wouldn’t have put my money on it. But with that spirit, take a look at the first manned drone. You might be thinking that makes it a helicopter, but with the mechanics and controls of a quadcopter drone being so much more mechanically simple than traditional aircraft, one thought is that the same automation that will allow delivery service to happen on smaller drones could someday pick you up and give you a ride across town.

Commercial Drone Use
Until this year, getting paid to fly a drone was a challenging undertaking requiring your pilot’s license.  But with the June 2016 release of the FAA’s Part 107 rules, a lot of people are rejoicing in the clarity. Here’s how it works. Current pilots can take an online knowledge test and pay a one time $50 fee to obtain their Remote Pilot Certificate with a UAS Rating.  Nonpilots will apply for the same certificate and rating, although a knowledge test at a certified testing facility will be required initially, along with an estimated $150 fee.  Pilots will then be good to go droning as long as they stay current pilots. Nonpilots will have to pay the $150 every two years and take the online knowledge test.  Keep in mind that pilots, to stay current, must have a flight review every two years, which includes an hour of ground time and an hour of flight time with an instructor.  I know it’s not a contest, but that Biennial Flight Review will likely cost more than $150.

AirspacePic

Having a good understanding of the airspace around you is critical when flying drones.  There are likely more airports to stay clear of than you know.

Recreational Drone Use
If you want to go to your local retailer and buy a hobby drone, chances are they are under the half pound weight limit and you won’t need to register it. But if it does fall in the 0.55lb to 55.0lb weight range, it must be registered with the FAA.  The person registering must be 13 years old (a parent can register for a child). The registration process is $5 and must be renewed every three years.  Your registration will arrive with your unique code to affix to your drone to be legal and airworthy to fly.

A hobby drone. This LaTrax Alias weighs less that half a pound and doesn't need to be registered.

A hobby drone. This LaTrax Alias weighs less that half a pound and doesn’t need to be registered, but shouldn’t be mistaken for a toy – it can get away from you quickly.

Play By The Rules
Now that the certification process is out of the way, some ground rules were set that you should know and follow, whether it be commercial or recreational. The complete rule document can be found in an Advisory Circular here, or as a summary here.  While commercial operations are bound to the rules in part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, the recreational guidelines follow many of the same rules and can be found here.
Here are a few of the initial highlights. Keep in mind that these are subject to change over time. Consult the official rules before you fly and download the B4UFLY app to help with any nearby restrictions.

-Don’t fly in high winds or low visibility (3 miles visibility for commercial operations).
-Once you are off the ground, keep it under 100mph, speed racer.
-Stay under 400 feet AGL (above ground level).
-Although many drones have a great point-of-view camera that can be viewed on the remote, they must be flown within line of sight and only in the daytime.
-Give way to other aircraft. It is a drone pilot’s responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft, even when operating in a safe and legal area.
-Don’t fly within five miles of an airport without contacting air traffic control first.
-Don’t fly over other people who aren’t involved in the operation of the drone, which includes stadiums and sporting events.
-Be aware of airspace requirements – use the B4UFLY app.  This is where the importance of being a pilot has come into play in the past.
-Be considerate of other’s privacy and don’t view or photograph areas where individual’s privacy could be compromised.
-Don’t fly near emergency response efforts like fires, or over government agencies or other sensitive property.
-Oh, and if you are enjoying some adult beverages, that’s a no-fly time. “Hold my beer and watch this” doesn’t turn out well with drones, either.

WeatherPic

High winds, low visibility, and adverse weather are good reasons to stay on the ground.

I Could Drone On About This All Day
As a pilot, I embrace drone technology. Our airspace system exists to make sure that the skies are shared appropriately, and the new rules make a ton of sense. Unless flying a special task like crop dusting, an airplane pilot cannot fly below 500ft in most areas unless they are taking off or landing, which would be near an airport (even in remote areas, a pilot must stay 500ft from any person, structure or vessel).  By keeping drones away from airports and under 400ft, this assures adequate separation good margin for error. Is there concern about people handling drones irresponsibly and interfering with aircraft? Of course. But between the drone takedown eagle, emerging drone detection technology and the registration process, my hope is that a few people won’t ruin a great thing for the rest of us. Maybe someday,  our future selves will see a rogue drone fly by, followed in hot pursuit by the blue lights of a police drone.  We’ll sigh and look at each other, and say “this is why we can’t have nice things.”
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