The year 2014, may well be called the “year of the drone.” While militaries around the world (and the United States in particular) have become increasingly dependent on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) (the gender neutral “uninhabited” has yet to catch on) over the past decade and a half, this year civilian users overtook military operators by an order of magnitude. At a recent industry forum, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revealed that, as of earlier this fall, Amazon alone was selling 8,000 units per month of remotely piloted aircraft. Presumably, as the holiday season comes to a close, this number will skyrocket even further. Regardless, thousands of Americans may be gifted a drone of some form this season. As one British journalist has noted, this situation can be a recipe for trouble.
Many of these gifts will truly be “toys” (pretty much anything under the $500 threshold). Most are only suitable for indoor flight under calm air conditions and pose little risk other than enraging a sibling or becoming entangled in your daughter’s hair (I speak from personal experience here). However, a number will undoubtedly fall into a category that has been causing FAA administrators another form of hair loss.
Personal drones, or small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS) as the industry prefers to call them, allow hobbyists, enthusiasts, and entrepreneurs of all stripes to engage with the outside world in new and exciting ways. Just take a look at the remarkable Travel By Drone website to get some idea of the possible uses. We are witness to one of the most exciting aeronautical revolutions since the dawn of the Jet Age. Even if you don’t personally want to participate in drone operations, our news reports, reality TV shows, and Hollywood film productions are increasingly shaped by their use. Likewise, corporations and government agencies are increasingly relying on sUAS to supplement or replace other forms of inspection and surveillance. Even farmers are getting into the act. While Amazon delivery drones may be very far off, advances in microprocessors, software, and cameras give an operator with $1,200 worth of equipment the ability to acquire images that would have previously required the rental of helicopters at upwards of $600 per hour. There is much one can do with even a limited sUAS capability, ranging from taking “dronies” to photographing publicity shots for real estate (an activity barred by the FAA, but which is still broadly undertaken).
Unfortunately, the instinct of many new sUAS operators is to fly first and learn later. Not only is this urge likely to lose your investment of hundreds or thousands of dollars, but you are also establishing a pattern of reckless behavior that can put the safety of others at risk, run afoul of the law, or upset your neighbors. The personal drone, like any revolutionary technology, has come with its share of teething troubles. Much like some early adopters of the automobile became notorious for making a nuisance of themselves by violating the norms of the road at the start of the 20th century, some less than astute drone operators have accidentally, and sometimes intentionally, crossed the line leading to a cultural and legislative backlash. Most worrisome are instances where these systems are operated in close proximity to commercial airports, resulting in near collisions that have the potential for catastrophic damage.
At the other end of the spectrum are worries over violations of privacy due to “peeping Tom” drones. I believe the latter concern is somewhat overblown as the technical ability of most of these systems to stealthily peer into homes has been nowhere what the public and popular media seem to think it is. The truth is that the camera systems required to capture high resolution images in poor light and from significant distances have to be mounted on sophisticated and expensive platforms that are anything but stealthy. Most of the high profile stories about privacy violations have fallen apart under increased scrutiny. However, the situation is fluid and newer lightweight drones are advertising 4K camera capability, and privacy issues will continue to be one more highly contentious aspect of the drone revolution.
Some commentators have referred to the current sUAS regulatory environment as the “Wild West,” though this is rapidly beginning to change. The FAA has announced that new rules are imminent, and anyone with a personal drone would be well advised to pay close attention when they are announced. The agency has received considerable criticism for its slow response to the rapid rise of personal drones, which most observers have characterized as reactive rather than proactive. It is certainly true that nations like Canada and Australia appear to be ahead of the curve (or are at least keeping pace) with the issue using some common sense rules, but there are understandable reasons for the FAA’s slow response. First is that the FAA’s top concern is the safety and efficiency of commercial air transport, which has resulted in American commercial aviation being the safest form of transport on the planet. The downside is that this reinforces a methodical and conservative approach to new rulemaking that is not well suited to revolutionary technologies.
A second problem is the general lack of good technical solutions to the problem of integrating personal drones that can reach altitudes of thousands of feet and cover miles of distance while remaining difficult to see visually or on radar. The preferred technologies for monitoring air traffic, like ADS-B, are expensive and heavy, making them unsuitable for sUAS. GPS can be used for “geofencing” and altitude limiting to keep them out of no-go areas, but the problem of how to certify and verify the installation of such software in the tens of thousands of drones currently or soon to be flying is a daunting challenge for which there are no easy answers.
Thirdly, our society has yet to come to terms with some fundamental questions. The case law of airspace ownership above your property is amazingly limited. While the FAA clearly controls what’s 500 feet and above your property, the question of whether a drone hovering above your pool at 200 feet is trespassing has not been resolved. Certainly, the reasonable person test suggests that the vast majority of property owners would be very concerned and/or upset.
While there is a large community of do-it-yourself “dronethusiasts” who began with a kit and sometimes even coding software, the majority of drone operators today are getting into the hobby with off-the-shelf products. France’s Parrot introduced thousands to the hobby with their Bluetooth-controlled AR.Drone, first released in 2010. The release of the AR.Drone helped increase the popularity of drones due to its relatively safe design, including being light enough to prevent serious injury or damage. It also lacked the range to get in the way of air traffic, making it tolerant to beginners.
However, China’s DJI now dominates the personal drone industry with its Phantom, which debuted in 2012. The drone almost singlehandedly transformed the personal drone market. The do-it-yourself community generally consisted of individuals attracted by the thrill of remotely piloting a drone and viewed the drone’s camera as an added bonus. The DJI Phantom, in conjunction with the proliferation of GoPro cameras, ushered in an entirely new category of hobbyists that have come to dominate the personal drone market – individuals who are attracted by the YouTube aspect of the hobby (the ability to download high definition photography from entirely new perspectives). Herein lies the problem, as for many in this category of enthusiasts, piloting has often taken a back seat to getting exciting videos. Not only can the Phantom class of drone climb to thousands of feet and cover miles before it runs out of battery power, it is also complex enough that simply attempting to fly it “out of the box” with no experience can result in a “flyaway” when the drone heads off on its own accord or fails to respond to the pilot’s will. There is even a “DJI Flyaway & Crash Psychological Support Page” on Facebook.
Probably the smartest thing you can do upon becoming the owner of a personal drone is to pay a visit to the nearest Academy of Model Aeronautics Flying Field. There you can touch base with other operators who are familiar with the rules of the road and courteous behavior, and who have insights into the skills necessary to safely operate remotely piloted aircraft. Most importantly, you can then develop a training program to become familiar with your new toy before putting it at risk or posing a hazard or annoyance to others.
Even assuming that the new drone owner takes the time to learn the nuances of control before diving in, there are some serious operational considerations for the casual user that are essential to learn at the outset. At the top of the list is avoiding air traffic, which means staying at least five miles from airports and remaining below 400 feet above ground level. Staying out of restricted airspace is essential. Examples run the gamut from Washington DC’s Flight Restricted Zone (FRZ), which covers nearly the whole of the Beltway region, to Camp David, Department of Defense facilities, and nuclear power plants. National Parks are also off limits to drone operators. States and localities are also passing their own regulations that can vary widely. This requires an awareness of airspace and policy that is foreign to the non-pilot. Even when avoiding aircraft and problematic airspace, there is much to consider. Drones at sporting events are an invitation to big trouble, but so is flight in urban environments – or any built up environment for that matter. The Canadian commonsense rule of not flying within 150 meters of people, animals, structures, or vehicles will save many tears.
One of the hottest trends in remote piloting is the use of First Person View to make it feel as if you are actually in the cockpit of the drone through the use of VR goggles. However, this is strictly off limits according to the FAA and the drone must remain within the line of sight of the operator at all times.
Lastly, the FAA is reasonably tolerant of well-behaved hobbyists, but if you are going to use the drone in support of commercial activity, you need to know you are entering some highly contested waters. There are only a handful of officially sanctioned operations at present. There are hundreds, if not thousands of others in this country who are using sUAS in unsanctioned operations (tune into nearly any reality TV show to see for yourself). However, such operations will be under increasing scrutiny and the liability exposure could be significant as most policies are not likely to cover extralegal commercial operations with sUAS.
So be good [with your drone] for goodness sake! – lest you incur the wrath of the FAA (or Krampus).
Note: The FAA has just released its own web page and video briefing on what to do with your new holiday drone.
Roger Connor is a museum specialist in the Aeronautics Department who curates the museum’s drone collection.