Never Fear: ‘Drones’ Are Here… To Stay!
Special Feature: Aerial Photography
What can unmanned aerial vehicles—“drones”—really do? Are they safe? How are they regulated in the U.S. for both hobbyist and commercial use?
By Jeff Foster, Co-Founder of the Drone Coalition
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, commonly referred to as drones) are radio controlled electronic aircraft, most commonly of a multirotor design or a foam, fixed-wing plane, with cameras and sensors for capturing video and photos. They are intended for hobbyists and professionals alike and are used for imaging and data collection in commercial and industrial applications. The increasing popularity and ease of owning and operating one of these drones—especially the class known as sUAS (small unmanned aerial systems), which accounts for over 90 percent of the drones used worldwide for hobby and light commercial applications—has led to a lot of discussion about their legality and safety.
What can drones/UAVs do?
The most visible use of sUAS/drones is photography, with videography a close second. Both hobbyists and professionals enjoy capturing nature and classic landscapes with the exciting, new POV that drones avail them. More than just typical aerial shots that you can get with a $10,000/day helicopter shoot, these drones can fly and shoot in smaller, tighter confines and at much lower altitudes—pretty much anything from 5 feet to 400 feet AGL (above ground level). The real beauty shots usually come well under 100 feet, where the birds fly at the treetops.
For videographers, the best shots often are those that replicate a moving crane or dolly shot, those that reveal a beautiful vista just over a building, hill or cliff; or a tight arc around a subject or landmark at close range and low altitude. Those are the true money shots that couldn’t really be achieved any other way until this recent technology made it possible. Feature film productions now are using larger, eight-rotor octocopters and sophisticated, large-format cameras to capture scenes from different POVs. Viewers can travel the globe from their laptop or smartphone by seeing photos and videos from some of the world’s most spectacular vistas and historic locations, all through a network of shooter-provided galleries.
But drones can be used for more than just capturing images and videos for entertainment purposes. They range from a tiny “microdrone” class you can fly in your living room all the way up to large commercial applications such as for spraying crops in hard-to-reach areas or those areas too small for manned aircraft to effectively service. There’s even a new sport class of FPV (first person view) racing drones and battle drones competing in flying cage matches. The possibilities are endless and the manufacturers are constantly evolving their vehicles to match the new creative uses discovered for them.
While estimates of the number of drones in the skies are growing rapidly, it’s still nowhere near the levels being reported by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), especially in their incident reports and claims that have been made and repeatedly disproven. That still doesn’t mean that we aren’t up for serious consequences down the line if the demand outpaces the advancement developers are making in the technology to help keep them safe. Even the technology can’t keep them out of the flight paths of manned aircraft or near people on the ground—that depends on the pilot.
What the technology can do is prevent some of the problems from happening, regardless of the pilot. Many manufacturers, such as DJI, are building in systems that will disable the craft from taking off if it is too close to an airport or landing strip, and they are working on technology for collision avoidance on some of their developer drones. Other third-party developers are designing ways to automatically deploy a parachute should your drone start to fall out of the sky.
I’m all for technological advancements and encourage any and all development in these areas from manufacturers and third-party developers, but to me the key is in education. Training both hobbyists and professionals to fly safely and fly smart is the number-one preventative measure we can all take. But education doesn’t stop with the flyer—it has to extend to the media, which I blame for circulating misinformation and driving hysteria about the dangers of drones and how they’ll be bringing down jetliners. If they would focus more on how they’re operated and what they can actually see and do, and the limitations of their flight capabilities, then we’d have a lot more support from an educated public. Until then, it’s the duty of every UAV pilot flying as a hobbyist or professional to educate people one-on-one while they’re out flying.
Drones vs. the FAA
You can’t open a web browser or turn on your TV these days without hearing a story about a rogue drone flown by a hobbyist photographer getting into some precarious situation or crashing where it should have never been in the first place. The media then crams these sensational stories down our throats for months and drives the hysteria and paranoia about the dangers of these machines into the minds of all those who think someone is spying on their every move.
And the FAA seems to be delighted by this as they fuel the flames with even more propaganda and misleading stories and statistics in hopes that the public opinion will force their hand in simply shutting down the entire industry so they won’t have to deal with it.
But that’s not going to happen. The toothpaste is already out of that tube and the rapid advancement of technology is driving both man and machine to new heights with sophisticated drones capable of high-definition photographic images and 4K video for around $1,000. And they’ve only just begun.
The FAA has once again blown past their deadline to produce a reasonable set of rules and guidelines for commercial use of UAVs; there are still no actual laws regarding their use nation-wide. Meanwhile, the National Park System has banned the operation of drones within park boundaries, as have several other government sites and regional/city locations. But these are local issues; overall, the FAA controls the skies.
While the FAA has provided some simple guidelines for hobbyists, their process for getting approval for flying UAVs for commercial purposes is a daunting experience, full of unreasonable complexity and unnecessary requirements that have little to do with flying a remote-controlled multirotor copter weighing about 5 lbs. Their “answer” to avoiding setting actual policy or enforceable laws is to have commercial fliers file a Section 333 Exemption if they want to use their UAV to shoot photos/videos or for other commercial/industrial uses.
I’ve personally gone through the process of filing and receiving my 333 just to see how the whole thing works. I’m a commercial photographer/videographer and product reviewer and trainer, so I have legitimate commercial use for UAVs. My request was based on two, small, off-the-shelf quadcopters: a DJI Inspire 1 and a Phantom 2 Professional. These are probably the most popular on the market for video or photo productions; they cost under $3,000 and weigh less than 10lbs. They also are the most common craft listed in the approximately 1,300 333s approved by the FAA. Yet very few recipients have actually gone the full, cumbersome nine yards in compliance to fulfill the requirements set by the FAA.
The average approved 333 recipient must agree to not fly his/her craft above 200 feet AGL and always fly LOS (line of sight). But that’s not all. The FAA requires at least two operators, one of which must be a licensed pilot with a minimum of a Sports Pilot license (SPL). That alone has created a boom in the number of applicants now spending up to $10,000 or more for months of training, flying, and testing for their SPL or PPL (Private Pilot license). I haven’t spoken to a single pilot to date that has said they are a better UAV/drone pilot because of their manned aircraft training other than the value of the basic ground training rules and understanding the different classes of airspace, approach patterns of various airstrips, etc. Once the FAA does get around to finalizing the official rules that will become law, there should be both written and practical testing done for certification of commercial UAV pilots, without the necessity of getting a manned aircraft pilot’s license.
But for now, we just wait.
Jeff Foster can be reached at email@example.com.