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Why You Should Care About Drones

Updated on March 25, 2015

Aerial Filming by Drone

Quadcopter in blue skies
Quadcopter in blue skies

What Are Drones?

Drones—as they're popularly called by the media and some operators—are part of a growing field in technology. Also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs), drones are popular in many countries. A few countries have been (relatively) quick to regulate drones. The U.S.? The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been under fire for their slow regulatory movement. On February 15, 2015 the FAA released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that pleased some of the drone community, but exasperated others. We cover what the regulations are for drones, but first we discuss what drones are and what they do.

Drones are aircraft that don't have a human pilot aboard, hence the acronym UAV—Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Currently most drones are remotely piloted and therefore Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). Historically they have been used for military applications, but increasingly are used for fire prevention and monitoring, law enforcement, industrial inspection, and precision agriculture. Smaller drones, typically quadcopters and octocopters, are very popular among hobbyists. Recreational uses are mainly photography, videography, and racing.

Drones come in all shapes and sizes. If classified as micro UAS they must be under 4.4 pounds. However, drones can be as big as planes and helicopters! For example, the Tiger Shark, used by the military, has a wingspan of 22 feet and weighs 260 pounds. Most multirotor helicopters like quadcopters and octocopters have a short battery life, able to fly under an hour per charge. Bigger drones, however, can have flight durations of about 10 hours.

Capt. Dave films dolphins and whales

Why Are Drones Used?

Drones are used for fun, business, and military. But currently, drones are not allowed to be employed for commercial use, unless the person or business has an exemption from the FAA. As of March 2015, the FAA has provided exemptions to about 8% of applicants, which suggests the bar is high.

The first seven companies that were successful in procuring exemptions had already been working and thriving in the aerial filming industry. With the exemption they were cleared for closed-set filming of TV shows, movies, and commercials. The next round of exemptions went to companies who do business in various areas, including aerial imaging and construction, precision aerial surveying and agriculture, and flare stack inspections. After that, the FAA gave exemptions to companies who work in real estate photography and videography, precision agriculture, inspection, flare stack inspections, and aerial filming, motion picture, and television. The most recent grants were largely given to the same types of companies—those in agriculture analysis and high-resolution aerial imagery, precision agriculture, aerial photography for a variety of industries, and bridge inspections.

Unmanned Aircraft Rules


How Does a Company Get Approved by the FAA?

The first seven companies who were given exemptions in May 2014 by the FAA is the Astraeus Aerial group, represented by Jonathan B. Hill and John McGraw. Astraeus Aerial and six other companies petitioned the FAA for an exemption from the ban on commercial use. The FAA’s analysis of this group's petition shows what the Administration is generally looking for from petitioners. Some important parts of the Astraeus Aerial group's review are as follows:

  • The petitioners proved to the FAA that their operations wouldn’t adversely affect safety as compared to similar operations conducted with customary aircraft (aircraft that have been issued an airworthiness certificate under 14 CFR part 21, Subpart H).
  • Because unmanned aircraft is necessarily without a pilot on board, human risk for the pilot or crew is completely eliminated. As opposed to a helicopter, which is the traditional aircraft used for filming, the limited weight, size, operating conditions, and design safety features of an unmanned aircraft significantly reduces the possible harm that could come to individuals or property in the event of an incident.
  • Because unmanned aircraft carry no fuel, the risk of fire on a film set after an incident or accident due to fuel spillage is completely eliminated.
  • The exemption doesn’t require transponders or sense and avoid technology, so the FAA placed limits on altitude, stand-off distance from clouds, and will permit only daytime operations. The FAA also requires that the aircraft be operated within Visual Line Of Sight (VLOS) and yield right of way to all other manned operations. The operator must also request a Notice To Airman (NOTAM) prior to operations to alert other users in the airspace.
  • The Astraeus Aerial group didn’t provide a sufficient safety case or mitigations to fly at night, so the exemptions do not allow for any nighttime operations. Although most film sets have lighting, the companies didn’t provide enough data or analysis regarding the abilities of the Pilots in Command (PICs) and Visual Observers (VOs) to maintain VLOS with the aircraft to avoid collision hazards at night.
  • The Air Line Pilots Association and other groups loudly voiced concerns about UAS pilots possessing commercial pilot certificates with appropriate category and class ratings for the types of aircraft being flown. They also suggested PICs possess corresponding second class medical certificates and specific and adequate training on the UAS make and model intended to be used. The FAA indicated that it shares those concerns, but decided that aeronautical knowledge, UAS airmanship skills, and verification through testing would be enough for the Astraeus Aerial group to evaluate a UAS pilot’s qualifications. Basically, the PIC needs to maintain at least a private pilot certificate and a current third-class medical certificate.
  • The FAA decided that a grant of exemption would be in the public interest for the Astraeus Aerial group because of the human risk elimination and because UAS provide an additional tool for the filmmaking industry. This adds a greater degree of flexibility for filmmakers, which supplements the current capabilities offered by helicopters.
  • The FAA also requires that prior to each flight the PIC must inspect the UAS to ensure it is in condition for safe flight, and must ensure that nobody is allowed within 500 feet of the area except those who consent to be involved and those who are necessary for filming. Additionally, each UAS operation must be completed within 30 minutes of flight time or with 25% battery power remaining, whichever occurs first, and the UAS cannot be operated by the PIC from any moving device or vehicle.

Aerial Photography and Inspection

Quadcopter with camera
Quadcopter with camera

How Drones Can Help Us

Drones are being used for various humanitarian efforts around the world. Archaeologists have used a UAV with LiDAR to map out an Italian town. The aircraft, named Indiana Jones, is set to explore the “medieval Pompeii” of Cerreto Vecchia that was buried in 1688 by an earthquake. After the 3D mapping project the archaeologists will continue with a dig and restoration work. Finally, the team will complete a 3D reconstruction.

UAViators is a group working with Air-Vid, both hoping to connect humanitarian and UAV communities across the world. The collaboration has created a global volunteer network of over 700 vetted professional, civilian, and responsible drone hobbyists who share and assist in support of humanitarian efforts. Their mission is to provide coordination support, facilitate information sharing, enable safe UAV operations, and establish standards for humanitarian use.

Lian Pin Koh and Serge Wich used seed funding from the National Geographic Society, The Orangutan Conservancy, and the Denver Zoo to map deforestation and protect orangutans and other endangered species. They hope to develop a nearly-autonomous UAS. They call it the “Conservation Drone,” which is equipped with cameras, sensors, and GPS. The aircraft captures high-resolution footage of the devastating impact of illegal palm oil plantations and has already helped bring poachers to justice.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Vancouver Aquarium teamed up to observe the Northern Resident killer whales of British Columbia. Using a custom-made hexacopter, they flew over 100 feet above the whales, which is high enough not to bother the whales, but low enough to get some amazing photos.

For his master’s project a graduate student in the Netherlands created an ambulance drone. Alec Momont’s mobile AEDs are equipped with microphones and speakers to lessen the amount of cardiac arrest-related deaths.

In March 2015 a man proposed to his girlfriend of seven years with the help of a quadcopter. Kevin Dillard asked Courtney Weigand to put on First Person View (FPV) goggles, then hovered his quadcopter over the proposal he had written in the sand, reading: 'Court will you marry me?' Spoiler alert: She said YES!

With innovation and growing excitement the drone movement is bound for great growth. What other ways can you think up to use drones for good?

Are You a Drone Enthusiast?

Have You Ever Flown a Drone?

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