Drones: Experiencing Some Turbulance?
Apr 01, 2015 09:07AM
By Jason Huddle
Like a lot of fundamentally unrestricted new technology, drones are getting a bad rap. But let’s not blame the drone – let’s examine the operator.Before drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or radio-controlled aerial devices (RCADs) – became the hobbyist’s new toy, they were utilized by the military. Developed and tested to a certain extent during the two world wars and in Vietnam, their military capabilities came more to light in the early ‘90s – during the Persian Gulf War. Today, the use of drones has expanded to search & rescue, disaster relief, for use by police departments and firefighters, weather forecasters, traffic reporters, and in aerial photography.
Referring to sophisticated drones used by the military, readanddigest.com says, “A typical drone is made of light composite materials to reduce weight and increase maneuverability. Also, the composite material strength allows it to cruise at extremely high altitudes. They are equipped with state-of-the-art infrared cameras, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), laser- or GPS-guided missiles and other top-secret systems. They can be controlled either by remotes or a ground cockpit. A drone is capable of controlled, sustained level flight and is powered by a jet, reciprocating or electric engine.
“The nose of the drone is where all the sensors and navigational systems are present. The rest of the body is complete innovation since there is no loss of space to accommodate humans and (it’s) also lightweight. The engineering materials used to build the drone can absorb vibration, which decreases the noise produced.”
Over time, drone technology has resulted in less expensive, battery-operated, easy-to-navigate models embraced by amateurs. This is resulting in stricter guidelines for drone use, if they’re adhered to.
Mike Ouimet is president and owner of Aerial Captures, in Concord, an aerial photography/video company he started in September 2013. Already a fan of flying remote-control planes, his interest turned to the drone as a business opportunity.
Ouimet’s initial purchase was a DJI Phantom quadcopter by GoPro, followed by a second. He up-fit each of them with a high-definition camera situated on a gyroscope with a gimbal (mechanisms that hold the camera fast to the drone, and provide tilt and orientation control), GPS Call Home, a compass and Live First-Person ground control. Each unit weighs under two pounds and has a range of a mile-and-a-half or so.
While still utilizing the Phantoms, Ouimet says, “We’ve actually upgraded to a larger, more professional, unit – an octocopter. It flies autonomously. One person will actually fly the drone, the second person operates the gimbal. We can set a flight path, we have more control and it’s more stable.”
Ouimet has found the high-end real estate market to be a good fit for his company. “One of the things we’ve been trying to work on is community, finding a way to promote that for the customer and home buyers, to show the vastness (of a property). A few pictures can’t portray that. And we can accomplish it in about 60 seconds,” he says.
The construction industry, Charlotte Motor Speedway, vacation real estate and large events like Tough Mudder are also part of Aerial Captures’ portfolio. “Part of our challenge is to plant the idea with people, try to get them to look at things a little differently,” Ouimet says. “There are so many potential uses. I had a conversation with a relative in the oil and gas industry about surveying distant wells and hard-to-reach technologies.”
On a typical shoot, Ouimet and staff conduct a preflight check, surveying the area, looking for obstacles like trees and power lines, ensuring that the drone can get back safely and cementing the format of the video, which is recorded to a memory card inside the camera, then downloaded to a computer or transmitted via Wi-fi. Aerial Captures can either ship the raw files to their clients or provide post-production with music, graphics, stills, etc.
“Then we go through preflight checks with the device, make sure the connections look good and the mechanical functions are working properly,” Ouimet adds. We each have a controller – one pilots the drone, the other controls the camera. We adhere to all safety aspects and can program the flight path using Google Maps or Google Earth. We import the flight path into an application and send the information to the drone.”
While average battery life ranges from ten to 15 minutes of uninterrupted flow, flight duration and battery life also depend on the weight of the drone, the size of the batteries and the model. “With two monitors, we always maintain line-of-sight, always see the device. That’s an FAA regulation,” Ouimet says.
Ahhh, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). By definition, as the “national aviation authority of the United States, an agency of the United States Department of Transportation, it has authority to regulate and oversee all aspects of American civil aviation.”
This authority includes drones and has become a much-talked-about current events topic. Talk, however, is where the regulations still linger. Even with a September 2015 congressional deadline, it’s likely the FAA won’t have their ducks in a row by then. North Carolina, though, is among 14 states that have passed statewide legislation.
The following is an excerpt from the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) website. “North Carolina enacted SB 744 creating regulations for the public, private and commercial use of UAVs. The new law prohibits any entity from conducting UAV surveillance of a person or private property and also prohibits taking a photo of a person without their consent for the purpose of distributing it. The law creates a civil cause of action for those whose privacy is violated.
“The law enables law enforcement to use UAVs pursuant to a warrant, to counter an act of terrorism, to oversee public gatherings or gather information in a public space. The bill creates several new crimes: using UAVs to interfere with manned aircraft, a class H felony; possessing an unmanned aircraft with an attached weapon, a class E felony; the unlawful fishing or hunting with UAVs, a class 1 misdemeanor; harassing hunters or fishermen with a UAV, a class 1 misdemeanor; unlawful distribution of images obtained with a UAV, a class 1 misdemeanor; and operating a UAV commercially without a license, a class 1 misdemeanor. The law addresses launch and recovery sites of UAVs, prohibiting their launch or recovery from any state or private property without consent.”
“Airspace is where the most concern is,” Ouimet says. “There is just cause for concern for guys like us trying to make a business from this. The guys on YouTube are idiots, ruining it for the rest of us.”
Ouimet is, of course, referring to hobbyists who feel compelled to disregard safety and privacy, instead opting for the thrill of flying a drone higher than 400 feet, less than five miles from airports and groups of people, in commercial airspace or over the invisible line of personal privacy – all restricted. Another concern is the potential for illegal use of drones, as in transporting drugs, carrying weapons or explosives, and voyeurism.
While the FAA has granted exemptions to businesses that use drones for pest control (with regard to crops), for real estate photography and the motion picture industry, it also documented 193 cases of drones flying too close to planes, buildings or people over a 10-month period in 2014.
“Exemption is paid for and some companies have received it,” Ouimet says. “They have received exemption because their pilots have a pilot’s license. We actually had a conversation with the local field office and met local FAA officials. We established a good rapport and they were very accommodating. We received a lot of information. They aren’t going to give anyone authorization (to fly), but open conversation is good.”
So, what kind of price tag can be put on privacy? Drone enthusiasts are enjoying the drop in price for models on Amazon that cost anywhere from about $50 equipped with a camera to thousands of dollars for more sophisticated models. Violators of current regulations can be fined $10,000, but they have to be caught first.
“Using New York City’s saying, ‘See something, say something,’ it will take the vigilance of people to report what they believe to be improper (drone) use,” Ouimet says. “There’s a lot of hype and a lot of scare. The risk ends up being that people will falsely think – will perceive – that something illegal is being done.
“We’re very sensitive about the perception of people as to what we’re doing. Sure, we received the okay to be there, but we’re cognitive of what people think. One specific example is when we do residential shoots; we always fly a smaller unit that appears to be less threatening.”
And in December 2013, Amazon announced that it was developing drone technology in the hopes of delivering lightweight local orders in 30 minutes from its fulfillment centers. However, logistics like having enough pilots to man the drones and occupation of dense, urban air space are hindering progress. Many see drone technology not being at a level yet to make this feasible.
“Amazon? I think, frankly, no. I think the driverless cars will come about before you have these autonomous flights dropping packages at your door,” Ouimet says.
It’s inconceivable to think that drone technology won’t continue to advance. The sky, truly, is the limit and the potential for businessmen like Ouimet is huge. As with all modern, never-before-seen innovations, it’s a learn-as-you-go process that will eventually see logical safeguards implemented. Until then, it just may be a bumpy ride.
For more information about Aerial Captures, visit their website at www.aerialcaptures.com.