More about Drones

Once again, no one is thinking about helicopters.

An aviation friend of mine, Rod, posted a note on Facebook titled “The Drone Industry Should Play by the Rules, or Help Change Them.” I’m not sure if you need to be logged into Facebook to read what he posted, so I’ll just echo it here; I do urge you to read and comment on it there if you can and have something to add to the discussion:

Look folks, I’ve got no problem with drones operating outside the National Airspace System. (i.e. below 400 feet.) 

But if this innovative industry wants to conduct business in the NAS, you should have to play by the same rules as manned systems and certify the operators, the components, and the systems to the standards required by law.

If you don’t like the regulations that currently govern how the NAS is managed, help get the laws changed and deregulate aviation.

If you, like Rod, think that the national airspace system starts at 400 feet AGL, you need to read “Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft” on the FAA website.

I asked where the 400-feet number comes from, pointing out that I’m authorized by the FAA to operate under Part 135 as low as 300 feet with passengers on board. He linked to an article on Politico about a lawsuit pending by the FAA against an “aerial anarchist” who uses a styrofoam plane for commercial aerial photography. From that article:

The FAA has never officially regulated model airplanes or small drones. The closest it has come was an “advisory” issued in 1981 that created a set of voluntary guidelines for model aircraft: stay within the line of sight, do not fly within three miles of an airport, do not fly a model airplane higher than 400 feet.

The article makes interesting reading, although it entirely misses the point of my problem with the kind of RC aircraft that are becoming more and more prevalent among amateur “drone pilots.” My problem has to do with the operation of these devices in areas where I fly, which can be within 400 feet of the ground, causing a nearly invisible hazard to me and my passengers.

As a helicopter pilot, I have no minimum flight altitude for my Part 91 operations — including aerial photography/videography, cherry drying, frost control, animal herding, wildlife survey — the list goes on and on. Part 91 allows me to fly as close to the ground as I need to (as long as I don’t create a hazard to people and property on the ground, of course). These are legitimate and legal low-level helicopter missions that often keep me within 100 feet of the ground. As previously mentioned, even my Part 135 operations allow me to operate as low as 300 feet above the ground.

Phantom with GoProThe Phantom 2 Quadcopter with a GoPro Hero attached. This aircraft can weigh nearly 3 pounds. How’d you like to get hit on the head with that dropping from 400 feet?

Imagine this scenario: I’m drying a cherry orchard and a local photo hobbyist decides to take out his Quadcopter with GoPro to get some footage of me or another cherry drying pilot in action. He keeps a respectable distance but is not prepared when one of us suddenly lifts up away from the trees and moves to another orchard. We don’t see him — we’re focused on our work and the location of other helicopter traffic — and one of us flies right into him. The helicopter’s cockpit bubble is smashed or the main rotor blades are damaged or, worse yet, the tail rotor is taken out and the aircraft crashes to the ground. Who’s right or wrong here? The drone is operating under 400 feet and at least 3 miles from the airport, so he’s “legal.” The helicopter pilots are performing a mission that we’ve been doing for years, relying on proven safety measures and radio communication to avoid obstacles and other traffic. Are we supposed to keep an eye out for amateur RC aircraft operators, too?

My aviation friend, Rod, suggests that drone operators should “help get the laws changed and deregulate aviation.” Does he really want aviation deregulated? Does he really want a free-for-all by anyone with a few hundred dollars to spend on an RC aircraft to fly it wherever they like for whatever purpose they desire?

Doesn’t he realize that it’s only a matter of time before they stray up into his previously safe airplane altitude?

The Phantom Quadcopter is small and white, less than 14 inches wide. I’ve seen birds bigger than that.

And what are helicopter pilots supposed to do? How do you think I feel worrying that any one of my flights could be ended by a collision with an RC aircraft piloted by a hobbyist with a new toy who doesn’t care about the rules or safety? Someone who mistakenly thinks it’s my responsibility, while cruising at 80 knots, to keep an eye out for his toy? Something that might not much larger than a Frisbee?

And make no mistake about it: an impact on a main rotor blade or tail rotor could disable my helicopter and cause a crash.

What would I like to see? Here are a few suggestions for the operation of unmanned radio or computer controlled aircraft:

  • Limit amateur/hobbyist operations to designated RC aircraft fields that are marked on aeronautical charts.
  • Require professional/commercial operators to receive training and pass tests established and overseen by the FAA.
  • Require professional/commercial operators to publish NOTAMS whenever an operation outside an RC aircraft field is conducted.
  • Require all operations to be conducted with a spotter to keep an eye out for full-sized aircraft operating in the area.
  • Limit all operations to altitudes below 300 feet AGL.

I firmly believe that these aircraft, when operated by amateurs, are a danger not only to other aircraft but to people on the ground. There have been numerous crashes in populated areas, including one in Manhattan, and even a death attributed to a crash. How long will the FAA wait before it steps in and properly regulates these aircraft? These aircraft are proliferating at an alarming rate. As a pilot and property owner, I’m starting to get tired of worrying about the consequences of a careless operator’s actions.

And no: deregulating is not the answer we need.

February 26, 2014 Update: The FAA has spoken.

31 thoughts on “More about Drones

  1. You nailed exactly what my concerns are as someone who isn’t a pilot and who won’t be flying drones, either. I’m just a concerned citizen.

    Love the technology but not the potential and very real problems. Regulations are critical for safety for all.

    • Back when flying an RC aircraft required real SKILL, there were few people operating them and they almost always did so at approved RC aircraft sites. (I remember where quite a few of them were in Arizona.) But nowadays, no real skill is required. Some of these devices, available for well under $1000, include gyros, GPSes, and other electronics that make them very easy to fly. So what’s happening? People are getting these as toys and playing with them without any knowledge, training, or experience. Worse yet, they’re flying them in populated areas, often over crowds. And with these things weighing 2-3 pounds or more, they become very dangerous to people on the ground.

      Why isn’t the FAA or local law enforcement doing something about this?

      Sure, I wish I had one to play with. But I don’t like the writing on the wall and suspect that it won’t be long before someone is seriously hurt and the FAA makes them all illegal.

  2. I’m from Canada and we have the same issue up here, I’ve flown gliders, fixed wings and helicopters. Back during the process of getting my gliders licence I was turning base in a pocket of downward air, so I was short of altitude and a little low on airspeed. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a small red RC plane make its way over to me and I ended up having to dive away from the field to avoid hitting it and almost couldn’t make it back

  3. While you Maria are concerned about a possible encounter with a UAS while piloting your R44 at low altitude, and rightly so, I can say I have in actuality had that close encounter.

    Upon returning from an aerial photo mission our Schweitzer 300 was buzzed by an RC aircraft. As in the ‘pilot’ of the model plane nearly hit us. What is amazing about this story is that we (the helicopter pilot and myself) were in fact on final approach, at 300 feet, flying under the traffic pattern of the airport from which we were operating.

    The RC aircraft was being flown at an approved RC airfield that operated under special provisions from the FAA and the nearby airport. Immediately following the encounter my pilot radioed the airport tower (who had also seen the near miss) and reported the incident.

    The next day the RC airport was closed permanently. All because one person had an ill-considered “watch this” moment.

    Interestingly, the day just prior to this post I had a conversation with someone about this very subject. Their part of the conversation was about the ‘cool’ factor of owning a camera-toting UAS. My part of the conversation was about the FAA advisory circular and the fact that the FAA has banned the use of UA systems for commercial purposes.

    The scariest aspect of this situation is the utter ignorance of the UAS operators with whom I’ve spoken as to the fact that the FAA has full authority over how, when and where they operate their ‘aircraft.’ Many of them either feel persecuted by the FAA or feel that the FAA has no actual jurisdiction over UAS operations.

    While the FAA is currently formulating regulations for private and commercial use of UA systems, I am also concerned that it will be a mid-air collision that brings this issue to a head and will also result in RC ‘camera-copters’ being made illegal.

    • Thanks for sharing this story. So glad it was a close call and not a hit. I agree that these operators are their worst enemy. Their attitude generally sucks. Let’s hope that any mid-air collision that occurs does not result in a loss of life.

  4. Hey Maria,
    First off, I am an advocate of amateur UAV flight. I see a great economic possibility in the development and right now quite frankly the way things are the current FAA regulations have driven that development out of the US. One of the largest producers of UAVs is in Tiajuana, Mexico.
    However, you do bring up two very important issues, deconfliction and survivability.
    I am a big proponent of “free flight” I believe that we are really hamstringing ourselves by holding on to an air traffic control system that is based on keeping things easy for controllers. I am not proposing doing away with controllers. However, I believe that with the roll out of ADS B it makes things much easier for the pilots to “see and avoid” and it takes some of the cruse phase work away from the controllers allowing a safe reduction in separation. I think that it would not be too difficult to incorporate an ADSB transceiver in drones so that pilots would know of their presence in their area of operation in real time. There was a group of folks who I would occasionally cross paths with who were developing software that would grab data off of the ADSB stream and cause the UAV to actively avoid conflict with other AC. If needed it would even go so far as to shut down the roters of the quadcopter and use the ballistic drop evasion that is common with birds. They abandoned the project because of uncertainty of the future of amateur UAVs Which brings me to the topic of survivability.
    As technology progresses we have increasing expectations of safety. For example the VW Beetle which was my first car is now considered a “dangerous” car to drive. There is an expectation that products are designed to be safe (whatever that is) in reasonably foreseeable circumstances.
    In terms of statistical likelihood of conflict I think that it is safe to say that it will always be more likely for an aircraft to hit a bird than a UAV. (at least my environmentalist side hopes so). Therefore I believe that a reasonable design goal is for an aircraft to be able to survive a bridstrike in the flight parameters where bird strikes are likely to occur. In order to design for birdstrike survivability you will have by default defined criteria for survivability in certain combinations of mass, density, velocity, friability etc. Once those have been defined it should be easy to codify design requirements for UAVs that ensure that they will always come out the looser when it comes to conflict with traditional aircraft.

    • So you’re saying that aircraft should be redesigned to withstand the impact of radio controlled aircraft? Of any size, speed, etc? Of that those RC aircraft should be designed to break on any impact?

      Design isn’t going to fix this problem. Regulation, operation restrictions, and training will. Sorry, but that’s my take on all this.

    • Not at all. What I was trying to say was design planes to survive conflict with the original users of the NAS (the birds) and then design the new comers (drones) to splat more gently than they do.

      Therefore I believe that a reasonable design goal is for an aircraft to be able to survive a bridstrike in the flight parameters where bird strikes are likely to occur. In order to design for birdstrike survivability you will have by default defined criteria for survivability in certain combinations of mass, density, velocity, friability etc. Once those have been defined it should be easy to codify design requirements for UAVs that ensure that they will always come out the looser when it comes to conflict with traditional aircraft.
      End Snip***

  5. The “death” you link to is an freestyle stunt RC heli, not even close to a “drone”. It’s like comparing a motorcycle fatality with a boat.

    • I don’t see how you can say that. I’m talking about RC aircraft, which I’m referring to, variously, as UAVs, drones, and RC aircraft. The helicopter in question was a radio controlled aircraft. So is a Phantom Quadcopter. What’s the difference, other than the brand name and the way the operator was flying it? They’re both relatively small, radio controlled, and operated in the air.

      A motorcycle is a two-wheeled vehicle operated on the ground. A boat is operated on the water. Your comparison makes no sense.

    • That is an RC aircraft with a rotor spinning thousands of times faster than a phantom engine. The blades are sharp and up to 4 or 5 feet long. Get it wrong and its going to cut off a limb, make a mistake with a phantom and it will break and fall out of the sky. The only thing they have in common is that they are RC. The rotating blades are not comparable in any situation.

    • The phantom motors & props spin and a much higher RPM than rc helicopters. The phantom blades would be like sticking your hand in a blender. Neither of these rc aircraft should be flow close to people.

    • No shit they should not be flown close to people – I never said that! I was pointing out that it wasn’t a “drone” or a Phantom that killed that guy as was stated above. The guy was DECAPITATED. Show me a Phantom capable of taking someone’s head off…. Not going to happen. Sure it’s going to cut you but it’s tiny little props are not capable of severing limbs!!!!!!!!

    • Okay, so they can’t sever limbs. And that makes them safer somehow?

      I’m not sure I’m getting your point. You agree that they shouldn’t be flown close to people, yet seem caught up in the fact that they can’t take someone’s head off. Either they’re safe or they’re not. I’m sure that the Phantom that fell out of the sky in Manhattan would have killed someone if it had hit him on the head — without actually severing anything.

      That’s MY point.

    • Yep, ones with big spinning blades are. Little old phantoms and the like, if used in a dangerous manner are dangerous, but are not going to cause a fatality if crashed into a person. You need to see the difference, if you can’t then there is no point continuing this conversation.

    • Nope, I don’t see the difference. A flying object falling out if the sky and hitting someone is dangerous, period. The man in NYC who had one crash-land beside him could have been killed or seriously injured if it hit him in the head. I don’t understand why it’s so important to you to make some sort of distinction. These things, when operated by amateurs near people are dangerous. Period. I do agree with one thing you said: there’s no point in continuing this conversation.

  6. As a helicopter pilot and UAV operator I have a few opinions myself. This topic is never far from discussion among folks in the commercial/government operated UAV industry.
    1)I agree, those flying anything in the NAS should be trained as a pilot and be aware of and responsible for the same things the manned aircraft pilots are responsible for.
    2)We should maintain and increase the RC fields in the country to accommodate the influx of hobbyist UAVs
    3)Definition of Hobbyists versus Commercial operators MUST be clear and specific.
    4)UAVs should be on an IFR flight plan when transiting from one area to another and require their operators be instrument rated pilots. Or be in radar/radio contact when ever leaving airport traffic area for an operation.
    5)Criteria needs to be established to define where a UAV can take off and land. Not all cities or municipalities allow aircraft to take off and land just anywhere, outside of emergencies.
    6)I dont think ceilings will be an issue when other criteria are created and met for commercial operators.
    7)Hobbyists outside of designated RC operating areas need to have significant restrictions on range and altitude and distance from manned aircraft operations.
    8)UAV operators must fall under the same legal ramifications manned pilots regarding FARs.
    9)NOTAM or TFR should be created when a UAV is operating for example over a sporting event, wild land fire, nuclear disaster, or crops performing a commercial or government operation.
    10)Deregulation is the worst thing that could happen.

    I can assure you the unmanned industry is very concerned for safety and lives. They want very much to get this worked out and are trying to get the FAA to stop dragging their heels. We need manned pilots to keep an open mind and learn and be willing to adjust their thinking a little. Unmanned aircraft are just as reliable as manned aircraft, they fly the same way and have the same aerodynamic capabilities. This industry is growing and prospering and we need to keep it strong here in the US.

    • I agree with just about everything you’ve said here. I especially agree that professionals in the UAV industry are concerned. I think they’re the ones who should be taking the lead on getting workable regulations established. It’s the amateurs who worry me. The guys who get these expensive toys and start playing with them near crowds or in locations where low-flying aircraft might be.

      Perfect example is a Facebook friend who got a Phantom Quadcopter about 6 months ago and immediately began sharing numerous videos shot from it — before he crashed it. I don’t know the details of his crash, but I know that in half the videos, a crash could have caused a great deal of damage to things or people on the ground.

  7. I have a Phantom amongst other RC toys, when I fly I am mindful of my environment and not putting anyone at risk. I saw the police heli while flying recently and despite him being far higher than I was I still landed quickly to remove any for of potential distraction for the pilot.

    If you have to get a pilots licence I will be grounded as I have a family and couldn’t afford (or justify the cost of one).

    The types of people who are in a very very small minority who act in a non responsible manner are not likely to be bothered about any new laws and will continue regardless.

    How will the FAA or CAA police this? in reality they can’t. what needs to happen is education and facilitation of flying clubs. I also think to fly you should have to sign up to a model flying association for a very small fee (£10/15 per year) where you sign a code of practise. The police/authorities should then deal with reckless pilots as an exception under the guise of ‘endangering public life’

    do a search on Facebook for the DJI Phantom owners page, you will see that 99% of members will be vocal about someone flying in a reckless manner. It would seem harsh to impose strict restrictions that would ruin an enjoyable hobby to account for 1% of morons who would not be affected by any new restrictions any how.

  8. So let me see if I can summarize what I’ve read from an amateur FPV pilots POV:

    1. We hear one story from a commercial helicopter pilot that sounds jealous by her writings. Using Faux News style FUD with words like ‘deregulate aviation’. I mean really, no one wants to deregulate an already failing airline industry. Because, if she wants to become a pilot, it’s a long expensive process with no shortcuts, then so should the amateur RC pilots, to be legal of course.

    2. In the 91 operation you’ve talked about, the part about not creating hazards for people and property on the ground. You’d effectively create a hazard for “drone pilots” on the ground by operating close to the ground. Much the same two way street goes for avoiding power lines, bystanders, livestock and anything else ‘on the ground’.

    3. You point out the who’s responsible if your heli crashes. In this case, between the amateur and yourself, the amateur would likely be at fault. The reasoning behind this is the yield to bigger vehicles mentality.

    4. The first proposed operations of RC aircraft is bullshit, there I said it. The first point doesn’t work since most cities are shutting out parks to any RC aircraft use regardless of the reason. The AMA sanctioned fields actively discourage video pilots (or “drone pilots”) from joining, let alone flying there. It’s not even an issue of having a spotter that prevents video pilots from flying, its just not welcome pure and simple. The other point is you can’t really stop people from flying where they want. It’s not a mentality of I’m in open air and I can fly wherever I want. It’s more the mentality that people will likely break the rules if you restrict where they can and cannot go.

    The second point is about the only bit of common sense out of this entire article. Why not expand the training to amateurs as well? Prior to purchasing a ready to fly (RTF) or Almost Ready to Fly (ARF) kit, you’ll need to pass a written exam and demonstrate your ability to diagnose, successfully repair, maintain and ultimately fly your aircraft in front of an FAA representative. If you fail you cannot purchase a Phantom, pure and simple. Give teenagers a learners permit, aka required to join a club/field, x number of hours maintaining and flying an aircraft, etc.

    Couldn’t agree more with NOTAMS and commercial flights.

    Spotters required sounds good to me.

    Keep the flights at 400ft.

    The examples of crashes at the end of the article are why we need training prior to being able to purchase a Phantom from the shop, pure and simple. Granted people can kill 7+ people by backing over them in a car, something we give licenses to drive anyways.

    So really you have two groups of “drone pilots”, the amateurs that build their own aircraft. These pilots are generally the ones concerned more about the rules and hunting anyone down that are ‘going to get us into trouble’, because the last thing we need is more regulation. Then you have the Phantom users which are complete knobs and crash into skyscrapers, railroad peers, and even grooms at weddings. If anything you could blame the lack of regulation and the lack of training that companies like DJI provide with their Phantom quadcopters. But please, dont group the amateur video pilots that build/assemble their own aircraft along with knobs. We’ve got too much invested in our toys to go crashing you heli against the side of a ravine. :)

  9. As a licensed pilot, and a “drone” flier, I would make one point. I’m sure everyone posting here shares frustration over the uniformed and opinionated thinking that feeds the bandwagon associated with closing airports or otherwise restricting aviation activities.

    General Aviation has been suffering from a variety of negative outside pressures for a long time, so I suggest that pilots give careful consideration to how much they can afford to alienate groups of people, rather than make friends and allies. Serious drone fliers are a rapidly growing community, soon to be a force on their own, and they are your neighbors.

    • Closing airports? Not sure which ones you’re referring to. I didn’t realize the drone/UAV/UAS situation had forced airport closures.

      And while “serious drone fliers” might be a growing community, until they begin operating with FAA oversight, receive the proper training, and comply with FAA-established rules — both currently in force and developed in the future — my only “neighbors” in the air are my fellow certificated pilots and their airworthy aircraft.

      Here’s where I think we don’t agree: you see “drone” fliers as responsible, law-abiding citizens with a hobby or a tool to make some money on commercial operations. While this might describe you, I don’t think it describes the vast majority of drone pilots out there. I see a real need to rein in those who don’t understand safety and the law. Maybe you should be getting all of them on the same page with you before trying to get pilots on your side?

    • Sorry, Maria, it appears I wasn’t clear. I didn’t mean to say that UAV enthusiates close airports. No, I meant to imply that “uniformed and opinionated” people do. I was just asking that you not be one of those and form your judgements based solely on inflammatory information in the news media and the opinions of other members of the choir.

  10. As a photogrammetrist I have a real issue with your proposed limits, only insomuch as to altitude limits. Flying an aerial survey drone below 400′ is tough enough. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to aquire the images needed for mapping and analysis at that low level, much less 300′. When you are talking about professional level equipment, on the order of 150# all told, you need a larger aircraft, even as a drone, which makes flying low all the worse. Education and licensing I can totally agree with, but for the most part it’s the system that must be tested and approved the most, since the operator will do very little or no flying themselves. I’m not talking about the hobbiest with a $1000 rotor drone, but a full on aerial photography business using fixed wing craft with wingspans in excess of 15′. The technology exists for this work to be done safely right now. It’s time to move forward with it.

  11. Just stumbled upon your link. I have a unique view…Army Blackhawk Pilot, and UAV Platoon leader. Oxymoronic, right? Oh, ya, and I just did a two year contracting stint at the FAA in the UASIO. Every meeting I ever attended I screamed, “HEY YOU FIXED WING PILOTS…YOU NEED TO THINK OF THE HELICOPTER PILOT BECAUSE WE ARE THE ONES OPERATING IN THE SAME AIRSPACE AS UAVs FOR THE MOST PART!!!” I quit and started a UAV consulting firm. Companies are selling UAVs to farmers, ranchers, etc and not event telling them that because it is for commercial use, it is illegal. Not to mention the AWR portion, NAS regulations, familiarity with the airspace, publishing a local NOTAM. ugh. Instead of fighting the system I decided to reach out to the end user…who will be using them regardless…and at least educate them. I am 50% part owner of UASolutions Group. I hear you, completely. Keep up the blog and keep fighting for us helo pilots. Cheers!

  12. I think if civilian UAS operators adhered to Subtitle B, Section 336 Special Rule for Model Aircraft, that exempts aircraft from FAA regulation if “flown strictly for hobby or recreational use,” then it wouldn’t be necessary to have a discussion like this. They don’t, and it’s getting worse.

    Two western states have specifically banned the use of drones for use in big game hunting to spot game animals. Boone and Crockett Club will not enter an animal, taken with the aid of a UAS, in the record books. Some are using UAS to locate antler sheds on public land. It shouldn’t be necessary to make a state regulation prohibiting a use like this–the FAA’s model aircraft exemption would already prohibit it.

    Two SafeComms have been issued as a result of camera-equipted UAS flying in the vicinity of active wildland fire incidents. Even if they stay at the perimeter of the TFR, it shouldn’t be difficult to see the risk to both rotor wing aircraft involved in assorted flight ops, and fixed wing aircraft that might be engaged in retardant drops.

    The NPS has already banned UAS from National Parks, at least some National Forests are exploring similar measures where the potential for an incident is high.

    My sense is that the integration of commercial UAS into the NAS will come with appropriate safeguards in pilot training, avoidance systems,lost link failsafes, etc. Public use of these systems outside the boundaries of Section 336 exemptions is, and will remain, a point of discussion–until the FAA is forced (I think) to heavily regulate their use, or require the installation of expensive technology (like that almost certainly to be a requirement of commercial UAS in the lower 48).

  13. I know I am late to the party on this Blog… but I fly full scale… and was a an early commercial UAV operator (like 8 years ago)… but have since gotten out of the UAV part of the business.

    Back before the multi-rotors… to fly a hovering UAV… you had to have REAL RC helicopter skills… that had to be built up with hundred of hours of RC flight time. This looks years and tons of cash. Way more time and money… proportionally that fixed wing… just like in the full scale world.

    What changed was that the multi-rotors take pretty much zero skills to fly. The onboard computer does the flying…and you just put in gross input controls. The computer keeps you from crashing…. unless you hit a tree or something.

    This allows dumb-asses with short attentions spans….and poor decision making skills … to plunk down the money and get the DJI gear…go out and do something stupid.

    If you spend tens of thousands on RC helicopters… and many years learning master them… you tend to take it way more seriously..and professionally…when it comes to proper flight rules an regulations.

    The computers have lowered the barriers for entry…

    An interesting side production of innovation.

    RC Helicopter + Computer = Lower Barrier of entry —> Dumb asses being able to fly for the first time with now practice required (normally dumb asses give up and quit the hobby) —> Dumb asses making dumb decisions —> conflict with full scale aviation.

What do you think?