We Need Gimbals

The UAV market is booming and companies are scrambling to position themselves for the next biggest thing since the deregulation of the National Science Foundation.  That singular act by President Clinton paved the way for the public Internet.

Right now, UAVs or “drones” are being marketed in all shapes and sizes.  From 450mm quadcopters, all the way up to 1000mm octocopters and everything else in between.  UAVs also come in various shapes and configurations ranging from circular to triangular; single-bladed to coaxial bladed.  It’s crazy.  Currently, the biggest application for these machines involves some form of aerial photography or videographyUAV aerial imaging has a wide range of applications.  Everyone from law enforcement to farmers are learning that this relatively inexpensive  alternative to traditional aerial imaging has enormous potential at a fraction of the cost of traditional manned aerial platforms.  Here are just a few examples.

  • Fire fighters could launch a relatively inexpensive UAV to monitor the progression of a wild fire in realtime.
  • 9-1-1 emergency response systems could be enhanced with “ambulance” drones that are capable of flying straight-line distances quickly to a fallen individual.  Once there, the onboard camera of the UAV can observe and transmit live images of the situation back to the operator so life saving techniques can be conveyed to a good samaritan or loved one.
  • Construction sites can now be over-flown by a small drone that scans the area and creates high-resolution images that can be used to create orthomosaic maps of the job site.  This new form of photogrammetry is changing the construction industry.
  • A soybean farmer can now purchase and launch his own drone in order to analyze the changes in chlorophyll of his crops allowing him to react to crop stress long before his eyes can detect a problem.  The list goes on and on.

Underlying all these potential applications is some form of aerial imaging.  Whether it’s high-resolution photography or video, or near-infrared, a camera or sensor of some sort is required.  Used in this application, imaging involving a high-resolution digital camera will also involve a stabilizing gimbal.  These gimbals are sophisticated mounting cradles for the camera.  The gimbal/camera system then gets mounted to the UAV.  Using small motors and inertial measuring units, the gimbal smooths out or dampens rapid movements of the UAV.  In other words, the camera is held steady despite the aerodynamic forces acting on the craft.  The latest gimbals can stabilize a camera on all three axis (pitch, roll, yaw) leading to very smooth and steady video.  Previously, only highly skilled camera operators using cranes could achieve such smooth sweeping motions of a camera.  In addition, you would need to hire an airplane or helicopter with a pilot and a camera operator, costing thousands of dollars, in order to get that low-altitude shot at 500 feet.  Not any longer.  Now you can achieve the same effect hundreds of feet in the air or near the ground using a drone and camera mounted to a stabilizing gimbal.  

The key to quality aerial imagery lies not only in the camera but in the gimbal technology.  Numerous controller boards are available along with gimbal frames that can be assembled to allow a DSLR or other kind of camera to be mounted to a drone.  The gimbal has to be balanced and calibrated for the specific camera/lens combination and tuned using custom software.  If you need to change cameras or swap a lens then you have to calibrate and tune again.  A tedious and difficult task.  Currently, there is only one commercial company producing quality, integrated, plug-n-play gimbals for a variety of camera platforms ranging from DSLRs to the popular GoPro action camera.  And they are expensive - ranging from $2000.00 and up.   In my opinion, the camera manufacturers are not taking advantage of a huge opportunity.

In the same way that each manufacturer produces their own lenses and accessories for their cameras, so should they start producing UAV gimbals.  Each manufacturer can create a proprietary receiving mount that they use as an attachment standard for their gimbals - the same way they standardize on a lens mount for their cameras.  This proprietary gimbal mount would then be attached to the UAV and capable of accepting various gimbals that they produce for their camera line.  Once attached, you simply communicate with the gimbal using your tablet or smart phone and tell it the camera/lens combination you have mounted to it.  The gimbal would self calibrate to the camera/lens combination,  auto-calibrate and away you go.  The gimbal mount on the UAV would require power; an input for remote shutter-release for taking still images; an input for remote focus; an input for start/stop of video recording; and an HDMI output that can be used for streaming realtime HD video of what the camera “sees”.  The requirements are easily identified.  For example; Canon could produce a UAV gimbal for the different line of cameras that they already sell and support allowing a photographer or videographer to leverage their current investment in to the world of aerial photography or videography.  In addition, I can easily see them expanding their offerings by creating a custom line of UAV cameras specifically for the purpose of low-altitude aerial imagery.  Each product line would require it’s own distinct gimbal and software interface.

Now, that $2,000.00 doesn’t sound so bad.

Is Your UAV Airworthy?

All aircraft that fly in the national airspace system must meet airworthiness requirements as set forth by the manufacturer and the FAA.  Upon meeting these stringent requirements, an airworthiness certificate is issued to the manufacturer for that particular aircraft.  An airworthiness certificate is an FAA document which grants authorization to operate an aircraft in flight.

Before final delivery to a prospective owner, aircraft are flight tested to the standards that conform with the airworthiness test plan that the manufacturer created and submitted to the FAA for approval.  If the aircraft passes, the certificate is signed and the aircraft is delivered to it’s owner.  This is a rough overview of the process.  The FAA provides information regarding the definition of the term "airworthy" in FAA Order 8130.2, Airworthiness Certification of Aircraft.

The take-away from this for UAV or “drone” operators, is that the airworthiness process is there to validate the fact that a flying machine can actually fly in a safe and predictable manner.  Since safety is of paramount concern, this process is rigid as well as diligent in it’s implementation.  This is done in order to maximize the safety of the flight crew, passengers, as well as people on the ground.

Since most, if not all, of the current UAVs or “drones” on the market require some level of assembly and programming, the question is: What are the owners/operators of these machines doing to ensure that these machines can fly in a safe and predictable manner?  Based upon my experience, not much.  Most are taking these machines out of the box, scanning the instructions, plugging in a battery, and advancing the throttle stick to see what happens.  I think this is unacceptable.  And I suspect the FAA thinks so as well.

Every operator of a UAV has an obligation to learn everything there is to learn about the safe operation of the craft prior to any attempt at actually flying it.  Furthermore, it is my opinion that every feature of the craft should be tested and observed to operate as documented by the manufacturer.  This ensures that the machine is operating normally and that the pilot/operator understands the features of the UAV.  The saying, “knowledge is power” is often true.  But in this situation, “knowledge is safety”.

For every UAV that I have built and flown, I created a comprehensive Airworthiness Test Plan that is designed to validate and confirm the safe operation of the UAV as per the manufacturers instruction manual.  The three areas that are covered in the test plan are as follows:

  • Physical attributes of the airframe with respect to construction methodologies and characteristics.
  • Software programming, configuration, verification and performance tuning.
  • UAS Flight characteristics and functional testing.
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  • The overall methodology of the test plan is as follows:
  • All procedures detailed in the UAV test plan shall be performed by a qualified individual capable of determining the validity of the object or subject under test and it’s resultant test data.
  • The sections of test cases listed in the test plan document shall be executed in their respective order.
  • All UAV flight operations will be conducted in accordance with the current safety guidelines set forth by the American Modelers Association (AMA) regarding radio control multirotor flight and only at an AMA sanctioned flying field.  All flights will be conducted away from any public or private use airport and at no time shall be flown above 400’ AGL or in controlled airspace.  The UAV must at all times, and without exception, be flown within VOL (visual line-of-sight) and under positive control of the RC pilot except when failsafe operations are being tested.  Test flights will be conducted away from any assembly of people and clear of any buildings or obstructions.
  • Each test case shall be started and concluded as one complete task and the results are to be manually recorded, wherever applicable, immediately at the conclusion of the specified test case.
  • In most cases, test results will be determined empirically and recorded immediately.  However, some test results will be subjective and observations of the qualified individual shall be noted wherever applicable.
  • Onboard battery voltage of the UAV shall be monitored at all times during each flight test.  At no time shall a flight exceed 80% of the total battery capacity.
  • All test flights are to be flown only when nominal weather conditions exist in order to ensure safety and validity of the object or subject under test.
  • Test flights shall be conducted without a camera gimbal or any other payload.
  • All test flights will be flown in accordance with state and local laws.

Now, I’m sure that this methodology can be highly scrutinized; and the test plan that I have created can be challenged on multiple levels.  But at least I have one!  At least I have some documented procedure that I used in order to answer the question, “What did you do to ensure that the UAV was safe to fly?”  Every UAV operator should be able to answer that question by saying, “I tested the craft as best I could.  Here is the test plan that I used along with my data.”  This task is so worth the piece of mind knowing that the machine you put in the air operates as expected and can be safely operated.

If you don’t familiarize yourself with the operations and capabilities of your sUAS and validate it’s operation, then you’re just a hobbyist relying on the manufacturer to deliver a properly working toy drone.  Even the best manufacturers have calculated an error factor when producing products.  So do your best to test every aspect of your flying machine before you put it in the air.

What is a drone?

On October 15, 2014 I presented to the Long Island Chapter of the Construction Specifications Institute in Suffolk County, New York, introducing Estate Aerial Inc.  The topic was entitled, “Use of UAV’s in the A/E/C Industry”.

The A/E/C industry has relied heavily on aerial imagery for a very long time.  Now, with UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), the progress of a construction project can be documented for a fraction of the cost compared to traditional aerial media.  Aerial video documentation by UAV, or “drone”, of each phase of a project offers detail and history of a job site not possible with static aerial photographs.  This allows for easy collaboration between owners, architects, engineers and construction managers - ensuring progression and design quality.  Owners and A/E firms - together with construction companies - benefit by having a “living” timeline of their work.  This helps with planning future renovations and conveying competence to prospective clients.  UAV or “drone” applications include pre-construction site images, construction documentation, building inspection, insurance claims, real estate sales,  and more.

The meeting was held in Melville, Long Island and the attendees seemed very interested.   I brought along one of our bigger UAV’s for them to inspect.  Most of them had never seen a professionally built UAV before, so they were intrigued.  But the question of the evening was, “What exactly is a drone?”  In my opinion, most of the UAV’s being flown today are not drones.

When we think about drone technology, images of the Predator that is being used by our military comes to mind.  This oddly shaped, unmanned, remotely controlled airplane has some very unique capabilities.  It’s can fly for many hours at a time; it can carry hundreds of pounds of lethal armaments along with very sophisticated telemetry (spy) equipment.  What most people fail to realize is that this flying machine is being remotely operated and closely monitored by a military pilot.  In some cases, the pilot is directly controlling the aircraft’s every move using joysticks and switches.  But what makes this machine a drone?  Simply put: intelligence.

By definition, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), also referred to as an unpiloted aerial vehicle and a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) or drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard.  If that’s the case, then there have been drones in the hands of civilians for over 75 years - just about as long as the public has been flying hobby-grade radio controlled airplanes and helicopters.  Carrying this logic forward; all radio control pilots are also drone pilots.  And if the FAA has their way, these individuals will be banned from engaging in flying these kinds of machines altogether or at least having the operation of these machines regulated in some way.  Something the Academy of Model Aeronautics is currently fighting.

Military drones have the capability of being programmed to carry out very sophisticated autonomous flight plans.  From take-off to landing, they are capable of self-directed flight and can initiate complex commands to carry out specific tasks - such as traffic avoidance; taking aerial images of an enemies stronghold; or launching missiles to destroy enemy targets.  But for this to happen, the UAV has to be programmed by the pilot in command (PIC) - who is stationed in a military control room.  So the machine is just doing what it is told to do. 

Now let’s think about consumer-grade “drones”.  Most, if not all, are flown under direct control of the pilot via a transmitter - just like a normal radio control airplane or helicopter.  Furthermore, the level of automation regarding their flight doesn’t come close to what a military drone can do.  However, some of the more current consumer models have capabilities that provide some level of automation to assist in safety and operation.  But I hardly put those features on par with a military-grade drone.

I think that as the times change, so must definitions - and the word “drone” is no exception.  I believe that when I am flying my radio controlled multirotor helicopter with a camera attached to capture spectacular aerial imagery, I am not flying a drone.  I am flying the machine within my visual line of sight; I am also in direct control of the machine and do not use any automation to conduct the flight.  Moreover, we seem to have restricted the use of this word “drone” to just flying machines.  In the popular movie Star Trek: First Contact, Lt Commander Data - after being  captured and assimilated by the Borg - referred to Captain Picard by saying, “He will make an excellent drone.”  Captain Picard can’t fly but is being referred to as a drone.  Certain male honey bees are referred to as “drones”.  Modern automobiles have cruise control that is smart enough to not only maintain speed but can maintain distance from the car ahead.  Cars are even steering themselves as Mercedes-Benz has now introduced Steering Assist on it’s new C-Class model sedan.  Tesla has now come out with an Autopilot feature that can not only read speed-limit signs and maintain the posted limited on it’s own, but can change lanes on the highway when the coast is clear.  Are these cars drones as well?

The salient issue is automation.  I believe that the level of automation should dictate whether or not a flying machine is considered a drone.  When I turn on my transmitter, plug in the battery of my UAV and raise the throttle stick and fly the machine in to a stationary hover - that UAV is not a drone.  But if I turn on my transmitter, plug in the battery of my UAV, and then whip out my computer and tell the UAV to take off and fly a pre-programmed flight path and return back to the point of lift-off, all by itself without any direct input from me, then that UAV is now a drone.

My point is that we have to take a closer look at the automation capabilities of a UAV before we start calling it a drone.  The former example clearly indicates that the UAV is flying autonomously in order to complete it’s mission.  In my opinion, that’s what makes it a drone.  But the wedding videographer looking to get a rising, panning shot of the bride kissing her groom, adjacent to the ocean by a rocky cliff is not flying a drone.  Definitions needs to be established along with responsible rules and regulations that will allow us to take full advantage of this new and exciting technology without jeopardizing public safety.  But we first need to determine exactly what a drone is in a modern context.

A New Horizon

About three years ago, I purchased a small radio controlled coaxial model helicopter to give to my nephew for Christmas.  It turned out that I played with the helicopter more than he did!  Having been away from the RC helicopter hobby since the late 1980’s, the level of sophistication and technology advancement was all too compelling.  I immediately purchased the same machine for myself and began flying RC helicopters again.  My return to the RC helicopter hobby was now realized.  

In order to further my education in the new world of RC helicopters, I felt the need to join a club.  These models are very difficult to fly and if I was going to progress, I was going to need instruction.  Now, I didn’t want to show up at the field looking like a complete novice so I embarked on my usual quest to be different and stand out.  So I built a DJI Flamewheel F550 hexacopter using their flagship controller - the Wookong-M.  Multi-rotors had just begun to hit the RC world and were very intriguing and different.  Furthermore, to build one and program the flight controller is a totally different endeavor than building and programming a collective pitch helicopter.  When I arrived at the field with this beast, the guys were immediately impressed; nobody there had ever seen one before or seen one fly.  All I did was hover it and slide it around in the air a bit and I immediately stood out and gained some respect.  So I accomplished my goal.

As time went on, my multirotor interest grew along with my interest in learning to build and fly larger collective pitch RC helicopters.  I gained more proficiency in flying the F550 - learning all the intelligent orientation controls and nuances to the flight controller.

As the popularity of these machines began to grow, people started putting small high definition video camera’s on their multi-rotors - such as the GoPro camera.  It started out as a fad but quickly gained in popularity.  What really intrigued me was when stabilizing gimbals began to hit the market.  DJI released their gimbal for the GoPro video camera and I had to have one.  This device changed everything.  It was now possible to obtain vibration-free, fully stabilized video directly from the vantage of the multi-rotor in the air!  Totally excited, I took my rig down to the flying field - complete with onboard video telemetry - in order to illustrate the concept of low-altitude aerial video.  I had some tuning to do, but the results were amazing!  I knew I was on to something.  I soon began doing some proof-of-concept flying by shooting real-world situations such as real estate.  My partner Kris and I are very much in to movies and have a keen eye for showcasing the best parts of a house.  Together, we developed a series of maneuvers and standardized flight paths to minimize flight time and maximize the production value of our shots.  My commercial aviation training led us to develop a safety checklist for all phases of our onsite activities along with preflight activities and safety checks before flying our UAV.  Safety is always our top priority.  

Needless to say, what we were able to produce with this small UAV and GoPro camera was truly amazing.  We went from amateurs to professionals overnight.  We started getting work through word-of-mouth and began producing 1-minute feature clips of real estate.  We were later hired by a local construction company to shoot progression video of renovations being done on a local hospital.  It looked like we were on our way!  But trouble soon began.

As company’s started producing smaller, cheaper, and more sophisticated out-of-the-box multi-rotors, people with absolutely no experience with radio control models or general aviation began buying these machines to capture aerial imagery with careless disregard for safety or understanding of our national airspace system.  Reports of small “drones” falling out of the sky in Manhattan and being flown close to JFK International Airport prompted the FAA to get involved.  They quickly embarked on a political campaign to scare the public about the technology and enforce non-existent regulations upon the pilots of these small UAVs.  This resulted in an enforcement action against [need name for Trappy] for flying a 1 pound foam flying wing with a GoPro on the campus of the University of Virginia.  The FAA fined him $10,000.00 and charged him with careless and reckless operation of an airplane.  The case was eventually dismissed because there is no enforceable regulation that the FAA could use to charge this man nor was there an “airplane” being flown.  The overturned decision by the administrative law judge of the NTSB created a firestorm of political backlash against these machines and their operators.  60 Minutes aired a segment about “drones” presented by Morly Safer - who is clearly out of touch with modern technology and is probably still amazed at the ballpoint pen.  During the 20 minute segment, Morley interviewed Senator Feinstein on the topic of security and privacy and she began spewing political rhetoric feeding in to the public’s fear of privacy invasion.  As this continued, more and more people found themselves in trouble flying their UAVs.  A 17-year-old was assaulted on a Connecticut public beach by a 24 year-old woman for attempting to launch his small quadcopter equipped with a GoPro.  She was later convicted of 2nd aggravated assault.  A man flew his small quad off a 22nd story balcony of a New York City apartment building where it later impacted with an adjacent building sending it falling out of control to the ground - nearly striking a business man.  The individual was eventually charged with felony reckless endangerment and convicted of a lesser charge.  These two examples illustrate a small spectrum of the problems at large.  The list goes on and on.

Back in 2009, the FAA was tasked by Congress to come up with a plan to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles in to our national airspace system and has failed to do so in a timely manner.  It is only now, due to the fact that the technology has surpassed the regulators and some people are flying UAVs in such a way that could endanger people and property, is the FAA giving this issue the attention it deserves.  Other countries are already adopting responsible rules and regulations that allow small commercial operators to fly UAVs in a safe and responsible manner.  Now, these other countries do not have the same size airspace nor air traffic constraints as the United States.  That makes the integration task much more difficult.  But not impossible.  The FAA has had plenty of time to get it’s act together and regulate in a responsible manner but has chosen to be reactive instead of proactive for political gain.

Now, the United States lags behind other countries in what is being described as a multi-billion-dollar industry.  We are losing jobs as entrepreneurs and businesses take their business out of the country.  I for one will continue to be in the game until the regulations solidify here in the U.S.  I remain hopeful that the FAA will regulate this new activity responsibly and in such a way that competent individuals with capabilities can exploit it in a safe way that will benefit the economy as well as the human condition.