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.