FAA Grounds Low-Altitude, Radio Control Aerial Photographer in Minnesota

On March 14th, FAA ordered a Minnesota business to cease the commercial use of drones in their low-altitude, radio-controlled aerial photography business. The immediate question to any thinking person is: WHY?

Here are some questions and answers, compiled from quick research…

What is a typical radio-controlled, aerial photography unit today?

The technologies that have evolved in recent years enable a person to attach a digital SLR camera to a platform, and use radio control (RC) to go airborne, maneuver within a reception-distance of the RC unit, align a shot while looking at a video image transmitted from the camera, and thus capture HD DJI Spreading Wings S-800aerial photos. A common platform is a helicopter format, using six 15″ diameter carbon-fiber rotors attached to tiny (5-ounce) electric motors. The entire unit, with camera attached, typically weighs 6-15 pounds. A system such as this is all but silent, uses virtually no energy, and eliminates the need to fly a large aircraft burning leaded fuel and endangering lives. The heaviest solid component of these radio-controlledDJI S800 4114-11 320Kv Motor aerial photographic systems is the camera, which weighs in at under a pound (for comparison, a typical goose weighs 7-20 pounds). Online research indicates that a professional-quality, 6-rotor aerial photography platform and camera requires an investment of $5,000 to $10,000.

Are these drones a hazard to aircraft?

Not at all. These aerial photography platforms are necessarily light and minimally constructed, hence relatively fragile. When Captain Sullenberger force-landed an Airbus on the Hudson River, both engines had been taken out by impacting at least one goose, each with a weight of feathers and flesh comparable to the total weight of carbon and plastic in the heaviest aerial photography platforms. If commercial aircraft flew at altitudes under 500′ above the ground level, there might be a hazard. But, air regulations do not allow such low-altitude flying, not even by small General Aviation aircraft, and for a variety of reasons: the obvious larger safety hazard posed by buildings, antennas, wildlife, etc., as well as the enormous impact on people having to hear flight activity and breathe aviation fumes so close to their homes.

How about the Privacy Impact of ‘Drones’?

Two points to consider:

  1. Hopefully, we will soon sharpen our definitions and quit referring to this type of unmanned SWAT-drone-heloaerial photography platform as a ‘drone’. The public has come (quite reasonably) to associate ‘drones’ with aerial assassinations and other military or law enforcement purposes. Real ‘drones’ are much larger unmanned vehicles (in this photo, the SWAT unit helicopter is on a full-scale helipad, and appears to be roughly quarter-scale). And, real drones shoot to kill, not simply to capture an image.
  2. Privacy is an important consideration, and an impact of aviation often overlooked. These silent RC aerial photography platforms can be misused by citizens or corporations, but they have also been very powerfully used to identify environmental hazards and violations such as the piping of slaughterhouse blood into a Texas creek, or factories causing massive fish kills in a Chinese river. And, the technology exists and will be used, with or without regulation. So, to best protect privacy, we need solid regulations and an effective regulatory body to apply and enforce. This can happen, but it requires that the authority must have a clear, uncorrupted heart, and must not be captured by narrow, cronyistic interests.

What is the story with this business?

Eidecom is in the Minneapolis area, and grew out of two childhood hobbies enjoyed by owner Charles Eide, merging radio control flying with professional photography. Common products of his business include aerial video of events (such as parades or marathons), residential real estate photography (to enhance marketing), and industrial/manufacturing sites (such as a recent shoot of the Swiss Miss Cocoa factory in Menominee, WI). As a hobbyist, Eide could fly his radio controlled airplanes up to 400′ above ground level (AGL), but as a commercial aerial photographer, FAA now says he is not allowed to fly to 50′, 100′, or 200′ AGL, typically the highest altitude at which he shoots his aerial photos. Oh, wait, he IS allowed to fly the same object for ‘non-commercial’ use (such as to recreationally spy on somebody – FAA will ignore that), but he IS NOT allowed to do valuable work that helps sell houses and eliminates old-fashioned aviation impacts. Hmmmmm.edited swiss miss production facility

So, Why is FAA Grounding this Commercial Activity?

It clearly is NOT for safety reasons. Nor for privacy reasons. In fact, it appears to be solely for commercial reasons. In yet one more example of regulatory capture, FAA is again misusing its authority to benefit a few established aviation interests (the tiny few actually making money in aviation) while destroying new competition that is clearly superior — less impactful, far more efficient, and indisputably safer. If this were happening a hundred years ago, we would be watching the FAA protecting the powerful horse-and-buggy industry by shutting down the use of newfangled motorcars on roads, on the basis that a Model T might hit a cow in the stall of a dairy barn. I.e., there was and is no real probability of collision, and no real hazard, yet ‘safety’ is today being used to ground the superior new method of capturing aerial photography.

A Proposed Solution…

Just a thought: maybe FAA should relinquish their regulatory authority at altitudes below say 2,000′ AGL (with the obvious exception of necessary transitional flying to climb and descend through these lower altitudes). The authority that FAA seems unable to handle today, could be reassigned to a new entity, with an emphasis on managing and limiting the aviation impact on people. This better-focused authority would then be responsible for telling Mr. Eide whether he can or cannot do RC commercial aerial photography, and would specify the rules he must comply with to minimize his noise, air quality, and privacy impacts.

How might this solution mitigate other aviation impacts? Here are two quick examples …

Air Tour impacts at Grand Canyon: The National Park Service (NPS) would be solely in charge of developing a plan appropriate to their ‘parks’ goals, which tends to focus on quality of the environment and the visitor experience. NPS would work with the new authority, which would have no conflict of interest (no connnection to the air tour industry) and thus would not improperly delay and deny restrictions at Grand Canyon, as the FAA has done for decades. FAA would still have an important role, but it would be reduced to simply signing off on the safety aspects (and only the safety aspects) of the proposed air tour management plan. FAA would NOT advocate on behalf of air tour operators, and would NOT press for more aviation access.

Intensive Flight School Airports: The training of new pilots can cause activity in the local flight pattern to skyrocket, which can mean much greater adverse impact on airport neighbors. One of the most common flight training activities is to fly touch-and-go operations, ’round and round the pattern’, normally at altitudes of 1,000′ AGL or less. There are a few airports around the country where one flight school on the airport (or, sometimes a few) is aggressively recruiting students from throughout the world. They seek to profit from the fact that many other countries have much higher fuel prices and greater restrictions to protect airport neighbors. So, when foreign students are well-recruited, an otherwise quiet airport in a U.S. community can become an impactful, noisy beehive. The local citizens must endure much more noise and air pollution, while the benefits are narrowly gained by a single flight school owner. And, current FAA regulations support this, while blocking any effective expression of citizen concern; that is, the neighbors can complain, but the FAA and the airport owner will just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘sorry, we are not allowed to put limits on air commerce’. This is clearly unacceptable.

The same new authority formed to regulate low-altitude RC aerial photography should reasonably be in charge of ALL low-altitude, non-essential aviation activities. This would include air tours, and it would include ‘excessive/nonessential’ local pattern flying. Air Tours are going to happen, and they should be allowed when not overly impactful, but they should be a managed program, with clearly defined limits. As for airports with intensive flight training, obviously aircraft owners and a few local students are going to fly the pattern for proficiency, and this new authority would not work to curtail such normal and limited activity. But, when a flight school starts to recruit widely, it becomes appropriate for an authority to mediate the conflicting goals and values between airport neighbors and airport operators. A properly functioning authority would effectively advocate on behalf of airport neighbors, and ensure that excessive local training flights are balanced against quality of life in the airport neighborhood.

An authority such as this would be VERY helpful at HIO, the airport in Hillsboro, OR, dominated by the flight-training of foreign students.

Just a thought….