A Drone Video of Cherry Blossoms, at the UW Campus in Seattle


(click on image to view the 2-minute drone video, shot in March 2016)

Two Washingtons: East and West.

In the West, where Bernie Sanders beats Hillary Clinton 73-27 in the democratic primary caucus, a photo of the cherry blossoms wins top prize in a springtime photo contest. The accompanying drone video inspires, as does the progressive candidate seeking real political change.

In the East, in Washington, DC, cherry blossoms generate warnings from FAA to not use drones to shoot pictures. Meanwhile, FAA expends no effort cleaning up the mess they have made, imposing NextGen procedures that grow airline profits by discarding decades-old noise abatement procedures, impacting entire new neighborhoods. No inspiration; no progress; same old downward spiral.

Another Example of FAA Misdirecting Its Abundant Resources

(click on image to view original article at AOPA.org)

(click on image to view original article at AOPA.org)

In early 2012, within the same congressional legislation that enabled FAA to impose impactful NextGen routes without meaningful environmental review, FAA was directed to accelerate ‘integration of unmanned aerial vehicles’ into the National Airspace System. Deadlines were set, and FAA has consistently failed these deadlines, but FAA did eventually get around to creating some rules. FAA also created an exemption process, enabling so-called ‘commercial operators’ to proceed without compliance to the new rules.

FAA has since granted more than a thousand exemptions (searchable list of 1,451 exemption entries, with links to PDF copies). Each exemption has required dozens of hours of work on both ends of the process: the applicant (or their well-paid attorney) has to create typically 20-50 pages of documentation, and FAA lawyers and others then spend dozens of hours reviewing the application and drafting a ‘decision’ filled with boilerplate that typically runs 8-10 pages long. Generally, the exemptions require flight no higher than 400-feet above ground level, and the operator must have earned a costly FAA pilot certification. In many cases, FAA has also submitted the exemption applications for publication in the Federal Register, in accordance with the NPRM rulemaking process.

One of the latest FAA exemption approvals goes to Peter Sachs, a Connecticut attorney developing a specialty in unmanned flight. Here, he was granted approval to fly a paper airplane with a tiny propeller … so long as he uses an FAA-licensed pilot to perform the flight and flies low to the ground. Just a paper airplane, which clearly could have no significant impact on any real aircraft.

Perhaps a more intelligent FAA rule (and one that would provide lots of relief from aviation noise) would be to mandate all manned aircraft minimize flight time below say 2,500-feet above ground level (AGL), and do all level cruising flights at no less than 2,500-feet AGL.

For the record, FAA’s current helicopter rules essentially allow helicopter pilots to cruise right at ground level, and fixed-wing planes are legal at just 500-feet above ‘uncongested’ terrain and 1,000-feet above ‘congested terrain’ (whatever those terms mean). Furthermore, the rules promulgated by FAA at FAR 91.119 are loaded with loopholes that render them entirely unenforceable; for example, ANY pilot can justify low flying, simply by claiming he or she needed to be at that altitude to transition to or from their cruising altitude.

It seems rather incredible that this much busywork should go into creating rules, yet the rules are so arbitrary that the agency quickly grants rule exemptions to well over a thousand applicants. And all of this fuss over objects (radio-control models, and even paper airplanes now!) that just four years ago were considered ‘recreational’. One has to question just how intelligent a rule is, when thousands of exemptions are promptly issued. Imagine if our state DMV’s arbitrarily issued 30mph maximum speed limits for our cars, then granted tens of thousands of waivers, each accompanied with a tiny decal to go onto our cars. Yes, it would be absurd and expensive, but it sure would keep lots of state DMV employees busy.

The same appears to be the case at FAA. Wouldn’t it be nice if FAA redirected their personnel resources, aiming them instead at…

  • … resolving noise issues,
  • … reducing GA accident rates,
  • … improving helicopter fuel tank ruptures (and other serious airworthiness problems), and
  • … correcting the employee fatigue issues that continue to haunt pilots and controllers?

FAA could do so much more, if it chose to serve the People, not just the industry players.

FAA Still Failing on Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS)

“What are they smoking at the FAA???
“When is the FAA (and their indifferent parent, the DOT) going to fire their current crop of idiot regs-makers, and replace them with sober, competent, responsible adults?”

The above are valid questions, raised by a commenter in an online article at AW&ST’s AviationDaily, FAA Urged To Act Fast On Final Small-UAS Rule. The article and the comments are well worth reading.

FAA is way behind schedule, but they are also failing to address the real issues. In fact, for the smaller and wildly popular hobby drones, the key issue is less about safety (since even small manned aircraft should not be flying so low to the ground), but more about the invasion of personal privacy. FAA is proceeding through a formal rulemaking process (NPRM) right now, and hearing these concerns from citizens. Here is a portion of a citizen comment that focuses on personal privacy and the use of drones to monitor and arrest people, as submitted to the NPRM (by Christopher Booth, in Concord, NH):

“Addressing the issue of privacy is paramount. You can operate a UAV for private use, but can not obtain imagery which would violate any person’s expectation of privacy, and no imagery or information may be obtained for public use without regard for the requirement that a warrant must be obtained before such collection if it is going to be admissible in any court proceeding or may be used for the purpose of obtaining the arrest of any person. In other words you can not randomly fly a UAV over a city looking for someone to arrest, or to observe whether anyone is obeying or disobeying any law. You have to get a warrant for that, and it has to have probable cause that the person should be arrested, and must specify where you can look for them and who you are looking for to obtain that warrant – from a judge in open court, in the presence of a public defender arguing why the warrant should not be issued.”

Everyone would be better served if FAA simply punted. Perhaps FAA should relinquish regulatory authority for low altitude (?below 500-feet AGL and clear of all actual airport traffic patterns?) and light-weight (?under ten pounds?) drone uses?

Also, FAA could reduce noise impacts by helicopters AND increase safety margins, if they would simultaneously tighten the FAR 91.119 ‘Minimum Safe Altitude’ flight restrictions. It would be a ‘win-win’ if FAA would require that all manned aircraft (fixed wing and helicopters) cruise at altitudes at least 2,000-feet AGL, and transition to/from these cruise altitudes within reasonable short distances of takeoff/landing locations. Skies would be quieter AND safer.

See also:

It’s Black Friday … and Tens of Thousands of RC Aircraft Likely will be Purchased

Which means a lot more work for the nearly 45,000 employees at the FAA.

Why? Because FAA is way behind in developing the drone regulations Congress has mandated, and this failure is putting the U.S. way behind other countries where drones use far less fuel and create far less noise to get certain jobs done. Also, because FAA liberally defines the ‘National Airspace System’ to include not just at legitimate aviation locations such as places where quiet drones could monitor rush-hour traffic at 500- to 1,000-feet altitude (instead of those noisy traffic watch helicopters and planes), but also at absurd places far below real aircraft, like:

  • the 400-foot altitude that the neighbor kid carefully stays within while flying his radio-controlled model airplane … all with clear approval of FAA, up until a couple months ago;
  • the 100-feet of airspace above your house, which you might enjoy using with an aerial camera drone, to capture nice aerial photos of your garden or home project;
  • or even (arguably) the classroom air between your son and his target when he decides to launch a spitwad (which NTSB recently decided can be treated as an ‘aircraft’, and is thus subject to FAA regulations).

20141125.. RadioShack ad, RC quadcopter and heloHere’s the Radio Shack ad for today’s big sale. The quadcopter in the upper-right corner, with the glow-green rotors, costs only $60 and is for kids 12 and older.

The red helicopter in the upper left costs only $15, and claims to be for kids 8 and older! Which makes one wonder: will FAA be sending inspectors to elementary school auditoriums to discuss with third-graders, ‘How Kids can Help to Keep the National Airspace System Safe’?

NTSB Remands Pirker UAV Case

In October 2011, Raphael Pirker flew a model aircraft over the campus of the University of Virginia and recorded a few minutes of video. Mr. Pirker, from Switzerland, was assessed a $10,000 fine by FAA. He challenged the assessment, noting that FAA (aka, the ‘Complainant’) had failed to actually regulate ‘model airplanes’ and was misapplying the full-sized airplane regulations to lesser flying devices. In fact, model airplane use is subject to recommendations made by FAA in an advisory circular published in June 1981 (see the first three pages of Attachment 1).

Pirker won his initial challenge in a March 6, 2014 decision, when an Administrative Judge (AJ) granted a dismissal. Here is some of the text from the AJ’s decision to dismiss:

“…Complainant argues that Respondent was operating a device or contrivance designed for flight in the air and, therefore, subject to Complainant’s regulatory authority. The term, “contrivance” is used in the 49 U.S.C. Section 40102(a)(6) definition, “aircraft”, whereas Part 1, Section 1.1, defines an “aircraft” as a “device”; however, the terms are basically synonymous, as both refer to an apparatus intended or used for flight.

“It is argued by Complainant that, under either definition of the term ‘aircraft’, the definition includes within its scope a model aircraft. That argument is, however, contradicted in that Complainant FAA has, heretofore, discriminated in his interpretation/application of those definitions.

“Complainant has, historically, in their policy notices, modified the term “aircraft” by prefixing the word “model”, to distinguish the device/contrivance being considered. By affixing the word “model” to “aircraft” the reasonable inference is that Complainant FAA intended to distinguish and exclude model aircraft from either or both of the aforesaid definitions of “aircraft”.

“To accept Complainant’s interpretive argument would lead to a conclusion that those definitions include as an aircraft all types of devices/contrivances intended for, or used for, flight in the air. The extension of that conclusion would then result in the risible argument that a flight in the air of, e.g., a paper aircraft, or a toy balsa wood glider, could subject the “operator” to the regulatory provisions of FAA Part 91, Section 91.13(a).”

FAA then appealed to the NTSB to hear the complaint. NTSB, which has always been strongly influenced by Washington politics, sided with FAA in a November 17, 2014 decision. NTSB link The dismissal was overturned and the case was remanded back to the AJ.

The ‘Aircraft’ FAA is Trying to Regulate

Below is a screen-capture of an online ad for the Zephyr II, a lightweight flying wing measuring less than five-feet in width. The plane consists mainly of two foam wing-halves (see the largest objects within the orange ellipse). The basic kit costs $130; the electric motor kit is an additional $140, and mounts safely behind the wing.

The whole UAV apparently weighs four- to five-pounds and can fly at speeds as slow as that of a fast human runner. And, the EPOR foam material is similar to the Styrofoam used to make cheap coolers, or the foam that lines a typical bicycle helmet. There does not appear to be a substantial safety hazard with this ‘aircraft’ design. It really does appear to fit better as a ‘model aircraft’ than as an ‘aircraft’ to be regulated under the FAR’s.

20141120cpy.. Zephyr II kit pic

Should this type of device be regulated? Yes, at least to the point where it needs to be used safely and without excessively encroaching on the freedoms of other people, which includes their privacy. But, frankly, FAA is the LAST AGENCY we should be using to enforce against potential misuse of foam model airplanes. We would be much better served if these low-altitude activities were kept below and away from real aviation activities, and if all issues were managed locally, by local codes and law enforcement personnel.

Some Background:

An excellent online article appears at personal-drones.net: Trappy and the FAA fine for flying over the University of Virginia. It includes a copy of the 3-minute video that started this brouhaha, and another video with some interesting perspective by a model airplane enthusiast. Both videos are embedded below.

The informative video rant below is by a lifelong RC hobbyist named XJET, a New Zealander who also has a website called rcmodelreviews.com.

Here is the text of a portion of XJET’s statement, beginning at 4:20 of the video:

“…The most dangerous thing you can do with a model aircraft apparently – and this is based on surveying all of the different airspace national administrators – the most dangerous thing you can do with a model aircraft is accept money for flying it. Honestly, that is because they all have a regulation that says, ‘you cannot accept money for flying a model aircraft.’

LadyBird-UAV (48gram quadcopter/camera)

Here is a picture showing the LadyBird UAV quadcopter … less than two ounces!

Once you accept a single red cent, for doing something with your model plane, it is no longer a model plane. It becomes an unmanned aerial system, and we have a list of regulations or policies this long you have got to comply with, and you can’t do a damned thing – you can’t fart, burp or dribble without our permission, if it involves an unmanned aerial system. It’s that stupid. Honestly, it is. And, in most countries, all unmanned aerial systems are treated equally. So, this little LadyBird – EPV LadyBird, 48 grams – if I fly this and someone pays me a cent to fly it, or I make a cent of income by flying it, it is treated exactly the same as if I were flying a predator drone over Afghanistan and blowing the snot out of insurgents on the ground below. Honestly, I kid you not. This is honestly the truth of the matter….”

See also:

FAA’s Arbitrary Drone Use Approvals are Improperly Favoring Major Studios

20140929.. FAA allowing limited drone use, impact on Indie Films (screencap from B.Dewhurst Post)

(click on the image to view the article)

An article by Benjamin Dewhurst at No Film School poses a good question, and points out how FAA is effectively favoring large corporate film producers while impeding smaller, independent outfits.

If there was a valid aviation reason for FAA’s actions, we could accept it. The problem is, there is no valid reason. FAA is acting only to protect financial interests, specifically the companies and pilots who make money providing helicopter support to the film industry. But, FAA’s arbitrary actions also protect FAA itself; this agency has hundreds of employees (and contract employees, too) who are pretending to stay busy with the ‘work’ of setting up regulations for low-altitude drones that have no real safety impact on larger airplanes and helicopters which can only be safely and legally flown at higher altitudes.

Most drone uses are under 300-feet altitude above ground level (AGL); safe manned flight is at or above 1,000-feet AGL for airplanes, and at or above 500-feet AGL for helicopters. If FAA really wanted to serve the larger Public, they would immediately impose a rule forcing all manned flights to minimize flying below an altitude of 2,000-feet AGL. That is, the minimum allowable altitude for cruising at level flight would be at 2,000′ AGL or higher. This would greatly reduce noise impacts, and it would provide a huge vertical safety buffer to enable quiet, low-energy drone usage at lower altitudes.

The Relative Safety of Drones vs. Helicopters

Within his article, Mr. Dewhurst states his belief that helicopters and drones have comparable safety risks. This is not correct. He notes, accurately, that drones can (and will) be used for an increasingly large portion of shots … not just for cameras, but also for lighting and other support. But it appears his assertion about relative safety ignores a vey important reality with helicopters. The most dangerous use of a helicopter is typically at low speeds, more than ten feet off the ground but less than a few hundred feet off the ground. Why? Because helicopters need a few hundred feet to recover (and prepare for a lower-risk crash landing) should their power fail. Nearly all use of helicopters for movies happens within the dangerous ‘deadman’s curve’, the low-altitude and low-speed combinations that maximize helicopter risk.

FAA has looked the other way for decades while helicopter operators do more and more risky ‘jobs’, all to expand aviation commerce. Pilots have died air-drying cherries, slinging pallets of cut Christmas trees, spraying crop fields, hovering low doing powerline maintenance, etc., … all because they lost power while they were too low to recover. The helicopter manuals warn pilots to not operate this way, but the pilots do it anyway, and FAA ignores it. To learn more, check out ‘ height-velocity diagram’ in an online search, or see this aiReform Post.

As for the relative risks of drones vs. helicopters, the only safety hazard for drones carrying a camera or lighting are small spinning plastic rotors. Helicopters are lethal due to their greater size, and far more dangerous due to their fuel load. When a helicopter crashes, the risk of fire and explosion is substantial, and there is a long history of fatalities — to helicopter occupants as well as to those on the ground — going back to the invention of the helicopter.

See also:

The Astounding Athletic Power of Quadcopters

A TEDtalk by Raffaello D’Andrea, this is really a technological magic show.

Mr. D’Andrea is Professor of Dynamic Systems and Control at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. He demonstrates many amazing capabilities of the simplest (and cheapest) drone technology: the quadcopter.

I will not mention all that he does because much of the pleasure of this video is in the series of surprises, and the anticipatory “Wow! … What will he do next?” But he does clearly demonstrate that these devices are exceptionally nimble to the point that one can easily be flown through space and around obstacles to serve a glass of wine without spilling a drop.

Really amazing stuff, and this was posted more than a year ago, in June 2013.

One of the most fascinating details of this 16-minute video is how quiet these small drones are. Here is a man, standing on a stage with a microphone hanging below his ear and he has four (or more?) small drones flying at the same time. Yet, you hear his voice — as well as the crowd applause — clearly, crisply, easily. In other words, these devices are so quiet, they put helicopters to shame. This excellent demonstration makes it so clear that unmanned drones are a vastly superior platform for aerial imagery, search and rescue, crop/land assessment, and other positive applications. As for the potentially negative applications (police-state surveillance, privacy invasion, small weapons delivery, etc.), …well, these are matters that CLEARLY FAA SHOULD NOT BE handling in the Public interest. These matters need to be managed by a better agency and/or a system of actual laws, not by a system of bureaucratically managed rules.

Despite how far this technology has advanced, and despite the fact that from Long Island to L.A. people are increasingly upset about minimally regulated helicopter noise, FAA continues to obstruct the use of drones. Why? Because FAA is in the business of promoting traditional aviation modes, piloted by real people who regularly die when flight missions go bad. FAA foolishly obstructs aviation progress, so as to sustain jobs for pilots. If this was a century ago, FAA would be putting the kibosh on automobiles to maintain farrier and wagon-maintenance jobs.

A Closer Look at the Man behind this TEDtalk

According to his CV, Professor D’Andrea earned a B.Sc. at the University of Toronto in 1991, in Engineering Science. He earned subsequent degrees at Caltech (M.Sc. in 1992, and a PhD in 1997, both in Electrical Engineering). He was a cofounder of Kiva Systems, which Amazon acquired in March 2012 for $775 Million.

Take a look at the short video below and see how these smart  robotic systems can efficiently navigate through a large warehouse, avoiding collisions while delivering items for final packaging. One watches and realizes why Amazon is so keen on setting up low-altitude package delivery systems in public airspace … perhaps even to your front door.