News Round-up

Since I have been gone awhile, I figured I would highlight some recent articles that caught my attention.

The Alaska Board of Game is banning the use of UAS to spot salmon.  With salmon season coming up later this spring, this will be something to keep an eye on.  The article has some pretty good comments, and it doesn’t appear that most people are that up in arms about the ruling.

Alaska 737-800 WL N559AS (12-Wild Alaska Seafood)(Grd) SFO (MDB)(46)-M


Australian researchers at QUT are testing sense and avoid technology as part of their “Project ResQu.”  The website is great and I hope to write more about this in the future.

MotionDSP, which has been involved in providing components related to imaging on military UAS, but is transitioning to commercial applications.  They are collaborating with the University of North Dakota and University of Kansas (both discussed  in the article linked to with QUT regarding UAS Education), as well as Auburn University.  They are excited for applying video applications to commercial UAS.  They’ll have some export issues to address, but I’m sure they are on top of it.  Auburn has a summer program relating to UAS, funding in part by the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense.

I wrote about the SoCal UAS entrepreneurs at 3D Robotics, and now there is an article about Aussie drone entrepreneurs.

  • Matthew Sweeny, owner of Flirtey is from Sydney but is based at the University of Nevada – Reno.  Unfortunately for us, he’s looking to head to New Zealand to test his UAS, since it is more drone friendly than we are (there are almost no limits for UAS under 25 kg, except that they stay away from airports, remain under 400′ and those over 15 kg remain in the line of sight).  He’s looking to break into the drone delivery service, à la Amazon Prime Air.
  • Nick Smith owns Drones for Hire, the country’s largest group of professional drone operators.  In Australia, one must get certified to operate commercially – typically by taking a roughly $2500 AUD course and can then make $100-$600 per hour.  Honestly, I think that a course like this would be welcomed by many for commercial operation in the US, but the FAA is not planning to require it.

Boeing is testing the combined use of solar energy and fuel cells on UAS.  The fuel is Hydrogen gas and solar energy is used to cause it to react with Oxygen in the air, creating water and electricity used to power the UAS.  They say it can keep the UAS in the air for 8-9 hours. View the video below.  This is exciting since the weight with traditional batteries have made them prohibitive for small UAS flight time over 20-30 minutes!

The Italian Air Force will be the first customer for the Piaggio Aerospace P.1HH HammerHead UAV.  Piaggio was originally an Italian company but is now 98% owned by an Abu Dhabi company.  General Atomics has been attempting to increase sales in Europe, whose prospects increased after recent news from DDTC, but Italy was involved in the HammerHead’s development and went with that product.  The article also reports that European countries were hoping to develop a joint Medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV, but Italy chose another path.


Changes are coming to ECCN 9A012, which will loosen requirements on commercial UAS.  They will be proposed in the coming months.

Michigan State Police was the first public agency to receive a license from the FAA to fly state-wide.  I’m assuming they received a public COA, and they’ve already flown a mission over a fire.

Arthur Trembanis, Associate Professor of Oceanography at the University of Delaware School of Marine Science and Policy used a UAS to assess damage from a February storm along the Adriatic coast, in conjunction with Paolo Ciavola from the University of Ferrara.

3D Robotics and the CaliBaja Bi-National MegaRegion

The posts have been sparse since I’ve been juggling a full-time job, my active Navy Reserve duty, and the blog; but I am back in the saddle and look forward to bringing you more UAS-related posts.

San Diego from Point Loma, with Tijuana in the distance on the far right – taken by the author


While I was in San Diego, an article caught my eye about that region.  3D Robotics, possibly the best-known domestic manufacturer of consumer UAS, was highlighted in an article about their cross-border production model.  Jordi Muñoz, the co-founder and Chief Technical Officer of 3D Robotics, was born in Mexico and is now a permanent resident of the United States – he also made the Forbes list of 30 under 30.  Mr. Muñoz started making model rockets at 8 when his father, a psychiatrist, would bring back parts from his travels to San Diego.  Now, Mr. Muñoz is using the same cross-border entrepreneurial spirit to go up against the Chinese drone powerhouse, DJI.

3D Robotics is the second-best funded American drone start-up.  At $35 million, only Airware has them beat (I discussed Airware in an article about using drones to combat poaching).  The CEO of 3D Robotics, Chris Anderson, was the editor of Wired Magazine and founder of when he met Mr. Muñoz, and they co-founded 3R Robotics.  The company is best known for its Iris+ drone, but produces more advanced UAS as well.

What really caught my eye about the article was how 3D Robotics has broken up various aspects of its product development based on the strengths of various regions.  Specifically, the company’s headquarters are up in Berkeley, CA where they can leverage Mr. Anderson’s location and the Silicon Valley connections.  Engineering is based in San Diego.  This is Mr. Muñoz’s home, and also the location of a lot of a workforce aligned with the highly-technical defense contractors.  For example, General Atomics is headquartered in La Jolla and Northrop Grumman unmanned aircraft division is northeast of San Diego in Rancho Bernardo.  As discussed in previous posts, General Atomics makes the Predator and Reaper while Northrop Grumman makes the Global Hawk.  Finally, manufacturing is based in the Mexican State of Baja California.

I looking into this arraignment, particularly the Mexican manufacturing, and find it quite innovative.  To that end, I met with Dr. Christina Anne Luhn of the CaliBaja Bi-National Mega-Region.  The group was formed in 2008 and received their initial funding from the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration.  They are using a mega-region concept for the future of economic activities in the United States and have a number of private corporations and public entities as partners.  The San Diego, Imperial Valley, and Tijuana Economic Development Corporations are all partners.

What is CaliBaja? San Diego County has joined forces with Imperial County (which extends east of San Diego County to the Arizona border), and Baja California.  Here is a map of American “mega-regions.” Also, an article called “Jobs Without Borders” contains a significant amount of data on the mega-region and is available here.


The groups cites a quote from Richard Florida: “China is not our real competitor. Rather, we should be thinking about the great mega-regions around Shanghai, Beijing and the Hong Kong-Shenzhen corridor.”  (Please note that the original version of this post attributed this quote to CaliBaja, who graciously advised me that it was from Mr. Florida, a pioneer of the mega-region concept).  This is forward-thinking, and something that will help us compete in a new global economy.  CaliBaja is working to link the knowledge-based economy of San Diego with agricultural Imperial County and the manufacturing base in Baja California.  Dr. Luhn said that there is less cross-border tension from Imperial County as with San Diego County, perhaps because of the large number of dual citizens who reside there.  This is also something that CaliBaja is using to their advantage.

Dr. Luhn spoke at length about the manufacturing in Baja California. There are five major cities in the Mexican State, with the closest being Tijuana.  She recognized that there is a bias in many minds against Mexican manufacturing.  However, reality has evolved past this outdated perception.  She has visited the factories and they are sophisticated, clean, and staffed by second or even third generation employees.  The latter comment is important because it means that a base of knowledge has developed and that the people in the factories are there for careers, not just to scratch out a living.  Baja California is far from the Mexican capitol and has an entrepreneurial spirit – even many in Mexico City don’t understand the State’s level of manufacturing sophistication.

Companies such as Kyocera, Sony, and Solar Turbines were utilizing the cross-border resources before CaliBaja were developed, but the group is coordinating this effort. For example, private investors are building a pedestrian bridge from the Tijuana airport to San Diego to facilitate traffic and commerce between the two countries.  NAFTA broke down some of the regulatory hurdles, but some still do exist – a major one being the time it takes waiting to cross the border.  The bridge should be completed by the end of the year.

There are other hurdles as well – public perception being one, particularly with defense manufacturing.  Others are issues I’ve written about, particularly export compliance.  Sophisticated companies will already have international trade compliance structures in place to address the Export Administration Regulations (i.e.: unarmed non-military UAS and related components) or International Traffic in Arms Regulations (i.e.: armed, military UAS and various sub-components), but it takes time and some money for a smaller business to get a compliance program up and running.  And sometimes, manufacturing in Mexico is all but foreclosed – most clearly with the MTCR-controlled Predator, Reaper, and Global Hawk.

Dr. Luhn referred to the phenomenon as “near-sourcing” and “co-production.”  Some may feel that this is taking jobs out of the U.S., but the financial reality is that we cannot compete globally if all aspects of production remains domestic.  Our options are often either cooperative cross-border groups, or watch manufacturing go far overseas.

3D Robotics has leveraged the region’s advantages well, as illustrated by their multiple locations.  I’m sure they also don’t mind that Mexico, which is relatively friendly to UAS, rather than the FAA has authority over its Tijuana location.  I had hoped to contact someone from 3D Robotics prior to this post, but will write a follow-up article if I can accomplish that.

Profile: Skyecam

Yesterday I have the privilege of talking with JJ Trinidad, the owner of Skyecam. He first caught my attention when I read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that referenced a BMW commercial, which included UAS video filmed in the United States.   I thought this was going to focus primarily on the BMW commercial, but after a fascinating conversation with JJ, I’m having trouble choosing what videos to include in the article.

Skyecam provided the aerial shots for the BMW commercial, shot at locations in New York and Massachusetts.  Particularly exciting for Patriots fans will be that a part of it was filmed outside of Gillette Stadium, as seen in the preview below and on the main page of the blog!  He does build his own custom UAS. He was getting the aircraft up to 40 or 50 mph during the shoot, but at those speeds the images start to get shaky.

We moved on to general drone topics.  I asked him about his interactions with the FAA and local authorities.  He has not had trouble with local authorities, and the FAA wasn’t particularly helpful some time ago when he contacted them about obtaining permission.  More on the FAA below.

I asked him about the WSJ article and how the FAA regulatory issues affect his insurance coverage.  He carries insurance through the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics), but that only covers him for recreational flights at an AMA location.  His experience has been that typical commercial policies will exclude any losses that occur without a permit – if one is required.  This means that any accidents during shoots over public areas requiring a permit will not be covered, but accidents during one on private property would typically be covered.  In the context of a shoot such as for BMW, he was working for the production company and under their insurance.  Technically, this insurance policy should cover a loss, but the carrier would need to know that a UAS is in use.  Because of the FAA’s position on commercial use, that notification isn’t always made.  JJ said that in the end, it isn’t that easy to get coverage for the work he does.

JJ started flying RC planes as a kid off of the cliffs of California.  He got into something called Dynamic Soaring and eventually his Skyecam Team captured the world speed record, at close to 400 mph!    This is amazing given that the planes do not have any engines and use only wind and physics to gain such speeds.  The cliffs found in California provide the appropriate natural wind patterns for this type of flying.

JJ believes Dynamic Soaring taught him more about how to fly a UAS than anything else because he needed a thorough understanding of lift, yaw, and other concepts that keep an object airborne.  Interestingly, albatross do something similar – they can fly thousands of miles using little energy by diving toward the leeward side of a wave.

He got into aerial videography around 2006, when he taped a camcorder to one of his RC planes.  The images where shaky and you could see parts of the airframe in the image, but he dreamed that one day the technology would evolve to the point that he could create professional aerial videos – and that day is here.  JJ hasn’t shied away from risky flights, either.  One story he didn’t mention to me, but which I found online, was about a flight he took over LA’s notorious Skid Row.  He set down his $3,000 custom UAS when the battery was low and someone tried to steal it.  He did get it back, only to be stopped by cops during the “get-away” (they let him off after explaining to him that the area is controlled by street gangs).  Here is the resulting video from the drone.

I asked him about the current state of FAA regulations, a subject on which he had a lot to say.  He has spoken to the FAA about flights, but found them unprepared to answer his questions or provide useful guidance.  He wasn’t enamored with the 333 Exemption process either and believes that the requirement for a traditional pilot certificate is not appropriate.  For example, a Boeing 747 pilot wouldn’t understand how to fly one of his drones, and vice versa.  He is also adamant that the proposed rules fall short in that they do not require UAS-specific training prior to being allowed to fly commercially.  He firmly believes, and I agree, that UAS users should get training on their airframes so they know how to react in an emergency; such as the loss of a propeller or loss of radio communication with the aircraft.  In his eyes, it is no different than driving a car without a license.

JJ worries that the DJI and similar platforms that allow for autonomous flight, with the amateur users they are attracting, are harming the public image of UAS and causing unnecessary accidents.  He thinks that these features should be used only in emergencies.  He does use FPV when he is flying recreationally, but all commercial work is done within line-of-sight.  In his opinion, FPV is unsafe if one isn’t sufficiently experienced or when one is flying commercially (FPV is conditionally allowed under the FAA’s proposed rules).  He also stays away from airports, except when using Apollo Airfield, which is fairly close to an airport but a sanctioned model aircraft field.

He will be commenting on the FAA rules, as any member of the public can.  He hasn’t submitted his yet, since Skyecam is working to put together a thorough comment, but I look forward to the result.

Finally, this past weekend he took some video in the clouds from the Angeles Crest in the Angeles National Forest, boasting the highest elevations around Los Angeles.  He was already at a high elevation before launching, so the aircraft wasn’t that far from him when it was up in the clouds. He does use UHF radio frequencies that have a range close to 10 miles and can penetrate through clouds.  The beach portions of the video are at Big Sur and the overhead shots of the zebras are from a prior trip to Africa.  I had to ask about the latter part, and he said he took some artistic liberty in adding that portion.

I’ll close with that most recent video.  Make sure to chose the highest resolution possible.  It is shot in 4K, better than HD, and on the Apple Retina screen it is absolutely amazing.  JJ is a highly-experienced UAS pilot and videographer, and is well-positioned to take advantage of this new technology.  His work is excellent and I’m sure he and Skyecam will continue to awe.






Drones and Fracking

The Mars Rover Curiosity has been broadening our knowledge of the Red Planet and, especially since his selfie, seems to have his own personality.  Now I think of WALL•E when I think of him (it).  But the technology that went into him is also helping us back here on the Blue and Green Planet.
Selfie on Mars – by Curiosity 
Methane escape is a concern both because of the loss of useable energy and because of its propensity to trap greenhouse gases.  Methane can trap between 20 and 30 times more greenhouse gases than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.  “Natural gas,” the fuel used in many homes for cooking and heating, is made up primarily of methane.  Natural gas is also used by an increasing amount of utilities to power their turbines because environmental regulations are making coal too expensive.  However, it has not been practical to survey pipelines for methane leaks – until now.  A number of technologies are being adapted and developed to detect methane with UAS.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California has been working to adapt a methane detector used by the Mars Rover to detect methane loss from natural gas pipelines.  This is a lightweight, laser-based technology that is being developed in conjunction with Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) after California passed a law requiring utilities to minimize natural gas leaks from pipelines.  The device can come in a hand-held or UAV mounted format, is accurate to 10 ppb, and can use isotope analysis to track a leak to its source.
JPL's prototype methane detector (with Starbucks and what looks like a government-issued Blackberry)
JPL’s prototype methane detector (with Starbucks and what looks like a government-issued Blackberry)
Separately, an Australian company called Draco Scientific is developing an alternative UAV-mounted optical sensor to detect methane.  Their sensors are advertised to have a sensitivity of better than 1 ppm at less than 2.5 kg. They appear to be as less sensitive but lighter – an important factor for any UAS payload. Since an American study found that energy generation from natural gas is more environmental friendly than coal only if the loss of gas is less than 3.2% (from well to ignition), Dr Maryanne Large, Chief Scientific Officer at the company, is excited about how this technology will aid energy producers.
Draco Scientific is also working in conjunction with Melbourne Water to increase the recovery of biomethane from their treatment plants.  For those who don’t know, methane is a natural decomposition product from human (or other) waste.  If you’ve ever gone by a capped landfill, the tubes sticking out are to release this gas evolution.  Surprisingly, Melbourne Water already saves about $5 million per year through trapping this methane, but Draco Scientic believes it can help them trap 20% more and save an additional $1 million.  You can read the Press Release here.
Back in the U.S., UAS are combining with another controversial technology – fracking.  I personally believe that fracking has net benefits and is being done safely, but there is significant opposition to the technology.  A recent report discusses how drones are being used to limit the release of methane from some of the country’s 500,000 fracking wells – something that could both improve safety and efficiency and improve public perception of both technologies.
As a very brief introduction, fracking is used to release natural gas from underground wells.  There is gas in the Marcellus Shale deposits, shown below.  Pennsylvania has tapped these deposits to great economic benefit while New York has a moratorium on drilling pending environmental studies. The gas, which is about 90% methane, is trapped in the shale and cannot be reached through normal drilling methods.  Instead, the well is drilled and a solution primarily made up of water is injected into the shale to fracture it open – hence the term “fracking.”  The natural gas is released and trapped for use.  Local residents are concerned both that the gas will leak into and contaminate their drinking water and that the fracturing solution will do the same.
Returning to UAS, the traditional method to search for leaks is evidenced by TransCanada Corp., which used manned-helicopters mounted with lasers.  The lasers diffract when they hit methane, so the remaining amount of light that returns to the source is used to determine the amount of methane in the air.  Robert Jackson at Duke University is researching mounting this technology on UAS.  The biggest problem is their weight, which to date has limited flight time to 30 minutes.  This is not enough time to assess a shale “play.”  Colorado State University Ventures is developing a competing technology using something called cavity ring down spectroscopy (CRDS) that can also deterime if the methane is from natural gas or oil.
Additionally, small companies are receiving grants from the United States to develop UAS-based methane detecting technology.  For example, Physical Sciences Inc. (PSI) has received support from the Department of Energy to survey methane emissions from altitudes up to 80,000 feet.  Southwest Sciences, Inc. has received a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the DOE to research a lightweight methane-detecing diode laser that can be mounted on UAS.
I will admit that my background is on the legal and chemistry side of this issue, so the methods used to detect the methane are somewhat outside of my experise.  The ASME Hydraulic Fracturing 2015 Conference  is coming up in the middle of March and I hope to have at least one follow-up article based on the conference.
Needless to say, UAS could prove to be a great resource in detecting methane for a variety of purposes and is a promising application of UAS.