DJI Phantom 3 Unveiled (and Amazon gets its 333)

DJI announced the Phantom 3 this week.  It looks similar to the Phantom 2 but has much more “under the hood.”  As part of their announcement, they showed off the 4K video option by posting a video taken by a Phantom 3 over Lake Hillier, Middle Island, Australia.

Still from Phantom 4K

Wikipedia explains the pink color is created by a microorganism called Dunaliella salina, which interacts with the the salt content in the lake to create a red dye.

Make sure to select 4K in settings on the video below, if you have the bandwidth to do so.  The video quality is amazing, especially on the Apple Retina display!  As an aside, one of the great things about this blog is exploring different parts of the world through the eyes of UAS and their users.  This is a place I’d never heard of but find fascinating.

In other news, this past Wednesday another UAS giant, Amazon, finally received the 333 exemption it has been seeking.  Apparently the Congressional testimony and report of R&D just over the Canadian border spurred the FAA into action.  The exemption is one of the now fairly boilerplate ones that have been issued by the FAA. Unfortunately the details of the aircraft were filed confidentially and are not available for review.

(The featured image on the main page is a still shot taken from the 4K video linked to above.  Note that DJI refers to “Pink Lake,” which is a Lake on the mainland of Western Australia.  Based on the geography, I am confident this is “Lake Hillier”on Middle Island, part of Recherche Archipelago off of Western Australia. )

UAS Technology Advances

There have been a number of announcements regarding UAS advancements that have hit the shelves or are around the corner.

An announcement by 3DR is being built up by an interesting YouTube pre-announcement video. I’ve written about 3DR and their unique business model in “CaliBaja.”

Applied Aeronautics has announced the Albatross, the first “fully composite airframe.”  Interestingly, the initial sales are only being offered through the Kickstarter program, a funding source that has already met its goal.  This is a fixed-wing aircraft with specifications including an electric motor, 100+ mile flight range over 2 hours, a top speed of 90 mph.  Airframes start at $650 and prices range up to $3,250 for the Deluxe Ready to Fly Albatross – although none include a transmitter or receiver.  It is a powerful UAS to be in the hands of the average consumer and its posted specification are close to making it Missile Technology!

Top Flight, a small business in Malden, Mass., has developed a gasoline/battery hybrid technology which the company states can power its six 26″ rotor UAS for over two hours at a time in gusty winds, while carrying imaging or crop-dusting payloads.  This follows the solar-hybrid being produced by Silent Falcon. Top Flight’s COO, John Polo, says that for one gallon of gasoline and “$19,000, you’ll be able to carry five pounds for two and a half hours, fly 100 miles semi- or fully autonomously, and have gads of redundancy built into it.”

UAV Turbines, Inc. has announced a gas turbine engine designed for UAS.  Engines will range in power from 30 to 150 hp and will increase reliability significantly over combustion engines for tactical-sized and above UAS.  According to the company, their team is comprised of veterans from both military and civilian engine programs and they have been able to increase the mean-time-between-overhaul (MTBO) from less than 100 hours for combustion engines to about 2,000 hours.

Shepard Drones

Finally, low-tech meets high-tech in the fields of Australia.  The Wall Street Journal reports on people who are using UAS to shepard their herd.  For example, Michael Thomson in New Zealand says he is successfully using a drone to herd sheep on his sister’s 200 acre farm.  He says the sheep respect the drone and are naturally scared of it.  Other farmers in the community are leery about using drones since they haven’t had to “reboot one of [their] dogs.”  Paul Brennan in Ireland named a quadcopter that he uses on a 100 acre farm “Shep.”

On the other hand, a South Carolina farmer has tried to use a drone he got for Christmas to herd his 20 cows to less success, and helicopter pilots in the Australian Outback are confident that the current battery life in drones won’t allow cattlemen to herd cattle with UAS across areas as large as 1 million acres.

(Photo Credit: From the WSJ, Michael Thomson piloting his UAS to herd sheep at Battle Hill Farm outside Wellington, New Zealand.)

News Round-up


Pictometry, a subsidiary of EagleView Technology Corporation, will be working on a research project with NYSEARCH/Northeast Gas Association, a consortium of natural gas companies across the U.S. and Canada.  Pictometry will be collaborating with NUAIR, both discussed in previous posts, to research the “feasibility of using UAS to improve the overall safety and speed of routine and emergency surveys and inspections of pipelines for gas utilities.”

The project is intended to develop methods to image natural gas pipelines and possibly use methane detectors as well. This comes on the heels of a recent FAA grant of a 333 exemption to San Diego Gas and Electric Company  to use UAS for infrastructure imaging.  Utility companies from production to delivery are excited about the potential UAS have to reduce costs, reduce the risk from dangerous inspection activities, and increase the reliability of their systems.

Pictrometry also recently helped found the Property Drone Consortium (PDC).  From their website: “The Property Drone Consortium represents a collaboration among insurance carriers, construction industry leaders and supporting enterprises who have agreed to work together to promote research, development and the establishment of regulations for the use of Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) technology across the insurance and construction industries.”

Amazon Prime Air

Amazon has been making quite a bit of news, in what appears to be a coordinated media response to the FAA regulatory processes.  Amazon granted exclusive access to its Canadian UAV test site to Guardian reporter Ed Pilkington.

The FAA reported to great fanfare on March 19 that it had granted Amazon an Experimental Use Certificate for its testing programs.  Days later, Amazon told Congress that it was useless because they had moved on to more advanced designs while waiting for FAA approval.

We now find out that they have relocated their testing less than a mile over the border into Canada, taking with them a NASA astronaut, the designer of the wingtips for Boeing’s 787 airliner, and “a formidable team of roboticists, software engineers, aeronautics experts and pioneers in remote sensing.”  Amazon said it was hoping to develop Prime Air in the U.S., but testing indoors is limiting and their frustration with regulators is evident – and not unreasonable.

For example, the article states that the FAA granted 48 “outdoor drone testing licenses” (I believe they mean Experimental Use Certificates) while Transport Canada granted 1,672 commercial drone certificates in 2014.  This is a daunting difference, and I doubt anyone can reasonably argue that Canada is taking safety for granted.  In addition, Diana Cooper, head of the Unmanned Aerial Systems and Robotics Practice Group at LaBarge Weinstein said that other American companies have contacted her about UAS opportunities in Canada.

I hope that the U.S. can maintain its edge in UAS R&D, but stories like this are disheartening.  Larry Downes wrote What’s Wrong with the FAA’s New Drone Rules in last month’s Harvard Business Review. It is a great article about the problems with the FAA’s approach – one being its refusal to consider beyond line of sight operations such as those envisioned by Amazon.

Both the Guardian and HBR article are great, so I encourage you to read them in their entirety.