Category Archives: Civil UAS News

UAS Week in Review


I wrote about how UAS are being used in Kenyan anti-poaching efforts, and now South African National Parks (SANParks) is testing methods of using UAS to prevent Rhino poaching in Kruger National Park.  SANParks Chairman, Mr Kuseni Dlamini, said “This aims at investigating the effectiveness of various UAV technologies as instruments in rhino protection efforts under a range of operational conditions.”

The photo below was taken by the author at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.  This is Nola, a Northern White Rhinoceros – she is only one of five left in the world.  Admittedly, this is not from South Africa, but it illustrates just how badly rhino populations have been decimated by poachers, so I hope the program is a success.Nola 3


Predator Downed in Syria:

I wrote this week about the Predator drone that was lost over Syria.  The Daily Mail has posted what appear to be pictures of the downed aircraft.  Syrian media is claiming that the Predator was shot down by the country’s air defense, but the U.S. will not confirm that it was taken down intentionally.  A video can be found here:


Chile and Iran are both going to be testing lifesaving drones.  Having been an open water lifeguard for a number of years, I am all for this.  The video below shows the relative speed of a human vs. a drone lifeguard.  We’d still want human guards to complete the rescue, but it is much safer to approach a scared but floating person rather and a drowning person.

Drone v. Plane Study

A big concern regarding drones is the effect of an impact on an airliner.  David Schneider asked George Morse about a recent study analyzing the risk of UAS/airliner collisions.  Mr. Morse owns Failure Analysis Service Technology, based in Arizona and is well-regarded in the field.  He is an expert on foreign object damage (“FOD” – hence his web address) and was asked about using research regarding birds to analyze UAS collision risk. here is a quick summary:

  • He didn’t seem to think that the difference in composition between birds and UAS is a big deal.  There are two issues:
    • A UAS entering a turbofan engine – in which the engine speed is most pertinent.
    • Collisions against the aircraft – where relative speed is the biggest concern.
  • Delta2Turbofans (The damage to the Delta turbofan above was caused by a herring ingested during takeoff in Portland, Oregon)
    • A 1-2 kg drone is likely to hit the leading edge of a blade and get chopped up into a million pieces.  It will be similar to a bird strike.
    • The damage is unlikely to cause a fan blade to break, but could cause it to come out of high speed.  This is important since we are assuming the greatest risk is a low-altitude collision during take-off.
    • The batteries are unlikely to cause an explosion.  Worst case scenario is that they get sucked into the combustion chamber and burn up (just like the jet fuel).
    • Birds are actually more concerning, since they travel in flocks, which can result in multiple birds getting ingested at once.
  • UAS v. airliner hull
    • He was more concerned about the UAS hitting the windscreen (windshield).
    • However, the composition (bird vs. drone) doesn’t matter.  Speed and mass do.
    • So a 1-2 kg drone poses no more danger than a bird of the same size.
  • We shouldn’t minimize the risk.  Even if human life is relatively safe, the cost of a small UAS entering a turbofan engine would be quite high.  Much more than the drone – and the UAS user would likely be liable.

Apple iDrone


Apple Drone

Amazon 1 – Google 0

The long battle between the FAA and Amazon hit a detente today.  While Amazon was hoping for a 333 Exemption, they were granted a more restrictive Experimental Use Certificate for their UAS, under 14 CFR 21.191.  There are limits to the certificate: UAS must remain below 400′, within line of sight of the pilot and observer, and the pilot must have at least a private pilot’s certificate and current medical certification.  It also includes the monthly reporting requirements typical of all experimental certificates.

Amazon Prime Air

Amazon will not be delivering packages anytime soon.  The Certificate is well-named: Amazon can experiment to develop the aircraft and program, but they cannot implement the program commercially under this authorization.

Other stories I and others have written regarding Amazon Prime Air:

Amazon and the Small UAV Coalition

Amazon reaction to NPRM

Amazon on NPR

The Australian Amazon Prime Air

Amazon in Congress (external link)

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos looks to the future – CBS News

Google Drone
Google Prototype Drone (retired)


Also today we learned that Google has scrapped their drone design because the wing placement made it too difficult to control.  As you can see in the image above, Google’s UAS contains the package within the airframe and drops it with a cable, but the interesting rear-placed wings did not work out.  Here is more info about the aborted design.


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.