Category Archives: Profiles

UAS in Western New York

This is a follow-up from the article I wrote about Rochester Institute of Technology and its Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, which is well-poised to develop UAS imaging technology.

Rochester’s local newspaper, the Democrat and Chronicle, wrote an article about RIT and local UAS activities.  I mentioned the Center for Imaging Science’s expertise with photography – whether by aircraft or satellite, but RIT is working to apply this to real-life UAS applications. The D&C article quotes the Center’s interim director as saying that they are getting calls daily for their expertise and their graduates are almost 100% employed at graduation.  This is something not many university programs can say these days!

The Digital Imaging and Remote Sensing Lab within the Center has over 40 graduate students and its mission is as follows: “DIRS focuses on the development of tools to extract information about the earth from aerial and satellite imaging systems with an emphasis on the application of science and engineering to solving end-to-end remote sensing problems using a systems engineering approach. This includes design and development of imaging instruments, developing algorithms to extract information from remotely sensed systems and measurement and modeling of the physical phenomena associated with the formation of remotely sensed images.”

RIT has also partnered with MIT to help lead the FAA test site based in Rome, NY and Cape Cod.  This is the same test site that tested Lockheed Martin’s Indago UAS for firefighting.  The test site at Griffiss International Airport is managed by Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance (NUAIR).  I haven’t written about them directly but have been following their work with interest.  I visited the site of their headquarters as a kid, then Griffiss Air Force Base.  I still remember getting to take a look at the relatively new stealth fighter on the ground – it was so new that there was a perimeter roped off and armed military guards.  It is great to see that Griffiss and RIT are ushering in a new generation of aircraft.

Goose Watch Winery (by the author, December, 2009)
Goose Watch Winery overlooking Cayuga Lake (by the author, December, 2009)

One of the programs that RIT is working on is precision agriculture.  We’ve heard a lot about this type of research for UAS in the mid-west, but not that many people think about farming when they think of New York.  But Rochester is 7 hours from New York City and Western New York is well-known for its agriculture – including the vineyards throughout the Finger Lakes Region.

The test program will start with tests over farm in Batavia, NY in Genesee County with a 3 lb hand-launched Lancaster Hawkeye Mk III made by PrecisionHawk.  Cornell Cooperative Extension, a program at the state’s land grant university, is also participating and they have three goals for the various test sensors:  (1) estimate yields and count crops, (2) spot pests/disease and obtain thermal images, and (3) optimize fertilizer application.  Also, according to the D&C article, “Another project by an RIT student examined vineyards in the Finger Lakes, using spectral imaging to assess water levels in plants.”  This certainly intrigues me, but I can’t find any additional information about it – I will update this post if I do.

They are also working to make progress on one of the FAA’s pet concerns: Sense and Avoid.  They are hoping to (1) develop effective sensors that are less expensive than the $80,000 interial navigation systems in manned aircraft and (2) design algorithms that process the data more effectively.  The hidden aspects that make a UAS safe and versatile.

A Sonoma Vineyard: Taken by the author during a trip to California with his father, an RIT alum.
An unknown Sonoma Vineyard: Taken by the author around 2005 during a trip to California with his father, an RIT alum.


Special thanks to Sean Lahman and David Riley, whose D&C articles that I linked to above were phenomenal!

The cover photo on the main page is of Kontokosta Winery, taken by the author October 2013.  Yes, I ran with the winery theme.


Dana Wharf Whale Watching “COPTERWHALECAM”

I found this amazing video online and wanted to share it.  This was taken during a Whale Watch tour that was going from Dana Point, Orange County, California to Catalina and is of a Super Pod of Gray Whales and other amazing sea life.  It was taken by Captain Todd Mansur and Captain Frank Brennan with what appears to be a Go Pro attached to a DJI Phantom (I’m not positive on this, but am assuming based on the DJI hashtag).  I think it is great videography and also a wonderful way to raise awareness about these endangered, majestic animals!

This is only one of many videos they have taken from a drone during whale watch tours.   Capt Brennan has significant experience with whales and practiced with the COPTERWHALECAM for weeks before using it over sea life.  He has done this responsibly based on his wealth of knowledge and experience.  Very few of us share his level of experience in both whales and UAS.  However, I caution the general public against doing this on their own.  NOAA guidelines regarding whales address boats (remain 100 yards from whales), and manned aircraft (stay at least 1000 ft above cetaceans), but they do not address drones. However, many whales are endangered, and interfering with them can lead to criminal penalties. Only one experienced in both whales and UAS has the experience to prevent such an incident, so I would leave this to professionals like Capt Brennan.

This image and the featured image were taken by the author outside of Boston Harbor during a whale watch out of the New England Aquarium on Memorial Day 2010.


Interestingly, Captain Mansur was in the news on a semi-related topic.  Even the Navy follows the Endangered Species Act and avoids whale strikes, which can be lethal to the whale.  Last year he notified the USS CORONADO that it was headed directly toward a pod of Gray whales.  The warship came to a stop and did not hit the whales.

If you want more information about the Endangered Species Act, you can read about it here.  Even if you don’t care about losing your drone to King Neptune, remember that it falling on a whale is considered a whale strike and subjects the user to severe civil and criminal penalties.

In the meantime, enjoy these amazing videos, and check out Dana Wharf Whale Watching tours.

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.

UAS Education

What does a koala have to do with UAS?  Read through to find out!

koala babyToday I want to briefly touch on programs that universities are beginning to develop in order to educate future UAS developers and users.  The programs are just starting to proliferate, but I will focus on a few.  The UAV Marketplace has a list of universities offering anything from UAS majors to clubs and it appears to be fairly up to date.

There are only a few schools in the U.S. offering a full-scale UAS major.  One is the University of North Dakota.  I chose to mention UND because the Northern Plains test site has been active in developing its capabilities and was recently in the news when it received two COA’s from the FAA.

The University’s course catalog, as of February 2015, states that the major is aimed at the civil UAS industry, a Commercial Pilot Certificate is required, a minor or second major is strongly encouraged, and that a number of courses are restricted to U.S. persons.  The final note is an important consideration for any schools considering such a program.  The courses are restricted because they discuss technology covered by the ITAR (Avit 331 – Unmanned Aircraft Systems; Avit 332 – UAS Ground Systems; Avit 333 – UAS Sensor Systems; Avit 334 – UAS Comm/Telemetry Systems; Avit 338 – UAS Operations).

Another U.S. University with a UAS major is Kansas State Salina.  They have access to the Smoky Hill Weapons Range for DoD related projects and recently received a statewide COAs from the FAA.

These majors will teach a student all aspect of drone operation, but most UAS are being used for imaging of one form or another.  A university in my hometown of Rochester, NY is pulling from the imaging experience of the city (original home of Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch and Lomb).  The Rochester Institute of Technology now has the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, which is well-poised to develop UAS imaging technology.

Some also hope to turn Rochester into the Drone Capital of the World because of its imaging companies.  The article mentions Pictometry International, which developed a  technique of stitching together aerial photos from low-flying airplanes to create overhead images that look three-dimensional.  The article also points to Exelis Geospatial Systems, which has built the camera systems for most of the commercial imaging satellites.  These cameras can pinpoint a ground location to within a few meters, even while flying at 17,000 mph and over 350 miles above the ground.  Both companies are based in Rochester and well-positioned to leverage their imaging expertise with UAS.

Finally, universities have been actively performing applied research.  In a photogenic example, the Queensland University of Technology’s Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation is using UAS equipped with heat sensors to monitor the decreasing koala population in Australia.  The first flight was tested in bushland near the Australia Zoo on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and was developed to help researchers better understand koalas and why they were not surviving relocations.

(Photo Credit: – A koala joey named Frodo suckles on a syringe of food at Australia Zoo on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast on November 19, 2010. Australia Zoo)

Drones around San Diego

I’m out in San Diego working hard but also enjoying their version of “winter” (highs in the upper 60’s – this is not a complaint by any stretch of the imagination).  I’m hoping to get out to Torrey Pines this weekend, so I’ve included a drone video of this beautiful park.  It made me think that I should write about UAS in San Diego.

I’ll start with invasion of privacy, since that is hot news in the press. California has some of the toughest invasion of privacy laws in the United States. In the most basic sense, you can’t trespass to get a picture of someone.  This predates UAS, since the state has attempted to limit paparazzi for decades, but now drones allow you to take pictures without physically trespassing.  A well-known case in the early 90’s illustrates the limits of the law. Barbara Streisand sued a company making a photographic survey of the California coastline, including her oceanside mansion, but lost because there was nothing offensive or invasive about the distant photograph.  This was a manned flight, but now Californians, not just movie stars, are worried about drones invading their privacy.

In response, a bill was passed last year to amend California’s invasion of privacy law.  It is now illegal to make a recording with a device (i.e.: a drone) that is “offensive to a reasonable person,” of a person “engaging in a personal or familial activity under circumstances in which the plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of privacy,” when the “image, sound recording, or other physical impression could not have been achieved without a trespass unless the device was used.”  (Cal. Civil Code §1708.8(b)).  In layman’s terms, if you can’t get the picture without using a drone, you are violating the law – even if you are not actually trespassing.  One who violates this provision is liable for damages to the aggrieved party and a civil fine of between $5,000 and $50,000!

California also has other bills pending.  One that would have restricted the ability of law enforcement to use UAS was vetoed by the governor last year .  Two similar bills have been introduced this year and are under consideration.  Assemblyman Jeff Gorell, who introduced the legislation that was vetoed, makes a good point.  It is important to pass balanced UAS legislation before more dramatic action, such as a full ban, occurs.

San Diego County has a particular interest in UAS.  The area is a hotbed of defense contracting, which includes General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, makers of the Predator/Reaper and Global Hawk, respectively.  The Union-Tribune article also cites a National University System Institute for Policy Research (based in San Diego) study from 2011 that found the UAS industry added $1.3 billion and more than 7,000 jobs to the county’s economy.

I wrote previously about AeroVironment, which had been granted permission by the FAA to use its Puma UAS to survey BP assets in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.  The authorization take the form of a restricted type certificate, a broader but more difficult to obtain authorization than the 333 exemptions.  AeroVironment is based in Southern California and can boast that the first over Prudhoe Bay flight occurred on Sunday January 18th!

It is great to see an area’s economy benefitting from UAS and I hope San Diego can continue to develop this technology.

(Note: the featured image on the home page, also found below, is of Del Mar, CA from a Drone.  It is from a drone photo website


Drones Make Waves On NPR

On Monday February 23rd, On Point with Tom Ashbrook had a segment entitled “All-American Drones.” You can listen to the podcast and review the comments from listeners by clicking on the link, but I will summarize it below. To readers of Droning On, most of the topics will not be new, but it is good to see what others are saying on the issue.

Mr. Ashbrook’s guests were as follows:

  • Jack Nicas, aviation reporter for The Wall Street Journal
  • Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Coalition
  • Gregory McNeal, professor of law and public policy at Pepperdine University

Mr. Nicas wrote an article last Friday in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Drone Ban? Corporations Skirt Rules,” which is self-explanatory. He started off the segment by discussing some of the uses to which drones are already being put in the United States and abroad.

  • Drones are being used in small to medium-sized farming to monitor crops and collect data for a new technique called “Precision Agriculture.” The draft rules from the FAA would still preclude their use on large farms because of the line-of-sight rules.
  • Construction is another area in which drones are being put to use. Construction companies have been unable to collect desired data about their site progress due to the pace of construction, but UAS can fly over the site every day to create three-dimensional models. These models can be laid over the site plans to determine if the progress is as planned.
  • Snow-covered roofs. I wrote about this yesterday.

Mr. Nicas also addressed frequent headline news – Delivery drones from Amazon. This would still be prohibited, both because of the line-of-sight requirements and a prohibition on external loads. He was relatively understanding of the FAA’s slow progress, given the increase in air traffic that drones will bring about. He was also happy because many in the industry were worried that the FAA would propose manned aircraft-like requirements (including aircraft and pilot certification).

(Disclaimer: This is not my photo and clearly a “meme”)


As I’ve addressed, the FAA is hesitant because of technological limitations, particularly regarding Sense and Avoid. He did mention a number of companies that are working on Sense and Avoid technology. In addition to General Atomics’ DRR technology and Honeywell working with NASA, he mentioned Intel, Qualcomm, and numerous start-ups. Industry believes they will have Sense and Avoid technology in place by the time the rules are finalized (likely 2017).

Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, was on with Charlie Rose of CBS and in December 2013 they expected to have deliveries by drones accomplished within 30 minutes!

Michael Drobac was excited with the proposed rules. In particular, he was happy that pilot certification will not be required. As he put it, “what does a Cessna pilot know about UAS?” However, he said we are far behind other nations and the proposed rules are not sufficiently elastic for commercial use.

He also mentioned a company called Chaotic Moon, which has developed the CUPID (Chaotic Unmanned Personal Intercept Drone) taser drone.  Video here (I couldn’t embed it).

Mr. Drobac discussed a rancher near Telluride who likes using a drone to survey her cows, saving her many trips up the hill to do the same manually. He also discussed the debate on Capitol Hill, where the issue may be forced with legislation. UAS opinion is not falling along party lines, however: Senator Schumer (D, New York) says he will consider introducing legislation if the FAA will not reconsider their line-of-sight stance, while Senator Feinstein (D, California) wants to see more restrictions.

Mr. McNeal, who I’ve mentioned previously, started by discssing the economic dynamic of drones. He responded to a question from a caller by saying that Amazon must clearly see a market opportunity if they are investing millions and hiring Mr. Drobac. He also mentioned other opportunities, such as in bridge and cell tower inspections, noting the higher than average fatality rate among the industry.

A caller asked about the “considerable noise pollution” that drones create. Mr. McNeal summarized the rule laid out in United States v. Causby (very briefly: a landowner has rights to some airspace above his house – a case interpreted and fought over in courts for decades as airports expanded). Amazon UAS will operate at 300-500 feet and create much less noise at ground level than your average UPS truck (and in the author’s case, the even louder noise created by his dog). He also noted that Google’s prototype will not even land but rather use a tether to lower the delivery. In short, innovators are hearing the public’s concerns and creating new technology to address these issues!

A caller asked about the legislation in his state that would allow one to shoot down a drone over their land. Mr. McNeal reminded the audience that since the FAA considers UAS “aircraft,” there are severe penalties associated with such conduct.

There was a brief FPV discussion, and Mr. Pirker came up. The take-away is that it isn’t always about the aircraft, but about the skill of the user. Mr. Pirker has flown around New York City and the Statute of Liberty and through tunnels with his FPV goggles. But he is that good.

Next, insurance was addressed. I am going to have a guest blogger in the near future talking about the insurance aspects of drones in more detail. FAA guidance hasn’t stopped people from flouting the rules and nothing can make an activity zero risk. Even if users don’t fear the current FAA ban, commercial users will heed the guidance of their insurance carriers and take steps to fly safely and keep their premiums low.

Mr. Drobac also discussed the safety risks and was concerned about the underutilization of the test sites. He said that many potential users want to test their skills and plans in controlled environments, and have been asking for time at the test sites to do so. He is attending a conference in Santa Cruz in May where they will be looking at reams of data on testing and discussing safe operation.

A caller asked if we are losing the “Drone Race” (see my comment at the end of this post regarding the “Space Race”). Other countries, like France, are allowing their operators to fly beyond the line of sight. They don’t care about their citizens less, but it does show how we are falling behind. In defense of the FAA, we do have a complex National Airspace, but that excuse only lasts so long.

The comments online were generally against the “one-hour long commercial for Amazon.” Writers felt that the segment didn’t address the privacy or human rights concerns. As for the latter, this was about commercial, not military UAS. As for the former, I wish it had come up. As I’ve discussed, I think there are good answers for that. However, Mr. Ashbrook couldn’t have done that and the NPRM issue justice in one segment, so hopefully there will be a follow-up segment on the privacy aspects of UAS!

All in all, this was a great segment that touched on most aspects of the current regulatory debate.

There was UAS news last night, and lest you think I forgot: drones were spotted over a number of French landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower, Place de la Concorde, and the American Embassy in Paris. We don’t know much about this yet, but I don’t think it changes the dynamic. Just as people can buy guns illegally, they can fly drones in violation of no-fly zone rules. France is investing 1 million Euros in a program to detect UAS in unauthorized areas and I have to imagine we are doing the same.  I’ll keep you updated on any developments.