News Round-up: Whales and Thor

As a follow up to my last article about strikes against terrorists, during a policy speech on June 2, 2016, Hillary Clinton said that Donald Trump “would order our military to carry out torture and the murder of civilians who are related to suspected terrorists — even though those are war crimes.”  I’m not sure her position is shared by the US Government, which news reports indicate have targeted terrorists, even though family members could be collateral damage. 

Researchers from Kiwi – post graduate students at the Auckland University of Technology – were able to catch footage of endangered Bryde’s whales foraging off Auckland’s coast using a homemade UAV.  Their supervisor, Dr. Barbara Bollard Breen said:

“Bryde’s whales are critically threatened in New Zealand, so it’s thrilling to see them in the wild, and to be able to record them feeding from above is very special,” said Dr. Bollard Breen, a senior lecturer in geospatial science.


“Using a UAV allowed them to film without disturbing the surrounding wildlife – revealing footage of the whales feeding that we wouldn’t have been able to see from a boat-based survey.”

 Airbus is a fan of 3D printing, which I talked about in conjunction with AUVSI 2015 in Atlanta.  They’ve used it on components of the A350 XWB and have released a UAV named THOR (Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality) – a 21 kg, 4  meter 3D printed UAV.  They can use 3D printing to make UAV 20-40% lighter and in this case it is made up of almost 50 individually printed components.  Only its radio control and two electric motors are not 3D printed!

 Airbus THOR

News from upstate New York.  Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, NY will be offering a three-day class through a partnership with SkyOp, out of Canandaigua, New York.  The class is designed to prepare students to be qualified to fly under FAA regulations.

Finally, the 2016 UTM (UAS Traffic Management) Conference will be held in sites around Syracuse and Griffis AFB from 8-10 November 2016.  The conference, sponsored by AUVSI and NUAIR, will take advantage of the local test site and is a NASA-led research effort that seeks to “safely” integrate low-altitude unmanned aircraft (such as drones) into the national airspace.


ERI Aerial Filming and Photography – Agricultural Imaging

I’ve been promising to write about a talk I went to at XPONENTIAL 2016 given by Charles Maveaux and a colleague, Jon Rupprecht.


Mr. Malveaux is the Lead Pilot and Owner of ERI Aerial Filming and Photography (E.R.I.) and an Engineer and PhD Candidate at Louisiana State University who specializes in UAV remote sensing. E.R.I. specializes in UAV aerial photography, UAV aerial filming, UAV agricultural crop scouting, UAV based NDVI, aerial data collection, and UAV remote sensing.  E.R.I. has a commercial UAV FAA 333 Exemption that allows it to perform imaging and remote sensing operations for industrial and commercial applications. In addition ERI is the only drone company based in Baton Rouge Louisiana which has FAA 333 authorization for aerial cinematography and movie filming.


E.R.I. provides both manned fixed-wing and unmanned services.  It’s UAS is capable of carrying a modified Trimble GreenSeeker NDVI sensor as well as a modified Canon camera configured to take wide-angle near-infrared photographs. The sensors can remotely analyze the effects of aerial applications of farm chemicals on farm fields over multi-acre plots, as was highlighted in a recent article – Malveaux, Charles. 2014. Investigating the Potential for Drone Use in Agriculture. Louisiana Agriculture, Winter 2014, 8-13 pp.

Drone Photos

NDVI is the acronym for Normalized Difference Vegetative Index. The Trimble GreenSeeker is a sensor that uses a laser scanning system and analyzer to generate NDVI reflectance values for crops passing underneath. NDVI data can also be generated through near-infrared photography, such as that provided by the drone’s modified Canon camera. By using software called Image J, the data generated can be converted into numerical values that can then be plotted as a calculated NDVI value.  Using this technique, ERI’s UAS based agricultural crop inspections using NDVI can help growers understand crop health and manage farm land. Sugar cane, cotton, rice, corn, soybeans, orchard crops, aquaculture, and livestock farming can all benefit from our aerial monitoring, and enhanced NDVI data services. Our NDVI crop inspections, aerial scanning, and aerial livestock monitoring can take agriculture management and to new heights.

This technology brings up tangentially-related issues I’ve been talking about for some time related to cyber technology.  What tools are being used to secure the data from nefarious users and what type of IP protections are being used to protect the raw data coming out of the UAS and the information being processed from the raw data.



Our son in front of the Natchez steamboat. Click the photo to see ERI’s demo reel, including a UAS video of the Natchez!

Walmart’s UAS

While Amazon Prime Air is still struggling to take off, facing headwinds from the FAA, Walmart has announced plans of its own to incorporate UAS into its business plan.  Since it will occur indoors, the FAA’s approval is not required.  Walmart believes using UAS in its warehouse auditing will speed up an audit from 30 days to one!

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Update to a previous story:  A Piaggio Aerospace Hammerhead crashed last week off the coast of Sicily.  I wrote previously about how the Italian AF was the first customer for the UAV and since that time the UAE has come on board.  It was believed to be the prototype conducting trials but that is not confirmed.


Taliban Leader Killed in UAS Strike

Reports indicate that the United States has killed the Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in a drone strike last month.  American leaders hope he will be replaced by someone more willing to negotiate a settlement, but that remains to be seen.

This brings up a couple interesting issues to ponder

  1. What is the scope of international legal authority to target and kill enemy leaders with UAS?  The U.S. position is more or less classified, but a UK Parliament report was recently issued and it goes into an excellent analysis of international law in relation to UAS:  UK Drone Attack Report
  2. Studies also indicate that UAS operators can get PTSD, something I had not thought about.  Not everyone agrees though, so I will leave it to readers to come to their own opinion.




American Aerospace BVLOS

NJIT Test Flight 3

American Aerospace’s RS 16 in Cape May

American Aerospace announced that they successfully had a BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) test for energy industry inspections.

I wrote about American Aerospace some time ago when they had a test flight on a bitter cold day in Cape May, NJ in January 2015.  The flight was by their RS-20, a slightly larger version of the RS-16 I saw in Cape May (a photo of which is the basis for the Duke of Drones Logo), and utilized a new COA issued to the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (who we met at XPONENTIAL 2016).  The flight was out of Farmville, Virginia Regional Airport.

NJIT Test Flight 9Congrats to David Yoel, MAAP, and the American Aerospace team!




AUVSI’s annual unmanned systems conference was held this year in New Orleans, Louisiana.  It was a great location steeped in history and the conference had a great array of unmanned technology – land, sea, and air.

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I went with my wife who has been my partner at Duke of Drones but will be leaving for a full-time job.  We enjoyed meeting many thinkers in both the technological and policy side of unmanned aerial systems.  I will write more about the various entities I mention below in the coming weeks, but have had to turn around for professional travel to areas with poor internet following the conference.  We also brought our son, Tripp, and we enjoyed the New Orleans’ sights.

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XPONENTIAL 2016 appeared larger than last year but some of the biggest changes were in the non-technological booths.  There were more and bigger booths by regional consortiums such as NUAIR (in upstate New York and Massachusetts – see here) and the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), based in Virginia.  The state of Ohio also had a booth.  They had some great cookies and I promised the nice ladies at the booth I’d mention them.  I’ve been reading The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, which details Ohio’s place in aviation history, so it was fitting to see them playing the part in the development of unmanned systems.


DJI of course had a large booth, and their new Vice President of Legal and Policy Affairs is Brendan Schulman –, who I met at AUVSI last year.  One of their new products is a UAV with thermal imaging capabilities –  The UAV wasn’t flying, but the thermal imager was available for demonstrations. I understand there are no export restrictions on the airframe or the imaging sensor.  I have written about how the airframes garner the public attention, but they are just a vehicle to transport a payload – and imaging sensors are of major interest.


I attended a presentation about using Search and Rescue UAV as well.  I do not have my notes from that and will write more later, but it was a great success story for the use of UAV.  He did bring up a big issue, which is that one must be careful about using UAV around unknown spills, due to the risk of the static electricity causing an explosion.


It is hard to list all the companies present, but here is a picture of Northrop Grumman’s command center for an unmanned variant of the E-2.


There was a Happy Hour that highlighted a local brewery called Abita and Liquid Robotics’ “Wave Glider.  It was an amazing piece of machinery that has travelled logged 17 hurricanes (and gathered very helpful data from inside them), 27,000+ days at sea, over 1.2 million nm, and over 125 million measurements!  I know it is not an aerial vehicle, but the technology is amazing.


AeroVironment was in attendance and we discussed their Blackwing UAV, which has been ordered by the Navy for Submarine-Launched airborne surveillance.  I’ve worked with the Submarine Force for many years, so it is exciting to see the unmanned air and the submarine environments coming together to increase surveillance capabilities!

Finally, I attended a wonderful discussion session about the use of UAV for agricultural mapping.  We discussed the legal, business, and scientific aspects of using UAV to enhance agricultural output.

On Wednesday night, AUVSI hosted “The Mix,” which was a networking event for the unmanned community but also an opportunity to showcase New Orleans culture throughout the last few centuries.  It was a great event to top off XPONENTIAL 2016.


Again, I look forward to writing more on each of these entities as time permits, but for now I hope you enjoy this brief overview of XPONENTIAL 2016.

To finish up, enjoy a video of what might be a new phenomenon – drones shows replacing fireworks:


Preemption and Navy UAS

Reports indicate that the Senate version of the FAA Reauthorization Act contain language that would have FAA regulations pertaining to UAS preempt all state regulations.  Specifically:

FAA regulations regarding the “design, manufacture, testing, licensing, registration, certification, operation, or maintenance of an unmanned aircraft system, including airspace, altitude, flight paths, equipment or technology requirements, purpose of operations, and pilot, operator, and observer qualifications, training, and certification” would preempt state law.  The House version doesn’t contain this language and the bills still need to be conferenced and reconciled.  I don’t believe the Commerce Clause, the authority for the FAA’s regulation of air space, allows for field preemption and will be discussing this topic in an upcoming law school lecture.  The states still have police powers that they should be allowed to exert – to an extent.

Another alleged sighting by a commercial airliner, this time Aer Lingus at an altitude of 2,300 metres – incredibly high for most UAS.  In regard to that recent “drone strike” against a British Airways plane, a new report states it could have just been a plastic bag.  Who knows what to believe.  I would questions alleged drone sightings, but remain vigilant about ensuring UAS users fly safely.
Finally, in exciting news, the Navy announced that the USS CARL VINSON (CVN 70) will host the first UAS Command Center, as part of the phased implementation of the MQ-XX program.  In this role, UAS will start to take over from the F/A-18 in the roles of refueling and some ISR.  They will also start to equip submarines with the Aerovironment Blackwing!Drone-command-center-set-up-on-US-aircraft-carrier

UAS Plane Strike?

There has been a growing amount of reports of drones near or hitting aircraft.  This one at Heathrow was the most recent.  Whether they are actually UAS or not, we don’t know.  But it is an important safety issue, which I have written about in the past.  Be careful and make sure to check your VFR map to see if you’re in authorized flight zones!

Senate Passes FAA Reauthorization

The Senate passed their version of the FAA Reauthorization Act, after dropping a few contentious amendments.  It is now back to the House.

Key UAS Highlights:

DRONE SAFETY FEATURES – Directs federal agencies to convene industry stakeholders to develop consensus standards for safety features to be built into drones to protect everyone who uses the national airspace and the public.

PRIVACY PROTECTIONS – Affirms that UAS operations should respect personal privacy, consistent with federal, state, and local law, advances drone identification standards to create operator accountability, and promotes adoption of written UAS privacy policies.

ONLINE SAFETY TEST – Promotes safety by requiring all drone users to pass an FAA-approved online aeronautical safety test before flying. This ensures users understand the national airspace system and avoid manned aircraft. Operators of UAS weighing less than 0.55 pounds could be exempted from the testing requirement.

SAFETY RULE ENFORCEMENT – Authorizes funds for FAA initiatives to better enforce drone laws and reduce risks.

AIRPORT PROTECTION – Authorizes FAA pilot programs and funds to intercept drones near airports and critical infrastructure.

OPPORTUNITIES FOR INNOVATION – Fosters innovation by authorizing expanded case by case

exemptions for beyond visual line of sight and nighttime operations, as well as for research and

development or commercial purposes.

FEDERAL & LOCAL RESPONSIBILITIES – Clarifies responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments with respect to the regulation of drones and directs the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to identify remaining gaps in current privacy protections.

UAS TEST SITES – Improves established UAS test sites, first authorized in 2012, by directing research priorities, improving coordination with the FAA, and enhancing protections for proprietary information to encourage more engagement with the private sector.

UAS PACKAGE DELIVERY – Requires the Department of Transportation to establish a UAS delivery air carrier certificate that would allow for package deliveries by UAS.

MICRO DRONE RULES – Directs the FAA to establish operating rules specific to  “micro” drones, which weigh 4.4 lbs. or less.

FOR UNIVERSITY USE – Streamlines the approval process for the safe operation of drones at institutions of higher education.

DRONE NO-FLY ZONES – Establishes a process for the FAA to designate areas where drones may not fly, for example around critical infrastructure, chemical facilities, or amusement parks.

Federal Contracting is Lucrative but Ripe with Danger

In September the Navy will begin operational assessments of the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton at NAS Patuxent River, Maryland.  The Triton has also been undergoing electromagnetic testing to ensure that any one of its systems does not interfere with another.  Triton picture
The Triton is a High Altitude Long Endurance (“HALE”), or more specifically a Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) UAS that builds upon Northrop’s Global Hawk UAS. Besides the US, the Royal Australian Air Force is the only other customer for this MTCR Category I and ITAR-controlled aircraft.

Government contracts like this one are lucrative not only for the prime contractor (in this case, Northrop Grumman),  but also its subcontractors.  Small UAS businesses might not have a shot at even bidding on a contract of this size, but there are still numerous opportunities for small businesses.  These include subcontracting with the prime contractor or its subcontractor, bidding on a small contract, or obtaining a grant through the SBIR (“Small Business Innovation Research” or STTR (“Small Business Technology Transfer”) programs.

Make sure you are ready before you bid on a contract or sub-contract, and in particular make sure you will qualify as “responsible” under the Federal Acquisition Regulations.  And more importantly, do you even know how to find contracts on which you might want to bid?

But perhaps the biggest landmine for government contractor is the False Claims Act (“FCA” – 31 U.S.C. §§ 3729 – 3733).  This law was passed during the Civil War to combat rampant contractor fraud and was amended surrounded both World Wars (also times ripe for fraud).  Fiscal Year 2014 was a record year in FCA monetary recovery, aided in no small part by inside whisleblowers through “Qui Tam” lawsuits.  Two recent court cases are important for contractors.

In May, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter, No. 12-1497 (May 26, 2015) that the Wartime Suspension of Limitations Act (WSLA), which suspends “the running of any statute of limitations applicable to any offense” involving fraud against the Federal Government, only applies to criminal offenses. Civil false claims are now back to six years.

However, this may be a short-lived victory for defense contractors.  The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Virginia and most defense contractors, adopted the “implied certification” theory in United States ex rel. Badr v. Triple Canopy, Inc., No. 13-2101 (4th Cir. Jan. 8, 2015).  This theory states that a claim for payment is false when it rests on “a false representation of compliance with an applicable . . . contractual term.”” Therefore, the certification can be either express of implied.” For example, if you certify compliance to an underlying contract for delivery of a product to the government or your prime contractor, you are certifying compliance with each and every one of the terms of the contract.  If you haven’t seen a government contract, they’re long with many provisions incorporated by reference – including manuals you may have never seen.

United States v. Triple Canopy is headed to the Supreme Court, but in the meantime “implied certification” is increasing the uncertainty and risk associated with many government contracts.  The False Claims Act, and therefore implied certification, affects documents provided to the government in relation to grants as well.