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Thoughts on "drones" and why the FAA is probably right
As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently bought a small 'toy grade' quadcopter and outfitted it with a 720p HD camera (pictured below). These are commonly referred to as 'drones', though the term is rather ambiguous. Any RC aircraft, traditional or new, could technically be called a 'drone' if it is outfitted with a camera and/or flight control technology. After a couple of weeks of flying my quadcopter, I've been soundly bitten by the bug. I see great potential with this type of platform, and have eventual plans to purchase a larger and more stable multi-rotor aircraft in order to capture professionally-usable imagery and video.
Hubsan H107D, with the stock FPV unit removed and replaced with #808 16v2 camera
This is all contingent, however, on the outcome of a critical regulatory issue regarding commercial use of these types of aircraft. The FAA has always considered small RC aircraft as 'model airplanes' that are not subject to regulation as long as they stay within line-of-sight, fly below 400 feet and are not flown over and around people and traffic in public. The exception is if the model aircraft is flown for commercial use, which is forbidden. The commercial use restriction is hindering an entire potential industry of aerial photography applications, ranging from fine art landscape to real estate and beyond. The FAA is concerned about the public safety implications of an explosion in drone usage, and is appealing a recent court ruling that seems to strip them of authority to regulate drones (I won't get into that story here, you can Google it as it's been all over the news).
The more I think about it, and especially after flying a quadcopter myself, I'm coming down more on the side of the FAA. RC aircraft are very easy to lose control of and crash. When it happens, it happens very fast. Granted, the quadcopter I'm practicing with now is a completely manual-control model (more of a toy), which is much more unstable in flight than one with GPS-assisted flight controls. But an evening spent watching Youtube videos of drone flights reveals that crashes and loss-of-control incidents are fairly commonplace, even among the GPS-controlled aircraft.
There are videos of pilots taking their multirotors above 1,000 and even 2,000 feet, so high they are above the clouds, out of sight and clearly in active airspace. There are others being flown along city streets that crash after a prop strike against tree branches or buildings. In one incident, a large multirotor crashes into people in a crowd at a public event, making national news. Another well-publicized video shows a wedding photographer crashing his quadcopter into the groom's face. Another shows a pilot crashing his multicopter into the famous "Welcome to Las Vegas" sign and getting it stuck there, requiring the fire department to retrieve it. Yet another shows a DJI Phantom losing power at high altitude and crashing onto the roof of a house, next to an active road with traffic. There are countless more examples, just do a Youtube search.
Then there are my own experiences. I've crashed my quadcopter dozens of times. I've felt the panic of losing control and/or losing sight of it, not knowing where it was or where it was coming down. While flying out along a rural road (no traffic), I managed to crash into a water-filled ditch that I knew was there and was purposefully avoiding (an incident that incredibly, the quadcopter and camera survived). I've crashed it into myself multiple times, with the propellers breaking my skin and drawing blood on my leg and arm on more than one occasion. And that's just with a tiny 'toy' quadcopter about 4 inches wide with 2-inch plastic props! The bigger multirotors are heavier, with more powerful motors and 6 to 10 inch propellers. A Google search for the keywords "quadcopter propeller injury stitches" will be eye-opening.
The bottom line is that there are many, many ways for things to go wrong when flying an RC aircraft. Crashes aren't just a possibility, they're a repeating inevitability. I think a drone free-for-all scenario is bad for public safety, and that in such a case it's certain we'd see many incidents of damage and injury, and inevitably collisions with 'real' aircraft with potentially disastrous consequences. A full-size aircraft crash caused by a drone flying at 2,000 feet will end it for all of us.
The FAA's traditionally been willing to leave model aircraft exempt from regulations, *as long as* they are flown at low altitudes and away from people, structures and other aircraft. Accordingly, most RC aircraft clubs have traditionally done their flying in rural fields, away from populated areas. Now, we're starting to routinely see drone flights in the middle of cities, neighborhoods, crowds and traffic, and at high altitudes - all being done outside the FAA's long-standing model aircraft guidelines. I think the FAA has a genuinely valid concern with that, and in all honesty, so should we.
That said, I do think the FAA needs to come up with a way to make commercial drones legit, and do it fast (like not at the end of 2015, but in a few months). The benefits of drone photography are clear, and there's no reason that their total commercial use ban should be continued . I think that reasonable regulations (that is, not impossibly expensive or difficult to meet like they are now) should be in place to allow their use. I could envision and support something like the following:
I think the adoption of a 'rule' similar to the cardinal gun safety rules might be in order (Always treat any gun as if it is loaded and could go off at any time, and never point the muzzle at anything you wouldn't want to shoot). The drone/RC aircraft version might be "Always treat a drone as if it could crash at any time, and never fly your drone over/next to anything/anyone you wouldn't want to crash into".
- A permit process that requires:
- The pilot to show proficiency in flying his/her aircraft
- All aircraft parts and control systems in full working order (no known malfunctions)
- Use of only approved models of aircraft and control systems with proven safety record
- No flying over/near live public rights-of-way (unless closed to traffic)
- Flights must stay below 400 feet and away from airports
- No flying over/near people
- No flying over private property without permission
- Full liability insurance coverage for property damage and injuries in the event of a crash
I think that current RC aircraft photography is an exciting technological development that I hope to be a part of. But it's undeniable that there are some serious safety issues that need to be addressed via regulations, and I feel that the FAA is completely justified in their concerns. That said, they need to get on the ball and enact reasonable and permissive regulations much sooner than later.
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