Holiday 2014 could easily be hailed as the “season of the drone” as children (and likely many adults) unwrapped nearly a million of these minute aerial vehicles. Personal unmanned aircraft systems — UAS or drones — are small, remote-controlled aircraft commonly outfitted with cameras to capture images and video from hundreds of feet in the air. And though these gadgets offer a litany of opportunities for fun and profit, there are plenty of gotchas waiting in the wings. And the jury is still out on how FAA regulations will eventually shake out for commercial use.
Investigation into the personal drone market will uncover toys and professional gear in a range of $70 to $7000. Very popular are the quad- and octo-copter configurations that marry four or eight rotors together in a plastic housing. On the bottom of these ultra-lightweight vehicles you’ll either find a built-in camera or a mounting bracket to install your own camera. The GoPro Hero is a popular adventure camera well-suited to be hitched to a drone. And once you’ve attached a high-resolution camera to a remote-controlled mini-helicopter that can hover at perfect X,Y,Z coordinates, the applications to industry are vast.
My first brush with enterprise adoption came in late 2013 when a client showed off a large petroleum site study captured entirely via drone cameras. The prospect was fascinating: all the height, scope and resolution of a standard helicopter/photographer combo without the costly helicopter and photographer! (I don’t know any helicopter pilots, but apologies to my photographer friends.)
Ag readers may take particular interest in UAS technologies tailored for their industry. Precision Hawk (precisionhawk.com) is one platform that includes the capture of both visible and non-visible frequencies. Their fixed-wing drone includes a myriad of specialized on-board sensors including thermal infrared, multispectral, hyper-spectral, and LiDAR. All told, these sensors can perform amazing feats across large swaths of land: plant and livestock counting, plant health measurement, water quality assessment, vegetation index calculation, moisture status and even early stress detection.
But by no means are drones a panacea; privacy and safety are chief concerns. From next-door neighbors turning into accidental (or not-so-accidental) peeping toms to full-fledged big brother fears, the idea that a silent, camera-laden aircraft could sweep down from the clouds to hover at your window spooks even the most fervent technology junkie. And while many individuals are capable of safely piloting their drones and landing them responsibly, there is no shortage of folks crashing them into buildings, highways and unsuspecting bystanders. (For a sense of how fast you can trash $2K worth of gear, search YouTube for “drone crash”.)
The FAA sees the most potential for disaster when drones wander into national airspace. Presently the administration applies separate classifications for personal vs. commercial drone usage. Recreational use below 400 ft. is covered under the same regulations as model aircraft; however, commercial operation requires obtaining a “Special Airworthiness Certificate” before being issued your Civil UAS permit. As of 2015, only seven of these permits have been granted in the U.S. — not a deeply reassuring number. The FAA vowed to release a set of updated drone policies, but so far the rules remain squidgy. Check out knowbeforeyoufly.org for the most current information.
On the whole, drone technology promises a new horizon of potential for how we may observe and quantify our world. But the absence of clear legal policy muddies the water. With any luck the 2015 holidays will go down as the “season of the drone regulations.”