A Brief Thought About Drones

When I started using a small, flying "quadcopter" the FAA regulations for professional drone use were still being developed. I was able to use my "drone" for non-commercial "hobby" and "recreational" flying. I decided that I would learn all I could and develop my piloting skills so that, when the FAA finally announced new regulations which would better fit my needs, I would already know how to do what I wanted to do.

In August of 2016 my objectives and the FAA regulations finally aligned. Just two days after the FAA started offering an official test for its "Part 107" requirements concerning "Small Unmanned Aerial System" or sUAS pilots, I took the test and passed it. Since then I've been authorized to do professional aerial photography/video work and I continue to fly "for recreation" and to practice my piloting skills.

The FAA's main focus is to keep the National Airspace System as safe as possible while still allowing manned and unmanned aircraft to operate. As a professional aerial video and still photographer, I have a handful of objectives. I want to operate my equipment safely, of course. Since my camera and its memory card are onboard the aircraft, I want that aircraft and its media to come back so that I can deliver the material to my paying clients. I want to avoid any damage to my equipment, especially any damage which would result in lost productivity or costly repairs. And, of course, I want the pictures and video I produce to look great and to properly serve the project for which they are created.

When I work for you, I want you to be a satisfied client. I want to avoid problems. I want to avoid complaints from you or anyone else involved with what I'm doing. A drone is just another tool we can use to put a high-quality camera in a position which will take the pictures we want. It's no more complicated than that. I know that some people want to say that "drones" are dangerous or otherwise controversial. I want to put those people at ease... and to show them great images taken from an amazing, aerial perspective!

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A Longer Thought About Drones

Prior to 2013, the word "drone" probably made you think of military weapons being used somewhere over the Middle East. But two significant things happened at the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 which seemed to change the whole public conversation about drones. They were 1) A report on 60 Minutes in which Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com talked about delivering ordinary parcels to ordinary homes using airborne drones and 2) The introduction of the DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus "quadcopter". The DJI Phantom, which has been available in many versions in recent years, is a small, battery-powered, mostly-plastic "Unmanned Aerial System" used primarily to take pictures and make video recordings. It weighs about 3 pounds. It looks like some kind of toy. And, indeed, you can buy a DJI Phantom at Best Buy or near the toy section at Target (or even at Amazon.com).

As it turned out, Amazon was still working out the details of developing a drone delivery system they could use (and the FAA wasn't going to let them start the service any time soon). But the DJI Phantom was completely ready to go to market by mid-2014 and an eager public was ready to buy Phantoms immediately. And that's about the same time that you probably started seeing news reports about the potential risks drones posed to your safety, your privacy and your general sense of peace and quiet.

The thing which was so attractive about the DJI Phantom was that it came with everything you needed to start flying and taking pictures right out of the box. Furthermore (starting with the 2014 model), it had a built-in, 3-axis, stabilized camera so your video recordings had an amazingly smooth and professional look. But wait (as they say on TV), that's not all! The built-in compass, altimeter and GPS functions meant it was very easy to control the aircraft itself, with almost no practice or formal training. Before the Phantom 2 Vision Plus was available, it was possible to have all of the features it had, but only if you liked to tinker with gadgets and build your own systems. With this new DJI product, anyone could have these great results!

There was just one, major hurdle for professional photographers who wanted to start using this new camera technology to enhance their portfolios. It was, in fact, the FAA and its regulations. You see, if you were merely a "hobby" pilot who flew a radio-controlled "small, Unmanned Aerial System" (or sUAS) purely for your own recreation, you were free to do so (as long as you followed long-standing community guidelines for safety). But if you were going to receive any compensation for such flying (up to and including money) then you were considered a commercial pilot and the FAA had some bad news for you. In order to comply with their regulations, you would first have to obtain a "real" pilot license (allowing you to pilot a full-sized aircraft capable of carrying people) and then you could apply for an "exemption" to use that license to also control an sUAS.

So, for example, if I wanted to take an aerial picture of my farm in the middle of nowhere and look at that picture for my own pleasure, I'd be okay. But if I tried to use that same picture to advertise my business or sell the farm then I'd be in violation of FAA regulations. Would-be professional sUAS pilots were in a tough spot, wondering if they should go through the effort and expense of getting their "real" pilot licenses or just wait for the FAA to come up with new regulations specifically for the soon-to-expand sUAS industry. In fact, the FAA promised they were working on new regulations but they were slow to do so (even missing some of their own deadlines). But, finally, in mid-2016, the FAA announced the long-awaited Part 107 rule. Finally, an ordinary person who didn't want to fly full-sized aircraft had a less-costly pathway to becoming a professional sUAS pilot.

Under the Part 107 regulations, a potential sUAS commercial pilot must learn all of the relevant safety guidelines for using the National Airspace System (NAS). Then that person will have to pay a fee in order to take a test at an FAA-approved testing facility. If it all works out, that person gets an official FAA Airman Certificate (which must be renewed after 2 years) and they can fly an sUAS weighing up to 55 pounds and moving at up to 100 miles per hour. (For the record, my flying camera isn't even close to that weight and can't fly much faster than 30 miles per hour, which is typical of drones used for civilian photography.) The aircraft must stay below certain altitudes, fly during daylight hours, stay away from airports and follow lots of other rules, unless the pilot goes through an official process of applying for and receiving more exemptions.

Going back just a few years, it seemed there were lots of national and local news stories, starting around mid-2014, making a fuss about the potential dangers and the general annoyance factor associated with small "drones" like the DJI Phantom. To me, it was pretty obvious that these stories were based on hysteria and sensationalism. But that didn't stop the U.S. National Park Service from banning all "drone" flights in our National Parks, period! In some other areas managed by the federal government, these flights are allowed on a case-by-case basis with permission (and/or official filming permits). If you ask me, there's little evidence to support the need for such heavy-handed restrictions. The farther we get beyond 2014 the more obvious it is that sUAS usage has not, in fact, had significant impact on our safety, our privacy nor our general sense of peace and quiet, both near federally-controlled land and, well, everywhere else. Nevertheless, I'm compelled to comply rather than face fines or other penalties. And I have to admit that, yes, some careless person from the Netherlands did crash a DJI Phantom into a hot spring at Yellowstone (after the drone ban was already in place). And someone probably frightened a herd of mountain goats somewhere too. I'm not personally interested in crashing my camera into delicate eco-systems or harassing wildlife but I get to receive a kind of punishment for what others did. Welcome to civilization.

Meanwhile, there are still plenty of situations where I can record aerial video and take aerial still photos for clients as a Part 107 professional. Working together, we can make sure that what we want to do is safe and complies with applicable regulations. With any luck, our only worry will be whether the weather will cooperate! I look forward to hearing from you.

-Greg W. Anderson
Huntsville, Utah

ph: 801-710-7417
greg@smoothriver.com

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