The burgeoning emergence of highly-capable consumer cameras combined with affordable and ready-to-fly (RTF) sUAS has empowered anyone with an interest to become an aerial photographer. The addition of youtube, geotagging, smartphones, and social networks has created a vast network of aerial video and imagery, available to anyone with an internet connection. Drone Analyst posted a great article about the Democratization of Aerial Photography highlighting this phenomenon.
Enabled by the democratization, the applications of UAS are endless. Those that receive the most attention are listed below:
- High Resolution Aerial Survey and Mapping
Being that I’ve been a photogrammetry and remote sensing professional for over 5 years, this area is of particular interest to me. The aerial survey industry has long relied on manned aircraft or satellites to acquire geospatial data. Professionals have a proven track record of manufacturing products with high levels of quality and accuracy. Three inch image resolution is the normal standard of high resolution imagery by most firms. Other sensors like LiDAR, synthetic aperture radar, and hyperspectural imagery are common acquisition platforms.
Small UAS have the potential to marginalize the current aerial survey and mapping industry. Their ability to fly low, cheap, and efficient could revolutionize the way geospatial data is collected in the next 2-5 years. Obtaining imagery with low-cost cameras/sensors at centimeter resolution is an absolute a reality at this time. What is lacking, however, is the proven quality and accuracy of these products compared to traditional industry counterparts.
Utility companies are common clients for aerial survey firms. Corridor mapping is highly effective at collecting an inventory of utility infrastructure. SUAS are perfect for this application because of their ability to collect high-resolution imagery or LiDAR in only a few flight lines.
- Precision Agriculture
There is a lot of buzz around using sUAS for vegetation analysis. This is achieved by acquiring imagery in the near-infrared (NIR) spectrum and then applying the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI). Virtually any point-and-shoot can be converted to sense NIR (although quality is still unproven). The thinking around the UAS community is that agriculture will be the biggest market for NIR equipped sUAS. NDVI maps of ag fields would empower farmers to see exactly which fields are healthy and which are not. The Daily Beast wrote a great article about how drones could soon be ubiquitous to American farms.
- Emergency Services
Search and rescue efforts throughout the world have already benefited from UAS. They are great detectors when equipped with thermal sensors. Unmanned aircraft have been used to detect and fight forest fires, and provide aid during flash floods. Whether used by public or private operators, UAS have already established their beneficial value when emergencies occur.
One of the most obvious and controversial applications is journalism. It’s bad enough that the paparazzi apologetically harass celebrities on foot. Empowering them to shoot above someones private property is a whole different story. These journalism tactics strike the fear of “big brother” in many Americans.
There have been positive results to using drones for journalism, however. UAS have allowed film makers to obtain amazing aerial shots for movies, TV shows, and documentaries. The makers of the “Flying-CAM Sarah” were recently honored by the Academy of Motion Pictures for it’s work in movies like “Skyfall,” “Oblivion,” and “Prisoners.”
- Site Inspection
Rather than higher an expensive helicopter or manned aircraft, construction managers are increasingly turning to UAS technology. They are safer, cheaper, and provide all of the information from a bird’s-eye-view that a site manager would want to know. And they enable managers to easily monitor the progress of a site throughout the project’s life cycle.
Quarry’s and landfills also benefit greatly from sUAS. 3D models can provide an accurate inventory of stockpiles and calculations of material volumes are easily attainable using sUAS acquired imagery.
- Real Estate
Real estate is quickly becoming one of the most widely reported applications of UAS. “One 57,” Manhattan’s newest state-of-the-art condominium high-rise, used UAS as an incredibly effective marketing tool by capturing what views would look like on different floors. This enabled potential customers the opportunity to “see” what their view would be before the construction was even finished.
Some UAS operators are making legitimate profits by selling aerial videography services to real estate companies. Even though illegal, news stations from around the country are reporting on this as if it’s ok.
- Delivery Service
One of my favorite videos is from Domino’s in the U.K. of a drone delivering a pizza. The concept seemed far fetched initially, but in a matter months, there were videos of other companies jumping on the drone delivery bandwagon.
Amazon made the most publicized announcement when it aired a “60 Minutes” piece about future UAS delivery plans. Like many new ideas, there has been criticism and skepticism, but in the long run, I believe Amazon’s “Prime Air” will revolution parcel delivery.
2:40 in. Courtesy of PBS.
Almost daily, I get asked “are drones illegal?” Short answer – No. The technology is obviously moving at a breakneck pace, applications are abundant and continue to grow, and the potential for big business in the United States is evident. Manufacturing start-up firms are popping up all over the country and have every legal right to make and sell as many UAS to as many customers as they please.
As of today, I would define the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) current policies/regulations for UAS as muddled and directionless. The only certainty is that UAS are not allowed for commercial purposes under any circumstance. The FAA’s UAS frequent questions website clearly defines this:Q: “Can I fly a UAS under a COA or experimental certificate for commercial purposes?” A: “No. Currently, there are no means to obtain an authorization for commercial UAS operations in the National Air Space (NAS).”
There are three basic categories of UAS operates defined by the FAA and how they can operate a UAS:
- Public entities such as local governments, police departments, universities, etc. Public aircraft must obtain a Certificates of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA for approval to operate. This is a lengthy/drawn out process that takes months to materialize. In 2012, the number of COAs requested was 257. By the end of February 2013, 327 COAs had been requested in just 2 months.
- Civil operators and private industry. Civilian operators do not have to obtain a COA. They do, however, need approval to operate by obtaining a Special Airworthiness Certificate (SAC) from the FAA. I had an email conversation with Thomas Rampulla, the FAA’s legality specialist, about the necessary steps for SAC obtainment. Although all 11 steps are rather cumbersome, they are achievable with effort. The one step that stands out though, is the necessary requirement of “being a certified pilot regardless of aircraft size or operating altitude.” This is a great barrier since 99.9% of people interested in operating UAS are not certified pilots. Furthermore, I stated toMr. Rampulla that the aircraft I wanted to operate weighed less than 3 lbs and posed little to no danger to the public. He balked at my statement, said it didn’t matter, and said that I needed to be a certified pilot no matter what. Needless to say, this was a very frustrating conversation.
- Hobbyist make up the third category of UAS operators. Any person operating a UAS for recreation or sport falls into the hobbyist category. Hobbyist are to abide by the 1981 document AC 91-57. Hobbyists are exempt from any certification or approval from the FAA and AC 91-57 is their only authority. Basic standards of AC 91-57 are: operation away from populated areas, maximum flying height of 400 ft above ground level, remain within line-of-sight, vehicle must be <55 bls.
To sum things up, it is very difficult to get proper clearance from the FAA if you want to fly for any reason other than recreational use. My initial reason for contacting Mr. Rampulla was to inquire about using my IRIS for an R&D at Towill. I was quickly shot-down by him with little to no explanation as to why a 3 lb UAS needed a certified pilot for R&D but not for hobby use. As I’ve come to learn, most UAS operators scoff at the FAA and its inability to write sensible legislation. This leaves most UAS operates in a middle limbo-zone where they fly small UAS (sUAS) under hobbyist guidelines, but are doing work and research far beyond anything that would be considered recreational. At the same time, the FAA would have a hard time prosecuting these folks because they ultimately could come back and tell a judge that they are flying for the “fun of it.” In this 2007 document, the FAA acknowledged the necessity of having another class of UAS operators who would fall into this limbo category. Seven years later, nevertheless, UAS technology has exploded at a momentous rate, and the FAA has done absolutely nothing.
Everything is supposed to change in September 2015 when the FAA is mandated to have it’s UAS rule-book completed. Hopefully. There have been numerous delays to progress already, however, even though the FAA has acknowledged the problem. For the sake of this multi-billion dollar industry, let’s pray they get their shit together on time.