The Drone Revolution

Contents

Introduction

Change is inevitable. From the industrial revolution to the invention of the internet, these changes are coming faster and having greater impact than ever before.  We hardly have time to focus before another change comes along to change everything again. We are unable to stop and form a clear enough picture of life as we know it today, let alone prepare ourselves for the new evolutionary routes our technology is already plotting for us. This is the landscape where my story begins. The story of how a hobby is morphing into a new industry.

Due to the ferocious change in this technology, the public has yet to realize the impact this new industry will have on our world. The innovations coming could be so revolutionary that they could change the world in the same way the internet did, or air travel or even interchangeable parts.

This hobby started out as model airplane flying. The hobbyist would control small planes with 2 or more wires attached to the plane with a handle at the other end. The only option available was moving the plane up or down while the plane flew in a circle around the hobbyist. The invention of radio control was quickly applied to free flight models in 1937 and small gasoline engines were being used before that.

In the 21st century, two important improvements appeared. Light weight brushless motors and light weight lithium polymer batteries, combined, they provide a more powerful system than the dirty gasoline engines used for eons.

The next big change in technology happened almost overnight, video cameras starting getting much better. They also got smaller and cheaper. We started seeing videos of people skiing and surfing from up close all over TV. The next change was obvious; add wireless and the ability to see these events as they were happening.

When these cameras got small enough and light enough, someone thought it would be cool to attach one to his remote control model aircraft and a whole new world opened up. Now we had the drone. Yes drone. It’s the use of this word that has caused so much confusion to this former unnoticed world. Previously, we participated in a hobby called first person view (FPV). This was a way to identify the technique of flying our camera equipped RC airplanes and rotorcraft.

Now that the public is becoming more aware of these activities, and the pilots have reached out to the media to combat the negative stigma and seek careers in this new industry. We have been forced to adopt the term “drone”. I understand the resistance; yes I am an FPV pilot.  I realize that resistance is futile and it has gotten us nowhere. So, for the purpose of this article, I now declare I am a civilian drone pilot.

I despise using this word, but I must embrace it in order to reach my intended audience. This issue is a direct result of the speed at which this Revolution is progressing. I want to speak the language that reaches the widest possible audience, so I will use it in the title as well. The public knows them as drones, but what is a drone and why are they so important to our future?

What is a Drone?

The dictionary defines the word drone when used as a noun as the following;

  • The male of the honeybee and other bees, stingless and making no honey. 
  • An unmanned aircraft or ship that can navigate autonomously, without human control or beyond line of sight: the GPS of a U.S. spy drone.
    • b. (loosely) any unmanned aircraft or ship that is guided remotely: a radio-controlled drone.
  • A person who lives on the labor of others; parasitic loafer.
  • A drudge.

I asked a few folks this question, “what is a drone” to get an idea of what the public’s view or understanding of a drone is. I think the results speak for themselves.

Baby Boomers:

Don – “They are used by the military for spying and such, but they can also be a toy helicopters with a camera on it. I wouldn’t call a remote ground vehicle a drone, it has to fly

Robin – “Drones came from the old days when they would convert old aircraft to remote control and turn them into targets. Target drones they were called

Craig – “I think of grammar school biology

Generation Xers & Millennials:

Alexis – “I think of Sky Net” (from the Terminator movies)

Doug – “Something to bring me a beer” (from recent media commercials)

Matt – “When I hear the word drone I think of UAV’s, like they use in the military

Mikkel – “Unmanned semi-autonomous Flying Objects

Shawn – “It’s an unmanned aerial platform that is assigned a mission”

FPV pilots:

Pilot 1 – “DJI F450, Blade 350QX, DJI Phantom” (all available to civilians at a low cost)

Pilot 2 – “Predator MQ-1” (a deadly military strike drone)

Pilot 3 - “A drone is a remotely autonomous robot that's capable of taking a series of instructions without real time/controlled human intervention.”

Using the word “Drone” to identify a model airplane is like using the word vehicle to identify a bicycle. The term drone is much too broad to use in any constructive way when talking about the nuances of pilotless aircraft and their use in the civilian airspace. As you can see from my results, each and every person I asked has a different definition and perspective concerning the word drone.

Chris Jones teaching his young daughter to fly a drone.

Evolution of the Drone Hobby

Hobbyists were literally handed the ingredients to build fully autonomous drones in their garages over a decade ago, but recent improvements have allowed accessories to become small, lightweight, cheap and viable. As I stated before the cost of RC flight dropped dramatically with new battery and motor technology spurred by the green age. This allowed backyard engineers and makers to purchase piles of low cost parts for R&D or other purposes.  Nitro or combustion engines are now considered dirty and less efficient than electric power. Electric has become the future it has always promised to be and systems, which can push a foam RC airplane to 100mph with ease, can be had for less than $50.

The wireless security and video baby monitoring systems gave us the ability to view what the drone sees from a screen or even immersive video goggles while comfortably sitting on the ground. Small lightweight HD cameras like the GoPro, Mobius and Contour make it possible to record high definition video from the drone itself.

The hardware in your cell phone contains everything needed to create a fully functional autopilot or wireless telemetry system. All that is needed is the autopilot software itself, the logic which actually flies the craft. The gyros, accelerometers and GPS positioning chips are made so small and cheap now; they can fit into nearly any remote controlled vehicle.

The antennas were some of the most interesting and innovative things to come out of the drone hobby movement. Some antenna designs are even being adopted by other long established industries! Alex (alias: IBCrazy) developed some outstanding multipath signal rejection omnidirectional antennas that allow me the freedom to fly at all angles. Using HAM radio knowledge he designed new antennas made specifically for drone flight purposes.

The civilian drone industry, which I will argue has been around since 2008, is and has been producing products that benefit other industries.  Even the military is adopting technology that was developed in the international FPV communities.

Types of Drones

Currently there are two types of civilian drones, and these are the terms we use to identify them. Each breaks down into many sub designs that I will not burden you with. The major difference between the two types is that one can stop and hover in place while the other must maintain forward movement to stay in the air. One has wings that spin on a shaft the other has wings that are fixed in place, simple, right?

Fixed-wing – This is a traditional airplane or flying wing that requires forward movement to stay aloft. These can be older style, gas powered, balsa wood RC airplanes, all the way down to tiny RC micro models with cameras onboard. Drone pilots typically pick designs with pusher propellers to keep them out of the camera’s view. Fixed-wing civilian drones are capable of flying great distances for long periods of time. Some have autonomous flight features and a failsafe function that will fly the aircraft back to the originating position in case control or video signal is lost. The current distance record is farther than 100km and duration dependent upon the pilot’s stamina. A few of these have already been dropped from high altitude weather balloons and flown back to earth remotely.

Rotorcraft (Rotary-wing) – This includes helicopters and multi-rotors, any craft that flies via rotating wings. Multi-rotors are a new form of helicopter that capitalize on the new technology found in cell phones in order to fly. They have three to eight propellers in a myriad of configurations, typically each on its own motor and speed controller. They are flown by a small flight controller or computer that changes the speed of those propellers hundreds of times a second. Multi-rotors “grew-up” with drone technology and are commonly mistaken as drones even when they are flown in the tradition manner (by looking at it). Helicopters and multi-rotor drones already have the components onboard for autonomous flight. Most feature GPS position hold and hover capabilities along with failsafe modes that fly the craft back to the originating position and even land it autonomously.

These civilian systems are becoming more reliable and standardized. Companies are now making ready to fly multi-rotor drones with live video feeds for well under $1000 that will soon be $100.

The DJI Phantom, the most popular turn-key drone available today.

Why The Fear?

By definition, all remote controlled (RC) airplanes and helicopters are drones. The toy helicopter flying in the local park is as much a drone as the MQ-1 Predator or the MQ-9 Reaper used in the Middle East.

For most people, the word brings up visions of killing and destruction orchestrated by one or more unseen individuals, possible by technology that has changed the face of warfare in the last decade. These drones have removed the face from warfare. This is more unsettling for older people than the younger generations that have been exposed to toys and electronic devices.  While older generations harbor fear and anxiety because they see another big change that technology has brought to their world, young people grew up seeing drone strikes in their world and wonder what other benefits can be created with ever changing technology. They ask, “What can a drone do for me?” while older people may ask “What do you need that for?”

New ideas and change have always brought fear and anger, we are human. The generations before us had their revolutions too. The Baby boomers changed the world, ended a war, created a new culture, and morphed American politics all to the revolutionary sound of the Beatles.

Who am I?

I am hardly an expert on this subject, but I’ll have to do for now. I believe I know enough to understand the facts and I have the confidence to state them.  There is a small group of people who I regard as experts on the subject, but only a couple live in the US. We simply lack credible and complete subject matter experts on the subject of civilian drones. This hobby, as it stands today, is all so new to everyone that the technology stays ahead of our ability to grasp and utilize it.  

I have been interested in flight all my life and I have built and flown models of all kinds.  We now have inexpensive components that were previously unavailable, such as small brushless motors, and lithium polymer batteries. These have helped make RC flight accessible and easy for anyone with some foam and a hot glue gun. We now have more garage innovators and self-made aeronautical engineers than we know what to do with. Most of them are not old enough to buy a beer yet. These young enthusiasts just tinkered around with this new technology, accidently came up with drones.

I am still debating the value of this chapter; it remains because of its details and not its main point. I want to stress that I fly drones for fun, not for profit or for spying. I fly simply because I love flight. Like most humans, I dream of flying with the birds and these drones are probably as close as I’ll ever get. They allow me to be immersed in the experience of flight. That is revolutionary to me, like the surveyors who 1st entered Yosemite looking for gold and returned empty handed describing a different kind of richness. The revolutionary thought to preserve such land was born and the world is now covered with natural preserves and National Parks. Everyone should get a chance to experience flight and I suspect in the near future, everyone will, thanks to drones.

I fly because I like to do loops and swoops and nothing more. I love the challenge and puzzle of building these craft. I enjoy learning all the technical aspects and I love the feeling of accomplishment when everything goes right.  It’s like many hobbies in that sense, except this hobby generates enough passion that it has become an industry and now a revolution.

A on-board ride with the author.

I think of some drones, such as multi-rotors that can hover in place, as flying cameras. Not for spying or planning missile attacks, but for capturing the perfect light off white granite during a sunset. I use my drones for fun, and I even wear a T-shirt around town that says: “Make Drones, Not War!”

Here is where the typical author may ask for your trust and understanding on the subject and provide a disclaimer for any information past this point. I will give you a contrasting analogy instead, something to think about before judging the owner of any drone or this author.

The drone is just a tool, like a hammer or an automobile. It’s only as dangerous and malicious as the person wielding it. We do not regularly question each other’s intent when we use deadly devices like automobiles and hammers. I believe in the future, the same will be true for drones.

Why are Drones so Important to our future?

Drones are the next big leap in solving problems. Like the spear, arrow and bullet they extend the reach of our arms and power over the world around us. Unlike these tools, drones not only deliver blows as weapons, but they can investigate, search, scan, reveal, rescue, display, excite, teach, learn, deliver and save lives! Currently drones suffer from an unjustified stigma. The public fears the introduction of civilian drones for some valid reasons, but there are so many good things to come from them, it outweighs the fear.

I am reminded of the helicopter crash near the space needle recently. Imagine if the local News media had been using a drone instead to film the traffic that day. Then two men would still be alive and a family spared grief. It’s easy to think of so many things that drones can do faster, better, cheaper and safer.

In the future, helicopters used for observation or capturing video will no longer exist. The costs alone would be enough of a reason to switch 100% to drones. The helicopter will be used only for heavy duty jobs such as people or cargo delivery. Even some of those can be done by larger drones. In the future, all aircraft of war could be drones.  Whether remotely guided or automated, drones will fight in all of America’s future wars.

Why do I say this? Because we can do all that right now.

We could ground all manned helicopter services right now and successfully fill the need with drones. We could switch all areal surveying, of any kind over to drones right now. That’s an easy one, the US military did that long ago.

The Threat

As we already know, drones can also do great harm. In the future, drone operations will have to be limited in some way; there is just no way around that fact. Every single civilian drone in the US airspace right now (which there are millions flying right now unregulated) are all capable of not only causing deliberate harm but also aiming that harm almost surgically.

One reason no one has done this yet might be because the FPV community that invented these craft were not ill intended. In fact it was an international effort that crosses all political and religious lines this world has to offer and frankly the cooperation of hobbyists in the spirit of flight should be recognized. They wanted the experience of immersed flight and they have reached that goal. They have worked for years to build their own DIY craft and they have failed enough times to know what not to do.

Recently, companies like DJI and Blade have started selling ready-to-fly (turn-key) multi-rotor craft. Some even come with wireless cameras already installed. The public now has immediate access to drones that they might not be prepared to operate.

I’ve been hoping the government was way ahead of me here, but based on the FAA’s failure to embrace and regulate drones up to his point, I am not very confident. Due to the dollar signs involved with any new industry I believe lobbyists from all sides are racing to the FAA, some from the long established and now threatened aviation industry and some from the new startups with immense potential. The list of interested parties grows larger by the day, there’s the traditional RC modelers, educators, police, fire and land managers. There is not one organization that represents the long established and experienced FPV hobby community, its cohesion and progress will cease under regulations and without representation. Our hobby will be sold back to us in the form of permits and insurance, profit for those who are at the negotiation table right now. This is the American way.

The Need for Education!

We need to begin having educated and sensible public discussions about how drones will be integrated into our societies ASAP. The FAA is outdated and staffed with dinosaurs and needs to be completely reinvented. Flight as we know it has already changed without them.

I suggest that there are more RC vehicles flying in the air today than there are full size regulated aircraft. Not just simply flying around, but flying great distances at great heights for extended amounts of time. And most are filming in HD video the entire time. They are sharing the air place with full size airplanes, some with hundreds of souls on board, and there’s never been an incident. Statistically, that’s a pretty good record; in fact it’s a perfect record.

I'm sure by now you have been exposed to at least one piece of media concerning drones, or you have seen one in person. Some of this exposure might have been negative and some positive, but neither was the fault of the drone. Drones are just a tool, a very important, subjective and controversial tool, but none-the-less a very powerful tool.

If we educate ourselves correctly by seeking those with the knowledge and experience to guide us, then our future can be safe and bright. But if we allow this revolution to be controlled by corporations seeking profit and we allow unqualified regulation bodies who don't have the insight needed to make governance decision, then we will lose one of the greatest opportunities of our lifetime, the opportunity to learn from the community that invented the tool and already use it safetly. The regulation of the future will be ineffective without education; people still do whatever the hell they want to in the name of freedom. This is America after all.

Whether you are interested in drones or not, they will affect your future. How they do is up to all of us. Let’s seek those who have the experience and wisdom from operating drones to help integrate them safely.

I suspect in the future drone operators will be licensed, just like automobile operators. I hope the requirements or policy for such licensing is guided by the civilian community not corporations, the military or the government. The guys that wrote the book and invented the toy, they have more time in the civilian airspace than anyone else. They are also this country’s people, with rights and freedoms to progress and enjoy their hobby. Our government is supposed to serve its people, this is an important enough subject to demand more from our government than what we are currently getting.

 Civilian drone pilots teaching future drone pilots.

What Now?

If we are to govern drone use and integrate them into the national airspace we will need experts beyond the military or universities, we will need those 13 year old garage tinkers who have already been doing it for the last few years. They are the drone pilots, regulators and designers of the future. We need to quickly gain experience working with and using these new tools in the civilian environment. We need search-and-rescue teams to be out pilot/beta testing new techniques and operations with drones. This will directly affect society now and save lives, why are we not doing it already? Just lastweek, Kenya reported drones reduced poaching by a remarkable 96 percent in one year using drones. To be honest, the US is falling far behind in civilian drone experience, governance, policy and use because it is crippled by bureaucracy and capitalism.

We need to have an educated common sense discussion in the public arena, open doors. The FAA regulations have been stalled and the behind-the-scenes list of lobbyists and stake holders grows larger each and every day. They continue to try and speed the process and shut out the public, while our perfect record goes unchallenged. Search and rescue operations are grounded while hobbyists can fly for fun? It makes no sense. I see footage on TV every day, even local commercials, all of it illegal.

When revolutions happen, chaos happens and everything suffers because of it. We simply do not even know enough about this revolution yet to even govern ourselves. The drone is not the problem, we are the problem. The drone is just a tool and everyone should stop acting like one, starting with the FAA.

I propose the following definition of drone – A remotely controlled or autonomously controlled vehicle that is able to gather data or interact with its environment on behalf of a user.

 

By: Sean Wendland (Squishy)

Civilian Drone Pilot / Instructional Designer

Founder of Sacramento Area Parkflyers  

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