The 'I Relied on the App' issue of Dronin' On 12.16.17
Map from NTSB Aviation Incident Final Report

Hi all –

Time to start wrapping up the year that was. I took a look back at the January 7th issue of Dronin’ On and found this:

Interesting to see that drone coverage from CES is down sharply compared to the hoopla in 2015 and 16. Seems as though the press has moved on to newer, shinier topics like AI.

No doubt that AI has taken off like a shot – here’s the AI 100, a sure sign of a growing bubble. Let’s see what CES holds in 2018.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the NTSB incident report on the drone that crashed into the Black Hawk over Manhattan. A few weeks back I wrote about ‘de-volution’, this week’s hot topic is ‘re-registration.’ I’ll catch you up on DIPP, look at a report on sUAS ops during disasters and offer some insights into what the Department of Interior accomplished in 2017. Plus, some eye candy to stuff your stocking.


Those of you with long memories will remember that a DJI Phantom crashed into a US Army Black Hawk helicopter over Staten Island in September. This week the National Transportation Safety Bureau (NTSB) issued their report:

The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this incident to be: the failure of the sUAS pilot to see and avoid the helicopter due to his intentional flight beyond visual line of sight. Contributing to the incident was the sUAS pilot’s incomplete knowledge of the regulations and safe
operating practices.

The punchline is that with the Phantom over 2.5 miles away at 300’ AGL, the operator had no idea that he had hit anything – in fact he didn’t even know there was a helicopter in the area.

After waiting some 30 minutes for his bird to return home “He assumed it had experienced a malfunction and crashed in the water.”

You might wonder, how did they find this guy?

Manufacturing serial number information inscribed on the motor [recovered from the engine oil cooler fan] enabled sales records provided by the manufacturer to aid in identifying the pilot, as the sUAS was purchased directly from the manufacturer. The remainder of the sUAS was not recovered.

There are a number of important takeaways here relative to recreational pilots and registration. The least important being that registration had nothing to do with finding him – or educating him.

He had registered with the FAA as a model aircraft operator during the time period that the registration requirement was in effect. He had taken no specific sUAS training other than the tutorials that are included in the DJI GO4 operating application (app).

He said that he relied on “the app” to tell him if it was OK to fly. He stated he knew that the aircraft should be operated below 400 ft. When asked about TFRs, he said he did not know about them; he would rely on the app, and it did not give any warnings on the evening of the collision.

When asked, he did not indicate that he was aware of the significance of flying beyond line of sight and again stated that he relied on the app display.

It is truly tempting to dismiss this guy as some bozo who was new to drones. Only he wasn’t:

He said he had “a lot” of experience with sUAS; the data logs provided by him indicated that he had flown 38 flights in the previous 30 days. He had owned the incident sUAS for about one year and owned a Phantom 3 and another Phantom 4 before purchasing the incident sUAS. Five days after the collision, he purchased a Phantom 4 Pro. 

Do the math – this guy had a $7,500+ investment in drones. Stop feeling sorry for him, the retailers and the manufacturer…

There are a couple other points that came out in the NTSB report:

The incident pilot’s tablet did not have a cellular data connection, so the GEO system information regarding the TFRs would not download in real time at the takeoff location. In order for the system to have warned the pilot, he would have had to connect to the internet at some point while the TFR was active; however, at the time of the incident, the TFR system within DJI GEO and displayed to customers through DJI GO4 was not active.

Turns out that DJI had, as is their prerogative as an unregulated private company, shut off the GEO function to address some software glitches that were annoying their customers.

During August 2017, an issue was identified with the GEO function that inadvertently and intermittently rendered the self-unlock feature for certain TFRs ineffective for some users. After a significant number of complaints about the problem, DJI decided to temporarily disable the TFR functionality in GEO until the feature was investigated and confirmed to be working properly.

Therefore, at the time of the incident, no TFR information was available in GEO… There was no notice or advisory to users that this advisory function had
been disabled.

Now I don’t think that this gentleman would have acted any differently had he been notified that the system was off. And I don’t point this out to fault DJI. DJI managed the issue in a way that they believed best served the interests of their customers. Nothing wrong with that except for the slippery concept of reliance from which their EULA thoroughly indemnifies them – but does nothing to protect others in the airspace.

IMO there is going to have to be a much higher degree of coordination with the FAA for anyone proposing to provide navigation and flight information that impacts the safety of the NAS. We cannot grow by relying on “the kindness of strangers,” nor should we be satisfied with anything but the very highest standard of availability.

This is very much the argument that the UK firm Altitude Angels made earlier this month addressing the soon to be mandatory use of safety apps under the new
UK regulations:

The UK Government should also act to ensure that:

  • Only verified suppliers of data to the drone industry can publish so-called ‘safety apps’ and;
  • Such suppliers must meet rigorous, new safety standards and have strict, end-to-end data integrity controls built into their platforms.

Finally, in case you are wondering, the NTSB is “Charged with determining the probable cause of transportation accidents and promoting transportation safety.” It is not involved with bringing charges or recommending prosecution.

There is only one answer here, and as is customary in aviation it is likely to be written in blood. Anyone who wants to fly a drone – commercial or recreational – must as the Brits say – “sit an exam.” They must also register their drone, ideally at the point of purchase. Too bad if that’s inconvenient for the box store. The future of our industry depends on it. The rest of the world already understands it


On Tuesday, December 12th, President Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2018. The US$613B bill funds the military for the coming year. Now all the GOP needs to do is keep the lights on. Continuing resolutions (CRs) are having a devastating effect on our readiness as well as the FAA.

See Navy Begs For Two-Year Budget (Not 2 Weeks) and AIA’s Melcher Hopes Hill Has ‘Moral Courage’ To Fund DoD & Rest Of Budget the key line being “The government needs to be funded in a reliable way in more than just the Department of Defense. We know that because we’ve dealt with FAA, we’ve dealt with NASA
a lot

Because a defense bill is as good a place as any to put civilian aviation regulations, the NDAA instructs the FAA that:

“The rules adopted by the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration in the matter of registration and marking requirements for small unmanned aircraft … that were vacated by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Taylor v. Huerta … shall be restored to effect on the date of enactment of this Act.”

Simple translation, ‘five and fly’ is back. The FAA website is live.

But in what form?

One desperately hopes that the FAA, given the chance at a do-over of a hastily written rule, and the benefit of two years of history and hindsight, might tweak things a bit. Because the original rule was a complete fail – see the NTSB story for the education angle, but also the resulting llack of data about how many drones are out there.

i.e. We need to register both aircraft and pilots and present the data in a consistent, tranparent manner. That would be the best possible census of the industry. And an important step to move beyond the #fakeforecasts which continue to lead to poor decision making and fan unrealistic expectations.

But the biggest reason for an overhaul is that registration was never intended to address the identification issue that has come to dominate the industry since 2015. Let’s not forget that right now Santa’s sleigh is bulging with hundreds of thousands of drones which will be completely, to use a technical term, off the radar. There is definitely room for improvement.

If you want the back story, Betsy Lillian has written a thorough article to mark the occasion, Hobbyist Drone Registration Is Officially Back

Meanwhile, ran Enforcement Needed For Airspace Safety; a video message from Chad Budreau, the AMA’s Public Relations and Government Affairs Director. Clearly the AMA flies in their own parallel universe:

Mounting concerns about the effectiveness of Section 336 are unfounded and misdirected. We agree that the issue of drone flyers who are operating carelessly and recklessly needs to be addressed. These operators should be following Part 107, the alternative for legally flying if you’re not an AMA member. 

Huh? Part 107 is for commercial operations. The FAA made it clear in July 2016 that nobody has to pay $75 to the AMA, or any other amount to any other CBO (community based organization), to fly a drone for recreation. Go find a new
piggy bank.

If you want a 2018 forecast, Morning Transportation reported that:

ABOUT THOSE DRONES: Speak of the devil, DOT is making drone regulations a top priority in 2018 as outstanding issues around such flights continue to percolate. In particular, the department is projecting that FAA will propose a rule governing flights over people by May 2018, when it also hopes to issue an early-stage rulemaking soliciting comment on security issues linked to drone flights (like remote identification).


The Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a meaty story, Nevada Competes in ‘Hotly Contested’ Federal Drone Program.

Paul Anderson, incoming director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), said he and others are working to find partners “from homegrown companies to Fortune 50 corporations” for the state’s project proposal.

He said he could not give details on the proposal, because he does not want to tip off the competition. Anderson said he is expecting “a hotly contested bid process.”

With only five awards guaranteed, we can’t reveal our recipe for the secret sauce,” said Chris Walach, senior director at the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems. The institute acts as a clearinghouse for unmanned aerial system-related business opportunities and works with the GOED.

Walach, who is working to make Nevada “the global location of choice” for the drone industry, said the program provides “a major avenue to advance” Nevada’s UAS industry by giving the national industry greater awareness of Nevada.

Look back a few weeks where I said that the smart people would leverage the test sites. Few have been smarter or more aggressive than Nevada.

While the FAA remains mum on the total number of Lead Applicants, that deadline was extended to 12/15. Meanwhile the number of Interested Parties continued
to climb:

12/12/2017: The Interested Parties List has been updated for an additional 168 entries. The combined total including all previous (11/09/2017 through 12/08/2017) updates, brings the total lines to 2542.”

That’s almost all of them since the application period closed 12/13.


AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) website has an excellent article by Jim Moore, The Art of Disaster Response by Drone: Gathering, Organizing, and Presenting Useful Data Is the Key. The story profiles recent Commercial Drone Alliance Drones for Good Innovator of the Year honoree Justin Adams from Kovar LLC, and Dr. Robin Murphy, founder and leader of Roboticists Without Borders and the co-founder of CRASAR (Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue) which recently morphed into the Humanitarian Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Texas A&M.

This is an important article for those of you interested in SAR, but I think it is equally important for corporate end users and service providers. Because it’s about data and what do to do with it:

In the aftermath of a large-scale natural disaster, drones can gather valuable intelligence, but keeping it organized and telling a story requires careful selection of the systems and software, based on the needs of the incident command system. 

Dr. Murphy puts it in practical terms:

“How to get all those terabytes of data to the right people at the right time?” Murphy said. “What are you flying for? Are you getting the right data? And then, are you getting the right data fast enough to the right people?”

How hard is it? Well consider this:

Adams, who served as the Air Operations Branch Director for Fort Bend County, Texas, during the response to Hurricane Harvey, coordinating both manned and unmanned aircraft operations, said roughly 120 unmanned aircraft flights and many more conducted by manned aircraft had produced 2.7 terabytes of data.

“It took too long to process,” Adams said. “We still don’t have all the data from
that event.”

On his way back from Puerto Rico, Justin texted me that “I did a lot of flying but no one used the data.  I brought up to FEMA GIS and others.  They didn’t want it.   Very sad event where UAS could have been used in many instances.”

There’s lots of work to do to effectively integrate drones into emergency
response operations.


There are very few examples of large scale, national drone deployments. Even fewer that are employee based. That’s what makes the Department of Interior’s FY 2017 DOI Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Mission Summary such an important document.

The other thing that makes it extraordinary is this statement which came in the cover letter from Mark Bathrick, the Director of the Office of Aviation Services – i.e. the DOI air boss responsible for all manned and unmanned operations (and another 2017 Alliance honoree.) Mark wrote:

“This information is posted on our public website in keeping with DOI’s commitment to transparency.”  

How refreshing. Bravo.

In a nutshell, over 200 DOI employees have gotten Part 107s. They conduct a wide range of operations from fire support to mapping to wildlife studies. To date, in 2017 the UAS Division has flown almost 5,000 missions. Mark wrote me that “A conservative estimate for 2018 would be a 50% increase in the number of flights over 2017. That’s the projected increase in the number of new UAS pilots we expect to train this year.”

As the good doctor said, it’s all about getting the right data to the right people.


Thanks to reader Marc H who sent along this stunning video from Outside Magazine, Backcountry Skating in Alaska which “…Highlights the endless opportunities for off-the-grid ice skating in Alaska.” Wow – this has nothing to do with your youth on frozen pond.

dronebelow, an Australian site offers up Aerials Without Parallel from Drone Photographer Aidan Campbell. The video is fun since it intercuts drone footage with more traditional commercial shots. Then scroll down the page to see some other terrific work. This is definitely a site to watch.

Also from dronebelow is The World’s 10 Best Beaches By Drone. The locations are all amazing. The videos are a bit uneven, but should you be experiencing a White Christmas, this might chase those blues away.

Drone Smugglers Caught on Camera from the BBC sets no aesthetic standard. But it is quintessentially British – like something out of The Full Monty. The inmate in his bathrobe going off to retrieve the contraband is quite funny.

Finally, here is The National Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year 2017 Contest Winners. Noteworthy because there is an entire category devoted to Aerials – though not all of them are drone shots. No more GoPro guppy vision – we’ve come a long way.

Except for season’s greetings next week, that’s it for me for 2017. There are lots of wonderful things to do on the next two weekends – Christmas and New Years are for family, friends and adventures. The drones will keep. If you get one, do your best to avoid #christmasdronecrash which grows every year.

Thank you for your support, your encouragement and your comments. And a special thanks to those of you make time to keep me up to date on what you are thinking and doing in your company or agency. It is all much appreciated and highly motivating. I’ll see you in 2018.


Christopher Korody
follow me @dronewriter








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