The 'Tower' issue of Dronin' On 01.26.19We cannot even calculate the level of risk currently at play, nor predict the point at which the entire system will break. It is unprecedented.

Hi all –

The ‘Tower’ issue is dedicated to the people in the air and on the ground who make the NAS work. It’s been surreal writing whilst watching the shutdown come to an end. So apologies for #oldnews, but it’s not over yet.

Like others, there is little doubt in my mind that the threat to aviation safety, followed by closing La Guardia together with hundreds of delayed flights, outran simple decency to become the tipping point that no politician could ignore.

I thought that this comment from Republican strategist Rick Tyler on MSNBC discussing the shutdown Thursday got to the heart of it. “What he’s betting against national security is that nothing goes wrong in the aviation industry.” If you admire skillful flensing, give it a look.

I will leave it to FBI Director Christopher Wray to express our outrage, and to US Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Karl Schultz to express our gratitude and continued supportThese men are people who care about people. Theirs is the kind of leadership that has made America great for a very long time.

With that temporarily behind us, unidentified flying objects come to the fore – this time in Newark. Then the FAA, Other Conversations, Nu Tech, Coming Attractions and Eye Candy.


Newark area sectional
Newark area sectional – courtesy – click to view

All of this makes the efficient handling of the Newark incident all the
more admirable.

The drones were sighted over Teterboro Airport (TEB), a general aviation relief airport owned and managed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It is a very busy part of the world, some 20 miles from Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) and LaGuardia (LGA) and 28 miles from JFK.

The news went national very quickly. NYT described the sequence of events as:

At about 5 p.m., the Federal Aviation Administration received two reports from flights headed to Newark that they had spotted a drone about 3,500 feet (1,000 meters) over nearby Teterboro Airport. The administration said in a statement that arriving flights were held briefly but resumed after no further sightings
were reported.

news report of drones near Newark
screen grab CBS Evening News – click to view

Here’s the way that CBS News reported it. It’s a file footage “UAS Hall of Shame.” Unfortunately, there is more and more to choose from.

Fox aired a fine demonstration of how to scare the flying public with a partly truth and partly fiction report, Recent Drone Scares Reveal How Unequipped Airports Are to Counter Possible Threats.

If you enjoy podcasts, here’s a short bit from The Economist, appropriately enough called Droning On, which does a much better job of covering the state of play in CUAS. Thanks to reader Jared B for the find.

Morning Transportation reported that the new House Chair wasted no time:

DEMS RESPOND TO DRONE INCIDENT: House Transportation Chairman Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) seized on the drone sightings that halted traffic at Newark Liberty International Airport briefly this week to push the FAA to complete drone collision testing. “Unfortunately, the Trump Shutdown is impacting the FAA’s implementation of provisions enacted as part of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which will save lives and keep our skies safe. As Chairman, I intend to keep the pressure on the FAA to complete its work.”

Emphasis mine. I am guessing that the report he mentioned is the follow on from the ASSURE 2016-17 UAS Airborne Collision Severity Final Report.

Now we get to an all too familiar discussion – what exactly did the pilot see?

Like most of you I fly in the back, so to get some insight I checked with a colleague that most of you know, Mike Blades, Research Director and Growth Consultant at Frost & Sullivan. For 16 years, Mike spent thousands of hours in the left seat of KC-135s, AWACS, and Lears flying missions around the world. I asked him, could one see a drone? His answer speaks to the challenge:

Anyone who says you couldn’t tell if a drone zoomed by you is wrong. I saw MANY times, in the pattern or on final, birds fly by or dive away (birds instinctively dive toward the ground when approached by another in flight threat) and I could clearly see it was a bird. I believe it is difficult to distinguish a drone, especially white ones like phantoms — but the black ones and the ones with orange (like the H520) would be identifiable at least some of the time — especially since they wouldn’t be diving away from you. You’d have to be looking directly at it (and would be easier if it’s flying along your same vector) and you probably wouldn’t be able to positively identify a drone a majority of the time — but it is by no means impossible.  Also, it’s more likely in a crew aircraft where the pilot not flying is supposed to be clearing with eyes outside the cockpit. [my emphasis]

Which brings us to this WaPo article, Did a Pair of Drones Interfere With Flights at Newark Airport, or Was It Something Else?

As you might expect DJI VP Policy Brendan Schulman is at the top of every reporter’s call list. Here is @dronelaws tweet:

Two drones at once. In the dark. At 3,500 feet altitude. It’s very cold outside, below freezing; not the kind of weather for flying drones. This is just not credible.

In the forums, people have pointed to the factory Max AGL limit sets (which can be defeated,) and the fact that LiPos fail in that kind of cold.

I understand the job and appreciate the advocacy. It’s a challenging thing to invent the future while constantly defending it. But I put great stock in the bell curve – which tells me that even if the majority of reports are wrong, there are also times when people are seeing drones where they shouldn’t be.

This conclusion is supported by a growing body of evidence from a number of CUAS vendors (including DJI) that makes it clear that “they are among us.” The fact is, that a great deal more drone activity takes place on a daily basis than anyone realizes or wants to talk about.

I don’t think trying to discredit every report is a winning or a sustainable strategy. It’s time for a new approach.

radar plot of Newark (EWR)
screen grab courtesy VASAviation – click to watch

Part of the challenge is that it’s hard to have a sense for what’s actually happening on the flight deck. These links will give you a chance to see for yourself. To watch and listen to gain a deeper understanding of just how much goes into every flight – and to see what happens when something disrupts the system.

Per Mike, we have two pairs of eyes in the cockpit of a Southwest and a United flight, both inbound to EWR. According to, both aircraft were doing ~250kts.

The drone(s) were reported at 3,500’ about 1644EST. That’s right before sunset which was at 1703. In the cockpit, the sun was low on the horizon to the right. Perhaps it helped to light the drone(s,) which were reported off the right wing by both planes. The moon did not rise until 2016.

Listen to the discussion between the aircraft and the tower here. The first pilot sees something, the second pilot is sure. And you will be amazed at the ballet between ATC and the pilots.

cockpit footage of A380 on approach to SFO
screen grab – – click to watch

Next, hop in the cockpit for a – A380 Landing KSFO San Francisco. In 10 minutes, you will go from 11,000’ to taxiing to the terminal. The view is spectacular, the workload demanding and the technology essential.

But it’s also about perception and in that regard, there is great insight in Brendan’s observation, ”This recent rash of unconfirmed drone sightings may reflect the power of suggestion more than the actual use of drones at airports.”

UFO street sign in Roswell, NM
Street sign in Roswell, NM – photo Pixabay

Remember that I am from New Mexico. Here the legend of the UFO landing in Roswell in 1947 is as much a part of our ethos as green chile. So I very much liked Drones Are the New Flying Saucers by the talented Faine Greenwood writing
for SLATE.

While we’ve heard plenty of stories of supposed drone collisions or near-misses with aircraft, I was able to find only two incidents—in New York and Canada—in which the presence of a drone has been absolutely confirmed by investigators.

It’s possible that almost all of these unconfirmed drones were actually there, and we simply failed to find them, due to the (very real) current inadequacy of drone identification technology. But we should also consider the possibility that at least some of these maybe-drones never existed. Perhaps drones are taking the place of UFOs—in the extraterrestrial or mysterious sense, rather than the literal meaning of “unidentified flying object”—as humanity’s preferred catch-all explanation for weird stuff in the sky.

According to the two top UFO-sighting reporting centers, we’re seeing fewer UFOs than we used to, a decline that began around 2014. This decline coincides with the period when relatively advanced drone technology first became truly accessible to consumers. 

Cue the Twilight Zone theme…


Airport escalator abstract
Escalators – Pixabay

Everyone loves a parade. From the office of Sen. Edward Markey, (D-MA) Senator Markey Calls for Privacy Protections in Wake of FAA Drone Proposal.

“Privacy cannot be an afterthought as the FAA seeks to make it easier and safer for commercial drones to take flight,” said Senator Markey, a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “Drones have the capability to collect treasure troves of sensitive personal information using technologies like facial recognition and automated license plate readers, yet the FAA has failed to establish any baseline privacy protections, despite its obligation to integrate drones into the national airspace.”

Fascinating in light of the very specific privacy provisions in the 2018 FAR which, by dint of his work on the Committee, Markey should be intimately familiar with… Even more so, given the FAA’s steadfast position that they are a civilian safety agency.

Next is this ‘must read’ commentary by Jim Moore, the Web-Editor for AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association,) FAA Prepares More Permissive Drone Rules: Remote ID Remains a Prerequisite that mirrors what I have heard from a few other engineering types about the kinetics standards in the OOP NPRM.

In practical terms, the FAA’s proposed limits on kinetic energy (and resulting probability of injury) would require significant design changes to virtually any drone on the market today before it could be allowed to fly over people without a waiver.

While the FAA does not expressly require drone parachutes, leaving it up to drone manufacturers to find their own path to emergency deceleration, there are a limited number of ways to limit the kinetic energy of a failing drone…

Individual pilots would be responsible for making sure they fly within the limits by ensuring the drone is properly marked, equipped, and configured, including hardware and software configured exactly as it was when approved for the category. Beyond that the FAA proposal places much of the burden for proving the safety case for flight over people on manufacturers.

…That can become a complex undertaking, possibly involving computer modeling or extensive laboratory testing.

So this waiver, reported by Gary Mortimer in sUAS News, makes you wonder if the left hand and the right hand have met…AerialWayz™ granted Flight Over People & Moving Vehicles Waiver with Fruity Chutes Inc. The waiver is type specific for an Inspire 1 which clearly exceeds the proposed kinetic limits by a huge margin. Check out the Drone Splat Calculator.

Even given the parachute to mitigate the risk, a 107.39(b) waiver  which allows operations over people and moving vehicles, is a really big deal. Only two have been granted. In fact, the OOP NPRM states “The potential forces that would result when a small unmanned aircraft impacts a moving vehicle on a road pose unacceptable risks due to head-on closure speeds.

Here is the Certificate of Waiver, which does not specify the use of a parachute.

Airobotics “hangar” courtesy Airobotics

In December, Airobotics announced that it was “…The first company in the United States to receive a Certificate of Waiver (CoW) from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that combines three elements: flying Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) for automated drone operations, over human beings, with a visual observer that is not required to keep a visual line of sight on the drone.”

Here is the Certificate of Waiver. It’s a large bird and there is not one word about parachutes or redundant systems. And though the AerialWayz waiver is for a higher risk operation, much more extensive requirements were placed on Airobotics. I understand that a lot of different people, including contractors, are involved in the review process but I think that there should be more consistency with these very leading edge approvals.

I can’t help but wonder if, in the desire to be “open for business,” the FAA is getting ahead of itself and is going to have to walk some of this back – not for these waiver holders but for future applicants – as this seems to be inconsistent with their more recent statements.

This week, the win streak continued Airobotics is First to Receive CASA Approval for BVLOS Drone Flights from Remote Operations Center. (CASA is Australia’s FAA.) One thing stood out to me:

Alternatively, Remote Pilots are located within Airobotics Australia’s ROC, at a designated Remote Pilot Station (RPS), operating more than 1,000 km away from onsite systems at the customer sites. This new “man on the loop” level of operations enables human operators to supervise flights, but without requiring “man in the loop” pilots to intervene in flight operations

Yep – if the man on the loop is there to intervene if need be, how is that different from a man in the loop?

So I checked in with Airobotics VPs Kathy Kim and Niv Russo to find out how they use the terms, which is different from the way they are used with autonomous weapons. (See Paul Scharre’s Army of None, pages 43-47.)

Per Niv:

“Man in the loop” has a pilot that is required to fly/maneuver the aircraft, directing it from one point to another – either in VLOS or in BVLOS.

“Man on the loop” means that there is someone that supervises the flight but he/she is not required, and actually does not, fly/maneuver the aircraft.

Here’s what going to make the business model work:

There is no flight crew required on location to service, preflight or launch the bird. We are truly automated in the sense that our drones take flight, run missions, land, swap out payloads and batteries—without an onsite crew.

On the broader topic of BVLOS, DroneU has an excellent analysis, FAA Grants State Farm Insurance the First Ever National BVLOS Drone Waiver which looks at the 17 BVLOS waivers granted in 2018.


Aerial view of wind turbine field
Wind turbine field – Pixabay

I came across an interesting post from Mike Fortin on the Facebook Commercial sUAS Remote Pilots forum, What are the conversations that are not being had in the drone industry? (posted January 22). I like the idea!

One of the things that comes up, again and again, is drones being shot at. I ran a piece by Vic Moss in the Divided We Fall issue in November, Who Is Going to Die First? It wasn’t part of Mike’s FB thread but nearby I found Checklist for Pilots Subjected to Discharge of a Firearm Targeting an Ag Aircraft in the National Agricultural Aviation Association newsletter. It’s a real problem and it seems like every week another RPIC reports a confrontation.

From a different perspective, one of the issues that many businesses struggle with is making the Insourcing Versus Outsourcing decision. Renee Knight writing in inside unmanned systems looks at How companies can best implement drones into business operations.

Can Drones Be Good? by Adam Clark Estes writing in Gizmodo is an excellent survey of the issues. The big one to get around:

A lot of people don’t like drones. Flying robots with increasingly powerful cameras and a growing number of tools sounds like the scariest parts of the dystopian future we were warned about. But as is often the case with emerging technology, there’s another story to tell. Outside of the stunts and spectacles, a growing number of drones are doing work.  

On the subject of work, researcher firm CB Insights offers 38 Ways Drones Will Impact Society: From Fighting War To Forecasting Weather, UAVs Change Everything. It’s a broad interpretation of “drones,” still it’s dazzling how far
we’ve come.


Komatsu autonomous mining vehicle
Komatsu Frontrunner AHS – Image Christian Sprogoe Photography

Some quick hits.

Nokia Trial Sees Komatsu Autonomous Mining Trucks Approved to Run on Private LTE. I think this is a really big story with lots of implications for the UAS industry.

Facebook Is Reportedly Testing Solar-Powered Internet Drones Again — This Time With Airbus. Aquila redux.

The Corps Is Going All in on Small Tactical Drones as It Preps for Future War. A tiered approach.

Robot Wolfpacks: The Faster, Cheaper 355-Ship Fleet. “Smaller unmanned vessels will act as expendable scouts and decoys, larger ones — over 50 meters — will carry masses of missiles…” Don’t forget about the drones.

And for #dronesRgood, Drones Drop Poison Bombs to Fight One Island’s Rat Invasion in the Galapagos:

Weighing 55 pounds, the six-rotor robots carry 44-pound payloads of specially designed rodenticide pellets. Those are colored blue, which research shows doesn’t attract the attention of birds. Working from a boat offshore, operators manually launch and land the drones, but let them fly a predetermined bombing run on their own.


Be an InterDrone Early Bird. Register by February 8 and save $405 on the 3-Day Plus Preconference Pass! Be an InterDrone speaker. Submit your proposal to teach your fellow professionals at InterDrone 2019.

Mark Dombroff and Mark McKinnon at LeClair Ryan will “unpack” the NPRM and ANPRM in the next Aviation Webinar Series: Why 2019 May Be The Year of The Drone February 20.


Earthrise, Apollo 11
Earthrise, Apollo 11 – image courtesy NASA

Apollo 11 – Newly discovered footage from the first mission to land humans on the moon debuts this week at the Sundance Film festival… Here’s the trailer.

Glaciers Are Retreating. Millions Rely on Their Water is a new piece from NYT Interactive. A jaw dropping opening shot but also a story well told.

Watch. Here comes UAM. Boeing Autonomous Passenger Air Vehicle Completes First Flight.

And for something absolutely dazzling, Hyperia: Mexico City the Hypercity, is a stunning hyperlapse portrait of this great city shot with a DJI Mavic 2 Pro.

Thanks for reading and for sharing. Back issues of Dronin’ On are here.


Christopher Korody
Editor and Publisher
follow me @dronewriter

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