The Balancing The Equinox issue of Dronin' On 09.23.31
Facebook post 09.22.17 – pictures from WABC-TV

Hi all –

Yesterday was the equinox. Yesterday, day and night were in perfect balance around the world. Obviously balance is a delicate thing – today the balance
is shifting.

BREAKING NEWS

Friday morning WABC-TV in New York reported that a drone collided with a Blackhawk helicopter over Staten Island. A TFR was in place. What appears to be a quad motor (in the plastic bag on the lower right) was recovered from the helicopter which landed safely. Thanks to reader Justin A for the tip.

An unverified Facebook report suggests that the strike happened between 7-8pm EDT on Thursday. And that the Blackhawk was one of four that was ferrying VIPs to and from the UN Conference.

THE FAA

The House is away this week so there has been no progress on the FAA Reauthorization Bill. With the September 30th deadline looming and unresolved issues in both chambers, the odds are that we are going to have an extension.

TBD are two issues – first is the length of the extension, and then the question of whether the bill will be “clean,” that is to say does not contain additional amendments unrelated to the extension.

Why does it matter? Check out this strange bedfellows’ deal. Friday, Morning Transport reported that:

If a trucker meal and rest break provision were tacked onto that reauthorization bill, would it change your mind? FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said that’s a pitch “floating around” the House right now. “The belief is that provision could swing some ‘noes’ to ‘yes’ in the House because of states where there are large trucking industries who are extremely interested in this, [which] they would view as fixing a significant problem,” Huerta said at a Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association conference Wednesday. He said he’s hearing that Shuster is still “some 20, 30 votes short to get it to pass on the floor.” 

If you have been waiting for a decision in the Singer v Newton, MA case, you got it. Gary Mortimer reported Thursday that the court has ruled in favor of Dr. Michael Singer. In a nutshell, Singer argued that Newton’s local drone ordinances are preempted by the FAA and violated his rights. The judge in the Massachusetts US District Court agreed.

Jonathan Rupprecht has been feverishly drafting his analysis which is now ready for you here. Don’t go all crazy doing your happy dance – there is a big caveat:

This case is only binding in the jurisdiction of the federal district court of Massachusetts. Courts from other jurisdictions can [Ed Note and will] look at this ruling but do NOT need to follow it.

THE GOVERNMENT

The Senate has sent H.R. 2810: National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 back to the House which should be about it for the puts, takes and pork. The bill authorizes $695.9 billion. A good summary here. I don’t know if any of the drone security language made it into the final bill.

Interesting story in the US Army’s Aviation Digest, Opposition Forces vs Rotational Training Unit suggests that commanders are struggling to come to grips with this new threat.

Joint Multinational Readiness Center rotational training units lack an appreciation for the lethality tied to information collected from small unmanned aircraft systems.

The first three recommendations are particularly telling:

  • Change the mindset. Understand that any future conflict will be conducted in an intensely competitive UAS environment.
  • Implement and train counter-UAS drills, including the consistent employment of cover, concealment, camouflage, deception, and reporting.
  • Ensure operations security is closely adhered to and information technology systems are secure and protected.

In May, President Trump issued an executive order instructing federal agencies to proactively assess cybersecurity risks. Law360 sums up some of the
early recommendations:

The world’s largest computer companies have called for a global response to the threats that botnets pose to federal networks and other critical infrastructure, arguing that targets vulnerable to hacking threaten the entire digital ecosystem. 

The comments…called for securing devices linked to the internet of things, devising incentives to get consumers to buy into the need for enhanced security and punishing bad actors whose negligence threatens to affect those complying with regulations and healthy security practices. 

Not hard to imagine this approach trickling down to drones

RESEARCH

Bloomberg has an update on recent studies at Virginia Tech, Small Consumer Drones Unlikely to Cause Head Injury, Study Says

“The study concluded that the risks of a catastrophic head injury were less than 5 percent in an impact with a 2.6-pound (1.2-kilogram) unmanned vehicle… Risk of injury was observed to increase with increasing UAS mass, and the larger models tested are not safe for operations over people in their current form.”

Betsy Lillian’s article has more details about the research. Mark Blanks, the Director of the Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) who helped to design and conduct the experiments described the road ahead:

“The big question right now is, what is the acceptable level of safety? How much proof does the FAA need before they say, ‘Yes, that’s okay’? Once those standards are in place, we’re going to see huge expansion in the industry.”

Look for this along with the recent ASSSURE UAS Ground Collision Severity Evaluation Final Report to figure into the overflight NPRM discussion once the security issues are addressed.

Even knowing that my chance of a bad injury is “only 10%” or my chance of death is “5%” I remain less than enthusiastic about the idea of someone who has never demonstrated their proficiency to an inspector and who is not required to have being allowed to fly over me without my knowledge or consent.

I will continue to be the curmudgeon wondering “Why is this necessary?” Which brings us to the question of are there legitimate applications? I can think of a few.

  • Public safety missions. Just as with Harvey and Irma, this week drones will be valuable to those managing the response to the disasters in Puerto Rico and to Mexico City. I am reasonably confident that the necessary training, SOPs and maintenance will be in place to execute this type of mission safely.
  • Press. While less compelling, people will certainly make a First Amendment argument for newsies to use drones. Hopefully they will be using them to add aerial coverage to incidents like Charlottesville, Ferguson and Standing Rock… Of course a TFR can ruin your whole day.
  • Law enforcement has a de facto system of checks in place in the form of warrants and has a clearly defined command and control structure.

Beyond the direct issue of the risk of physical injury, lurks a host of privacy issues. The FAA has already made it clear that these issues are beyond its charter. Which means that it is up to the states.

My best guess is that the compelling commercial business case for doing overflights will be data gathering for companies conducting various kinds of market research. Resolution is more than adequate to identify individuals and license plates. Hard to imagine this being met with widespread public enthusiasm.

Coincidentally, Avionics also featured an interview with Mark Blanks who is apparently making quick use of his 15 minutes of fame, Can Avionics OEMs Solve These Key Drone Problems in the US? Blanks said that:

This article offers up a thoughtful review of the challenges and the implications associated with the key issues of security and sense and avoid. Regarding security, Blanks makes the point that this was not even an issue a year ago
adding that:

“It’s so early stage; [unmanned traffic management] is not ready yet to solve the remote identification problem. I think it’s a great potential solution for it, but it’s not ready to do it yet. Some technology needs to mature more before we can we can certify it and prove it’s reliable.”

A similar situation exists with sense and avoid.

“Detecting and avoiding other aircraft: That’s one of the hardest things to do. The [possible] technologies for that range from radars to transponders, and other things. None of those have been well proven yet, to always avoid other aircraft. Avoiding other aircraft [is] what enables beyond-line-of-sight operations.”

In the end, it comes down to the same issues as overflight.

Not knowing how much proof the FAA needs to certify a technology hinders the test and evaluation process. “The question right now is, ‘what is the bar?’ How much proof does the FAA need before they say, ‘Yes, that’s OK’?” Blanks said. “And even the FAA, I don’t think, knows in certain cases.”

The only possible takeaway from all of these articles is that we have taken the proverbial first step on a journey of a thousand miles.

HARVEY & IRMA

As response gives way to rebuilding, more and more stories are coming out. Drone World Expo has a panel dedicated to the response which I will be moderating featuring a number of people involved in the response. Stories that have caught my eye include:

Fort Bend County UAS Operations is a video that looks at the response effort in Houston. Justin Adams, the CRASAR Air Operations Director who oversaw the operations shown in the video will be on the panel.

KANW New Mexico Public Radio’s Telecom Companies Turn To Drones For Help After Hurricanes includes an interview with Art Pregler, the National Mobility Systems Director at AT&T who oversaw the response and will also be on
the panel.

AT&T actually embeds drone crews with repair crews. Pregler says the drone can get pictures of a cell tower, and then the repair team can see what’s actually wrong with it. Knowing what’s wrong is important. “The worst thing is to send a crew who doesn’t have the right equipment.”

sUAS News has a story from Daytona Beach, Embry-Riddle Professors Use Unmanned Aircraft to Aid Community in Assessing Hurricane Damage. A couple of noteworthy things here. First, “The assistance was provided as part of a collaboration implemented in August between the Daytona Beach Police Department and Embry-Riddle’s Worldwide and Daytona Beach campuses.” Second the teams began operations by documenting critical areas prior to Irma’s arrival, then doing post inspection of the same facilities.

TheRecord.com has a story about Aeryon Labs employee Andrew Huang who volunteered to support GlobalMedic in St. Maarten. Brett Simms, the program coordinator with GlobalMedic explained the value like this:

“If you lose time, an injury becomes an amputation, it becomes a fatality. Something minor can become a critical injury. Time is everything in those first few days.”

UnmannedAerial’s Betsy Lillian’s report, FAA: Hurricane Response to be Known as ‘Landmark’ in Drone Evolution provides some additional details on the Irma response. Given the millions still without power, this statement makes for a compelling use case:

The FAA OK’d Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) to deploy UAS to help restore power and conduct damage assessments with less risk to its crew; it was even able to get all its damage assessments done within 24 hours after the storm
passed through.

Fox35 Orlando did a video report which shows a drone operator conducting a powerline inspection for Duke Energy who had about a million customers out. This type of coverage will help to build public understanding in part because it is based on self-interest.  

TheDigitalCircuit adds that Florida Power and Light, the state utility, has 49 drone units under contract surveying around the state. The article quoted FAA Administrator Michael Huerta’s comments from his InterDrone17 keynote, made shortly after Harvey:

“Essentially, every drone that flew meant that a traditional aircraft was not putting an additional strain on an already fragile system. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the hurricane response will be looked back upon as a landmark in the evolution of drone usage in this country.”

Sandy Murdock put together Some Examples of All Levels of Aviation Aiding in Rescue & Recovery from Harvey & Irma for JDA Journal. Some great stories and also some comments about trying to make the airlines do the right thing… plenty of complaints of price gouging if you missed it. One of the articles, AOPA’s Tips for Flying Disaster Relief Missions offers some valuable insights into how the manned side goes about it.

THE USE CASE

Drones Help Improve Wildlife Research from Drone360 spotlights a number of familiar benefits.

“Every biologist knows somebody who’s died in a plane or helicopter crash,” says David Bird, professor emeritus of wildlife biology at McGill University. Light aircraft crashes were the leading cause of death for wildlife workers between 1937 and 2000. Of 91 verified field deaths, 60 were caused by airplane or
helicopter accidents.”

This is a meaty article with examples from around the world.

Droneii.com from Germany has just released a new whitepaper, Rough and Tough – Drones for Australia’s Industry, which focuses on the mining, construction and energy/utility verticals.

The core question must be: “Are UAVs providing the same or better results with less effort compared to traditional methods in the field?” The answer is: they do – many industries have the need to reduce costs for surveying and inspection processes, currently performed from ground, via helicopter or satellite.

One key?

The Australian government already created a clear regulatory outline to allow commercial UAV operation. In a global comparison, the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) regulations offer a comprehensive framework:

There are a number of tables and charts that dive into specific aspects. One point that the authors make echoes the comments I hear from developers
and manufacturers:

Unmanned aerial systems are very complex – improper handling (flight planning, hardware set-up, analytics, etc.) can lead to a dramatic loss in quality.

I am following some new fund analysts at ARK Invest. This week Industrial Robot Cost Decline. If you’ve lived by Moore’s Law you are going to like this one too:

Fundamental to our analysis is Wright’s Law:  that is, for every cumulative doubling in number of units produced, costs will decline by a consistent percentage. In the robotics space, that cost decline – known as the learning rate – has been
roughly 50%. 

MUST SEE

If you’re upgrading to iOS11 this weekend, check out this collection of ARKit apps from ComputerWorld. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and also by who is investing in development.

A couple of different but spectacular flying demonstrations.

This Is What It’s Like Flying a Drone in the Eye of a Hurricane chronicles the adventures of Brian Emfinger who flew his DJI Mavic Pro into Irma- he and the bird lived to tell the tale and you can watch the movies.

And if you want to see just how agile a drone is in the right hands, check out Feels Just Like It Should from FinalGlideAus. Puts ‘fly it like you stole it’ into a whole new realm. Repeat after me “I can’t imagine trying to defend against 5 of these things coming at me at once…Never mind 100.”

Thanks for reading and for sharing. You can find all of the back issues of Dronin’ On here.

best,
ck

Christopher Korody
DroneBusiness.center
chris@dronebusiness.center
follow me @dronewriter