Saturday, February 25, 2012

A word about regulation, applications of drone journalism

This week, I had the pleasure of talking about drones and drone journalism with Drone Journalism Lab founder Matt Waite, and the Joseph Paiva, the Chief Operating Officer of drone developer Gatewing, on Washington DC's "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." A lot of ground was covered in that hour-long show, but I wanted to re-cap and expand on a few of the things I said during the show.


For some time, there has been  and continues to be frustration in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules on small Unmanned Aerial Systems (sUAS). To review the terminology, we refer to a "drone" as the object that is flying in the air. A UAS implies there is more to this than simply the drone; it's a system of technology with a ground-based operator. On the show, I presented the question about FAA UAS regulation, and that was "what is recreational?":

"I mean, that's one of the rules that says that you can fly under 400 feet away from built-up areas, away from airports, but it's not so clear as what recreation really is. Is that what a nonprofit is when they're trying to collect drone journalism? Is that what a organization who is trying to advocate for animals -- Is that what they're doing when they're flying a drone over a pigeon shoot in South Carolina? And so it is kind of debatable, and it's not really codified into any regulation at this point. "

I'll explain. The FAA regulations as they are today provide a space for recreational drones to operate without special certification, and requires special certification for civilian commercial drones. Those UAS must operate under 400 feet and away from built-up areas and airports.

But where do nonprofit, advocacy, and education lie on that recreational-commercial spectrum? Nowhere does the FAA provide a deffinition for recreation. Some university researchers have been told they need a COA (Certificate of Authorization) to operate their experimental drones for educational purposes, which often times take months to process. Additionally, the FAA will not grant any certificate to anyone operating a drone for profit.

After the show, I received a call from a reporter for a broadcast industry magazine, and I told him that it had been five years since the FAA regulations, and I didn't expect any regulations until the 2015 deadline. He sounded shocked, and asked for clarification.

Five years ago, on February 13, 2007, FAA issued a decree, or "Notice of Policy," in the (Docket No. FAA–2006–25714; Notice No. 07–01) which essentially shut down all civil operation of drones (other than recreational/model activity) in the United States.

That Notice of Policy for Unmanned Aircraft Systems said that in order to pilot a drone for anything but a recreational purpose, you need to obtain an airworthiness certificate in an experimental category for your UAS. This certification just the same as any other experimental aircraft, and is required regardless if you were going to fly your UAS under the exact same restrictions as recreational UAS: fly under 400 feet and away from "built-up areas." Even with this certification, you cannot fly the drone for commercial purposes (which would include commercial media).

More than a year later on April 10, 2008, the FAA issued another decree. This established a small UAS Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) to "conduct a formal safety analysis of small UAS, and then promulgate federal regulations for their design, operation and registration." What came out of that ARC? I don't know.

Patrick Egan, from Remote Control Aerial Photography Association (RCAPA), was on that committee and said there was a "lack of comprehensive action." According to RCAPA president Rick Connolly, who Egan interviewed for, "Even the members that were part of the process feel nothing came of it and all their hard work was put in the circular file."

Then, in June, a new ARC (ARC 2.0) was created. sUAS News had to file a FOIA request to find out who was on the rulemaking committee and what its charter was. This time around, the ARC seems to be dominated by those. Of the 22 committee members who are not from the FAA, 11 are defense contractors, and there is only one who potentially represents the non-defense commercial drone industry. This has generated a level of skepticism and criticism from RCAPA and other commercial and recreational drone groups.

Some news reports said that proposed rules would come out of ARC 2.0 by December 2011. That never happened.

More than a year ago, the FAA grounded the multicopters of the media company MI6 Films, and told the news website The Daily that it could not longer use drones for its reporting. Meanwhile, ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, is now flying its own news drone, and MI6 has since found work in other countries. Australia had rules governing UAVs on the books since 2002. The inability to create a space for commercial drones is hampering not just journalism, but innovation that could spark economic growth in a time of economic stagnation.

As I said on the radio show, the FAA has a tremendous burden on its shoulders. It has to make the national airspace safe, and it has to protect people on the ground from harm. That responsibility should not be taken lightly. However, that does not make the delays any less frustrating. And it does not make any less confusing the fact that you need special certification for a craft used for commercial or educational purposes, while the exact same craft can be operated for recreational purposes without any authorization whatsoever from the FAA. Inconsistency in regulations provide ample opportunity to misinterpret the rules.


I mentioned on the show that a fixed-wing drone could potentially stay aloft for thirty minutes, up to four hours, and beyond. While it's true that a fixed-wing craft can stay aloft for longer periods than a multicopter, the multicopter is better at fulfilling other roles.

Multicopters are uniquely gifted with the ability to hover in a fixed position for the entire duration of its flight. They are also better at negotiating obstacles and maneuvering in tight spaces, as they do not require forward momentum to provide them with lift. Relative to their overall size, multicopters are also able to lift a heavier load than their fixed-wing counterparts. They really are the ideal platforms for many aerial photography and filming applications.

Balloons are another platform for aerial photography. They trump fixed-wing and multirotor craft for "loitering time," the amount of time the craft can stay above a desired target. Being a tethered aircraft, they are also less stringently regulated here in the United States, meaning currently you can use them legally in more circumstances than you would a multicopter or fixed-wing drone. They do have one shortfall, however, and that is they aren't nearly as mobile or controllable as their counterparts. They drift with the air current, and are only as mobile as the operator is able to re-locate the tether. is pursuing multicopters, but our most complete project at the moment is a fixed-wing drone. That's because the fixed-wing drone is perfect for being able to photomap swaths of land. And with the proper equipment, they can aim a camera in such a way that it lessens the negative effects of circling above a target. In other words, the camera can pan, tilt, and zoom so that the direction the drone is heading at the time is nearly arbitrary.

Recently, we started the motor on that drone for the first time. Weather has hampered our flying the drone for the time being. I'll leave you with video of that moment. It's filmed from the same camera (a GoPro2) that we'll be mounting to to the drone in the future.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Project JournoDrone: A fixed-wing drone system for journalism


JournoDrone One

Developers at are launching a project to build a low-cost aerial photo platform for journalists, using a combination of off-the-shelf radio-control components and open source electronics. Their goal is to develop a small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS) for journalists that is powerful, durable, transportable, affordable, upgradeable and supported by a community of experts.

Now one month into the project, development on “JournoDrone One,” or JD-1, is approximately 20 percent complete. is working to secure funding to complete the project by the summer of 2012. The knowledge gained from making and using the drone for aerial photography will allow to bring a similar system to journalists worldwide.

Leading the project is Matthew Schroyer, the founder of, who holds a master’s in journalism from the University of Illinois. Mr. Schroyer has a background in engineering, experience with small, radio-control devices, and experience in using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for data journalism purposes.

“We hope this is the first of many drones that will develop,” he said. “It’s a practical exercise of existing off-the-shelf drone technology, and our first step into a frontier that could greatly expand public knowledge.”

Friday, February 17, 2012

Update on hunters shooting down activist drone: on-board footage, lawsuits and more

Yesterday I wrote that animal rights activists in Ehrhardt, S.C. who had been attempting to film a hunting event had their drone shot out of the sky. 

Michael Kobliska, an
activist associated with SHARK (SHowing Animals Respect and Kindness), said that the group had been operating its drone for about 18 months before their drone went down near the Broxton Bridge Plantation.

The drone, Mikrokopter Oktokopter, suffered damage to wiring to one of its motors, which caused an electrical fault. This forced the Mikrokopter into a semi-controlled fall, in which it sustained further damage.

In an email, Kobliska said his group was preparing to launch the drone when a sheriff's deputy arrived and threatened to arrest the activists.

He couldn't quote any statutes, but said we would be violating FAA rules and anyone from our group in the area when the machine flew would be detained until the FAA arrived and presumably took us into their custody. We took this as just nonsensical intimidation and decided to fly anyways."

The SHARK activists then proceeded to test-fly their drone. After everything on the drone seemed to be in working order, they took the drone up again for another flight. From Kobliska:

It was a very short flight. The shooters had hidden themselves in the woods and as soon as the machine was up to about 150' they started shooting. It should be noted they were shooting over a roadway, illegal in SC. As we observed later, the machine took a shot to some of the wiring for one of the motors. This caused the machine to lose some thrust, but we could still control it. Since the machine was basically overhead it came back down to where it launched from. It had a hard landing and bent the gear up a bit."

Kobliska said it wasn't the first time their Mikrocopter was shot down.

"About 13 months ago we had another drone shot down in Pennsylvania at another pigeon shoot - that machine is still residing in a tree and is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit. We've also been shot at on other occasions."

Activists posted on-board footage of that incident on Youtube as well, in which activists said that the property owner was told by local law enforcement officials to return the drone. In that video, the activists said the drone cost about $8,000.

Here's footage of the Broxton Bridge Plantation incident, both on-board and from the ground. Beginning at the 2-minute mark, five pops can be heard in the audio, presumably from small-arms fire. One of the microkopter's rotors appears to slow and then stop functioning, at which point the drone enters a semi-controlled descent and impacts the ground.

SHARK activists reported the incident to the Colleton County Sheriff's Office, who filed an incident report for malicious damage to property. A copy of that incident report, provided by Kobliska, is available here. From the incident report:

"The total damage in cost to the craft is around two to three hundred dollars. At the time of the report the plantation gates was closed and locked. I was unable to speak to anyone located at the plantation."

Google Earth view of the approximate site of the Broxton Bridge Plantation, which covers nearly 7,000 acres of hunting grounds.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Activists use drone to film pigeon hunting, hunters shoot down drone

Much of the cutting-edge development with small drones is not being done by the media or journalists, but rather activists who use the technology to bring awareness to their cause.

Protesters associated with the Occupy movement hacked small, off-the-shelf RC drones to bring a global audience to the front lines of their protests. Anti-whaling activists now use drones to monitor the movement and activity of whaling vessels.

The animal rights group SHARK -- that's SHowing Animals Respect and Kindness -- is one of the newest activist groups to use drone technology.

It's also the first activist group to have the dubious distinction of having a drone shot down in mid-flight.

The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg, S.C., reported yesterday that while trying to cover a pigeon shoot from the sky, hunters took exception to the SHARK drone and pelted it with birdshot.

 According to a press release from the activists, law enforcement officers and an attorney attempted to convince SHARK not to launch the drone. When the animal rights group launched the drone, shots were fired.

"Seconds after it hit the air, numerous shots rang out," Steve Hindi, president of SHARK, said a press release. "As an act of revenge for us shutting down the pigeon slaughter, they had shot down our copter."

In the press release, Hindi said the shooters fled the scene riding "small motorized vehicles."

The local sheriff's office filed a malicious damage to property incident report, according to the T&D. Hindi wrote that damage to the drone was between $200 to $300.

The SHARK press release said the group would try to film pigeon shooting again next year.

[Edit 2/15  @ 6:30 p.m.: Changed "buckshot" to "birdshot." The latter is the ammunition typically used to shoot birds for sport. The former refers to ammunition used to hunt deer.]

Monday, February 13, 2012

Drone journalism over anti-ACTA protests in Estonia

More drone journalism of protests, using hexacopters. These images were captured over a protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement on Saturday, Feb. 11, in Tartu, Estonia.

According to a post by the hexacopter pilot on, these images were streamed directly to the web from the 'copter.

It was cold in Estonia that day; -15 Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). But apparently not too cold for organizers to get protestors "jumping for the camera."

A word on safety, from the pilot Jaan Kronberg:

"Yes I know, it wasn't safest thing in the world to do. Yes I know, many will consider it dangerous and irresponsible. But sometimes you just disregard rules and do something insane.. I wasn't "over the heads" for too long, most of the time behind the stage (you can see it on last screenshot), but ... - yes, I know... But it was special day and I took that risk, that's the only excuse."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

New Law Could Have Enormous Impact on Drone Journalism

 The Federal Aviation Administration must make way for drones, according to a bill that passed through Congress yesterday.

Now headed to President Obama to become law, the bill requires the FAA to decide on regulations that would permit drones (the official nomenclature is UAS – Unmanned Aerial System) to operate in the same airspace as commercial jets and police helicopters. The order was included in the Reauthorization Act that extended FAA’s funding for another four years, at a cost of $64 billion.

The bill does not make the regulations for the FAA, but instead orders the FAA to make regulations within certain bounds. But it does state that the FAA should create a “a safe, non-exclusionary airspace designation for cooperative manned and unmanned flight operations.”