Monday, November 26, 2012

An introduction to small drones - from the AMA

Go back just one or two years in the world of drones, and you'll notice a distinct separation between the price of these small, remotely-guided aircraft. At the top end, you had systems like the Gatewing X100 and the DraganFly X6 which cost $20,000 and up, with some models . These units were generally designed for commercial or government use, and with adequate training, can be flown "out of the box."

But for hobbyists and members of the DIY/Maker movement, similar products could be hacked together from GPS and gyro-equipped microcontrollers, RC electric motors, and RC radio equipment for about $1,000.

This price point has made drones very attractive to "hacktivists," or activists with a great deal of technical ability who use that expertise to further the goals of a political cause. Think Tim Pool and the Occucopter, anti-ACTA protestors in Estonia, N8 protestors in Argentina, or SHARK and its Angel Drone (recently shot down for the fourth time).

The video obtained from these aerial platforms have proved useful in rallying support and attention to political movements. Journalists would do well to take notes from how the hacktivists have deployed drones around the world -- because these methods can be easily transplanted into journalism.

The cost of drones has dropped considerably in recent years, now opening up a nice $2,000 - $15,000 range of drones that don't require much hacking experience at all. But there's just one big problem: regulations. There's currently not a place in the FAA regulations for a viable commercial pursuit of drones, and that includes commercial journalism.

There is, however, a place for government and research institutions to use drones. That place is called a Certificate of Authorization, or COA (pronounced "Koh-ah" in the industry).

But let's say you're not a government institution, and still want to fly a drone. There is still a place for you to fly a drone, albeit as a hobbyist.

The FAA regulation AC 91-57 allows anyone to fly a remote-controlled vehicle, for recreation, so long as the aircraft is not flown above 400 feet AGL (above ground level), or within 3 miles of an airport. You must also give way to full scale airplanes, should they enter your airspace (but that really shouldn't happen, given that the lowest legal limit for an airplane to fly is 500' AGL).

Since you're flying as a hobbyist, you should get to know the Academy of Model Aeronautics. The AMA dates back to 1936, and it's the largest association of its kind in America. Club members have years of experience dealing with nearly the exact same kind of controls, radio equipment and motors that make the majority of the $15,000-and-under drones work.

And as a paid member, you get $2.5 million in liability coverage, should your drone have an unfortunate series of events. Keep in mind that coverage is only valid if you follow AMA guidelines.

The latest issue of Model Aviation, which is AMA's official magazine, has quite a few pages devoted to drones. Apparently quadrotors are the biggest growth area for the entire RC hobby. Hobbyists are especially captivated by the aerial video capability of these drones (seeing a theme here?).

The December issue has a great write-up that's a good introduction into multi-rotor drones meant for hobbyists, but it's great for journalists as well.

An excerpt from the article:

Multicopters come in all shapes and sizes. Although there are configuration differences, they all have the same basic components: pilot command and control, motors, propellers, ESCs, a frame, and a flight control module.

Depending on how advanced you want to be, multicopters may also have video cameras, GPS, compasses, barometers, sonar sensors, and telemetry. Often, many of the sensors and secondary options are built into the flight controller, which also houses the electronic gyros and accelerometers found on most multicopters.
 The article also includes some interesting historical background on the origin of multicopters and similar aircraft. Read "Rise of the multicopter" here.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Activists record 8N protest with drones, continue to take lead on drone coverage

Progress in covering large events with aerial drones, especially protests, has been led almost exclusively by political activists. The most recent effort by activists to use drones document the scale of anti-government demonstrations comes from Argentina, where the “8N” demonstration on Thursday, November 8.

That day, some 30,000 Argentinians protested economic conditions, government corruption and the fear that President Cristina Fernandez will attempt to end her term limit.

According to the group El Cipayo Argentino, the government had closed down the airspace ahead of the protest, and did not allow news helicopters to cover the event. So the group came up with a low-budget workaround: they built their own aerial drone to provide coverage from the sky.

As you can hear from the video, the camera attached to the drone picked up a great deal of propeller and motor noise. The fact that protestors can be heard above the din of the whirring motors speaks volumes.

Al Jazeera has a write up about the protest and the activists behind the drone here.

Friday, November 9, 2012

We need more drones because we’re having more big disasters.

The images of an inundated New York City certainly were eye-catching. But it isn’t until you start parsing the data that you start to really understand how bad things got for the East Coast.

Some of the most startling stats: winds pegged at 90 miles an hour when Sandy made landfall as a tropical storm. It left 185 dead between Jamaica and its terminus in the US. It was the second costliest hurricane in recorded history after Katrina, with $52.4 billion in damages. Five thousand commercial airline flights cancelled. Across 26 states, up to 80 million were affected. Eight and a half million people without power after the storm.

Even 11 days after the storm, with freezing winter temperatures closing in, 428,000 in New York and New Jersey remain without power.

Aon Benfield, an insurance broker that specializes in catastrophe management, crunched the numbers and found something just as remarkable about hurricane/tropical storm Sandy. Well, perhaps not so much about the storm itself, but how it fits into recent weather events and climate change in general.

“Devastating Hurricane Sandy was the eleventh billion-dollar weather-related disaster in the U.S. so far this year, and the most expensive,” wrote’s Jeff Masters, of Aon Benfield’s latest report. “This puts 2012 in second place for most U.S. billion-dollar weather disasters behind 2011, when NOAA's National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) counted fourteen such disasters.”

Meanwhile, climate scientists noted that not only did global warming make such a historic slew of storms possible, it also made the sea level rise, thus increasing the damage to coastal areas.

“Sandy threw the ocean at the land, and because of global warming, there were about eight inches more ocean to throw,” wrote Chris Mooney on The Climate Desk. “As the water level increases, the level of damage tends to rise much more steeply than the mere level of water itself.”

When Thailand was flooded in 2011, the government contracted a drone to scout out where flooding had occurred, which helped make decisions about where and when to release flood gates. The contractor flew more than 60 flights over a period of 45 days, and claimed that the data obtained from those flights helped prevent the city of Bangkok from suffering more during that catastrophe.

That same year, back in the states, freelance journalist and storm chaser Aaron Brodie took sweeping shots of the Jersey Shore with his own multicopter before and after Hurricane Irene. He uploaded this footage on YouTube, but amended his post after Sandy:

“Irene was child's play in comparison to Superstorm Sandy. In fact, there was no real damage from Irene,” Brodie wrote.

The public wasn’t able to obtain coverage from drones for Sandy. Some news sites did, however, post before and after photos of New York and New Jersey. These post-sandy aerial photos were obtained by the National Geodetic Survey, with the help of NOAA’s King Air and Twin Otter remote-sensing aircraft. The photos were set side-by-side with historic satellite imagery, allowing users to drag these images to do their own comparisons.

Because of the prohibitive cost of aerial photomapping, these images were gathered by government agencies. But, if FAA regulations allowed it, the job could have easily been done with a $1,000 aerial drone. That puts it within reach of even independent and backpack journalists. Or concerned members of the community.

If the climate models hold true, there’s going to be more “superstorms” like Sandy every year. There will be more billion-dollar disasters, more lives lost, more power outages, and the public will need more information about how those disasters are affecting their communities.

Drones are especially capable of giving quick data on the scope, or extent, of large-scale disasters. Now is the time for journalists to learn and perfect tools like the drone to give the public that information.

Photo at the top of the post is of post-Sandy flooding in Haiti, via the Flikr photostream of United Nations Stabilization Mission In Haiti.