Showing posts with label sUAS. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sUAS. Show all posts

Monday, January 13, 2014

A discussion on deploying drones for international development

Last month, Deutsche Post DHL transported six kilograms of medicine from a pharmacy in Bonn, across the Rhine River, to its headquarters.

This wouldn't have made international news, except that DHL accomplished this with an unmanned aircraft system - commonly known as a drone.

This came less than a week after Amazon's Jeff Bezos claimed his company would deliver products to customers' doorsteps via drone in three or four years. Regulations  and technological hurdles would make Bezos' plan all but impossible in the US near-term, but DHL proved that with proper planning and logistics, you could deliver small parcels with small drones today.

On January 22, The International Research and Exchange Board, or IREX, will be hosting a "deep dive" discussion on how this same technology could benefit international development.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Building and flying an incredibly tiny quadrotor drone

At the National Science Foundation grant where I work, EnLiST, we've been tinkering with various different drone platforms which could be easily deployed in classrooms for valuable STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) lessons.

Although we're focused on STEM education, it's not hard to see how some of these drones can be used in a variety of other fields. The quadrotors we develop one day could be deployed for research in environmental science, geology, city planning, and even "evidence-based" journalism.

Drones are useful like that. At the end of they day, they're simply a means of getting a sensor from one place to another. What you use that sensor for, is entirely up to the teacher, scientist, or journalist.

We needed a drone that was small enough to fly in a classroom, easy enough for children to fly (not saying much as kids tend to pilot drones with relative ease), and hackable enough that we could mold it to fit our science curriculum.

Enter the Crazyflie nano, a tiny, open-source drone developed by Swedish hackers at At 19 grams, and measuring 9 cm from motor to motor, it's one of the smallest quadrotor drones on the market today.

Monday, July 22, 2013

UAVs Pros Cons in Toronto: safety and dialogue are keys to legitimacy

Ian Hannah of displayed his professional hexcopter at the UAVs Pros Cons Symposium in Toronto.
One of the biggest drone-related stories to make the rounds is about a little Colorado town that is attempting to institute a $100 reward for anyone who shoots down an unmanned aircraft. I'll not post a link to this story, or name the actual town, since it appears this is little more than a stunt to attract media attention to the town.

The townspeople may or may not be "real" about their proposed law, given the likelihood of people being injured by gunfire or falling drones, but fear of unmanned aircraft systems (dronephobia?) is real. This fear is rooted in a disconnect between popular media, and the actual uses and potential for the technology.

UAVs Pros-Cons was an effort bring expert knowledge to the public, while at the same time providing a discussion of many of the legitimate concerns over drones and their uses.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Seven more reasons why journalists should learn to fly unmanned aircraft

Felix Gillette at Bloomberg Businessweek has come up with a list of seven reasons why journalists, and not just "cubs reporters," should be learning to use unmanned aircraft systems -- usually called "drones" in the media.

Here's seven more reasons why journalists should consider UAS.

1) They give all news outlets and journalists the freedom to cover important events from the sky.

Traffic snarls? Done. Spot news? Got it. Weather reports? Sure thing. Aerial view of Nasa’s latest space telescope at South By Southwest? Absolutely.

These are all events that could be covered before by large, expensive news helicopters. Of course, only stations in the largest of markets could afford such a luxury. But thanks to inexpensive, small unmanned aircraft, that is no longer the case.

Ted Pretty, a meteorologist for a Fox station in Las Vegas, was one of our first members at While his station couldn't buy a helicopter, it did have the wherewithal and foresight to send him to an online UAV school. He's now experimenting with a multirotor system, and uploaded some of the results on YouTube.

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.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Drones are monitoring sea mammals, keeping tabs on oil spills, helping governments prevent floods.

Every year, AUVSI, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International,hosts the biggest conference and trade show for drones in the country (but don't call them drones there; the term is UAS, for Unmanned Aerial Systems, please).

The industry group's last convention was in Las Vegas, and wrapped up earlier this month. A colleague who was there sent me the exhibition catalog. As is the custom nowadays, you could have read all that info online. But the printed version was still worth reading, and served as a snapshot of the "state of the drone."

I've taken four of what I thought were the most interesting talks, and pasted their descriptions here. The list includes researchers and developers using drones to monitor oil spills and the health of marine mammals. In one discussion, a Thai UAV company claims their technology helped the government make decisions that averted a major flood from inundating Bangkok.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Drone Journalism: News that Flies

The idea of using homebrew drones for independent journalism is picking up steam globally.

I just got a digital copy of a story from Aug-Sept issue of seLecT, the Brazilian art & design magazine, which features a story about that same topic. In it, writer and art professor Nina Gazire interviews the Occucopter developer Tim Pool, Nebraska Drone Journalism Lab professor Matt Waite, and myself.

As one would expect, the story is in Portuguese, so here it is translated (via Google):


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Big FAA announcement means quicker access to drones for law enforcement, "streamlined" authorization

Law enforcement agencies will be able to get drones off the ground more quickly, and also will be able to use larger drones, the Federal Aviation Administration announced yesterday.

A news release from the FAA yesterday said that those agencies will be able to enter into a two-step path to authorization, and thus speeding up the process for law enforcement to deploy drones.

"Initially, law enforcement organizations will receive a COA (Certificate of Authorization) for training and performance evaluation," the FAA said. "When the organization has shown proficiency in flying its UAS (Unmanned Aerial System), it will receive an operational COA."

A COA provides the agency with the authorization to fly drones in the national airspace. Currently it's the only way that a government agency can legally fly a drone, which the FAA calls a UAS, and the application process isn't open to commercial industry or private individuals.

The announcement doesn't specify what the requirements are for a law enforcement agency to show proficiency, and doesn't detail the differences between the two types of authorizations. But it does indicate that the FAA is following up on its federal obligation to expedite drone authorizatio

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Harrisburg tornado, the JournoDrone, and a well-deserved crash

Aerial photograph of Harrisburg, IL. Not taken by JournoDrone One.

Today, the southern Illinois town of Harrisburg is morning six of its own who were killed by a 170 mile per hour, 200 yard tornado. It was one of the 16 tornadoes that ripped through Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois and Kentucky, claiming 13 lives.

Tuesday night, while news networks came from far and wide to cover the devastation on the ground, I worked to prepare JournoDrone One to film the disaster from the sky. For better or worse, the drone never made it to Harrisburg.

JournoDone One is a test mule for, which myself and fellow drone journalism developer Acton Gorton hope will pave the way for a low-cost, highly durable and transportable small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS) for journalists.

JD-01 had never flown a mission before, let alone been tested. So the idea of rushing to Harrisburg and filming anything was a long shot, but something I felt I needed to try. This was a disaster just three and a half hours’ drive from home base, and if I had anything to say about it, I would be putting my equipment to good use. And I do venture to natural disasters on a whim.

Of course, it wouldn’t do any good to drive to the storm-ravaged town of Harrisburg just to nose-dive a drone into the rubble after takeoff. The town had enough grief and did not need some clumsy pilot crashing drones into things and making things worse. So instead, I had a test flight in Champaign, where I dove the drone into a freezing field. Here’s what happened.

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.”

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.”