Welcome to the Drone Age
This cool but controversial technology, now in the hands of any enthusiast with $50, has spawned countless applications, good and bad, and a bewildering set of predicaments.
It’s what it must feel like to be a witch: to rise effortlessly off the ground, to float at treetop level, to look down at roofs and yards from a few dozen feet in the air. To hover, to swoop and dive, and then float back up. Close enough that everything is real, but far away enough away that nothing can quite reach you.
Unmistakably, drones are fascinating devices. Married to a GoPro video camera, they give you the sensation of being in the air without actually leaving the ground.
Basically, a drone (also known as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV) is defined as any aircrafts that is capable of autonomous flight, typically guided by GPS, as opposed to radio-control aircraft that must be manually piloted. Most drones carry cameras or other sensors for capturing visual information and include the ability to transmit the data back to the base or owner. They can range in scope and size from the $40 million Predator used by the military to the simple craft your child flies in the park.
Are drones a fad? Definitely. A trend? Maybe. An important new tool for business and government? You have no idea what these things can do.
Used by the U.S. since World War I for military purposes, drones have since gone domestic, beginning in about 2013 when the first compact, reasonably affordable, high functioning drones were made available to the buying public. You can now find one for under $50 on Amazon, and with each year, the GPS technology, sensors, cameras and video transmitters become sharper, cheaper and more compact, riding the tails of these same improvements in smartphones.
Likewise, the applications have been far ranging, limited only by human imagination. Drones have tracked endangered species in the wilderness, delivered medicine to remote locations, helped with crop management, surveyed bridges and other construction projects, and delivered eye-popping video for Hollywood movies or someone’s private wedding video. They have also been put to more nefarious purposes: crashing on the lawn of the White House, spying on people, delivering contraband to prisoners.
In a June 2012 article for Wired magazine, Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson cited the menacing aspect of drones in many pop culture/sci-fi scenarios, adding, “There’s no reason to believe that cheap drones will usher in a weaponized hellscape any more than the invention of helicopters did. Even on privacy issues, there are existing laws that cover most of the concerns people have about personal drones.” Anderson then asks, “What will we do with our personal drones? That question is just as unanswerable — but just as tantalizing — as the same question about personal computers back in 1977. When the Apple II came out, the answer was not much more than “Program it!” But over time as regular people found uses for PCs in their own lives, they came up with better answers, word processors, spreadsheets, video games, email and eventually, the Web.”
Currently, tech behemoths Google and Amazon are both madly working on drone delivery services, with Google hoping to launch Project Wing by 2017. On the other end of the spectrum, countless tech nerds, hobbyists and kids are flying their mini drones just for kicks.
If you like flying model airplanes, you’ll like flying drones. And for that matter, if you like playing video games, drones may be your next step. However until recently, the field was as unregulated as the Wild West. Just this year the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] has set forth some guidelines for private drone users. It is also working with NASA, private companies and universities on a future air-traffic control system for drones.
If you already have a drone, the first thing you should know is that you’re probably doing it wrong. And by “wrong,” I mean wrong enough to get yourself arrested by the feds, with a civil fine up to $27,500 and criminal penalty up to $250,000, and even put in jail. There are rules about where you can fly these things — not within 5 miles of any airport, not over the Kansas Speedway, Kauffman or Arrowhead stadiums, not over the Kansas City Royals victory parade. (On a national level, all of Washington D.C. is part of the no-fly zone)
“Yeah, well, how will they know?”
They’ll know because the Federal Aviation Administration (which governs drone flights) already has tested ground-mounted devices that can detect an approaching drone, identify its electronic signature and track that signature back to you, the operator. A visit from the police ensues shortly thereafter.
The second thing you should know about drones is that even if the feds don’t get you, you have huge liability if you lose control and your drone crashes. If it dives into the earth, you’re lucky because you may only lose the cost of the machine. If it crashes into a building and damages it, your liability just went up. And if it crashes into a crowd — i.e., hits somebody — well now you’re talking about phone calls to those personal injury lawyers you see on TV.
There are lots of other worries about drones, as well.
“You’ll fly it outside my bedroom window.”
“It’ll interfere with police helicopters.”
“It’ll get sucked into an airplane engine.”
“Yeah, if that happened, I think it could bring down a 747,” says Dan Ulledahl, a member of the Kansas City Police Department who also happens to be the founder of the Kansas City UAV Club.
“You go down to the Liberty Memorial and see people flying them,” says Ulledahl.
“On a nice day it’s crowded down there, and people don’t know what they’re doing. It’d be pretty easy for someone to get hurt.”
He points out that so-called amateur drones — think anywhere from a half pound to 55 pounds and running from $50 up to a few thousand dollars — can malfunction while in the air and literally fly away. They can travel 30 to 40 mph and typically involve four or more sharp-edged helicopter rotors spinning anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 rpm. Conjure the bald spot if something like that tangles into someone’s hair. (Or forget the bald spot; imagine something that heavy hitting you in the head. For context, a Major League baseball weighs just a little more than 5 ounces.)
The Plaza captured by KC Drone Co.
The better idea, Ulledahl says, is to join a club.“You’ll learn about equipment, all the new rules. There are races. There are competitions where they fly under arches and around things. Learn how to be safe and have fun.”
“What I hate is the people who go over to the hobby store or Best Buy, get a drone, take it home and start flying it,” Ulledahl says.
The FAA hates that too, which is why as of December 2015 drone owners were mandated to register their machines with the government ($5, must be 13 or older, devices weighing from a half-pound to 55 pounds), and receive a registration number that must be put on the aircraft. If your machine gets lost, theoretically the finder will be able to get it back to you by tracking you down on the FAA website.
According to the FAA, some 340,000 drones were registered by the government deadline. More curiously, an estimated 1 million drones were sold last Christmas alone.
Casey Adams, CEO of the KC Drone Company and a former aviation military advisor who has worked in Afghanistan, is even less charitable to amateurs who get in the way.
“They are the bane of my existence,” he says.
Professional Drone Applications
Adams represents the future of professional droning in the Kansas City area, and a fascinating future it is.
His professional-grade drone pilots — who are required to have actual pilot licenses before they are allowed to charge for their services — already are doing a brisk business in helping farmers monitor and economize their acreage use.
For prices starting at $4.50 per acre, per flight, drones fly over fields and record what they see. They can identify areas that are too wet or too dry, which ones need additional fertilizer and which ones may be suffering from blight.
“You’re talking about saving farmers hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Adams says. “Irrigation costs money. If there is a part of your field that doesn’t need water, you need to know it.”
Likewise, “One part of a field might be thriving. You don’t need to fertilize that section, while the fertilizer you put on another part might be washing away. You need to know that, too.”
But Adams’ interest isn’t just out on the farm. In addition to being the president of his own startup, he also is vice president of another startup company, Machine Halo, that is working on real-time solutions to inner-city problems such as crime and fire, using drones as part of the strategy.
Machine Halo, founded by Isaiah Blackburn, is working with the city, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other police agencies to create networks of first responders that can attack emergencies within seconds, rather than minutes — all via the Internet.
“You have cameras that monitor school sidewalks or city streets,” Adams says. “There are software recognition systems that can identify people who are just passing by from someone who may be carrying a gun.
“There are sensors on the street [called ShotSpotter] that listen for gunshots and can tell the difference between a car backfiring and someone firing a gun or a rifle. The sensor can tell what the caliber is, and the cameras know where the shooters are. As soon as the shots go off, police are sent to the scene. You already know how many shooters there are and where they are. At the same time, a drone that is stored on top of the building lifts off. It can watch for shooters emerging from the building and follow whatever vehicle they escape in.
“All of that information is relayed to police. They know how many shooters there are, what kind of weapons they have, what kind of vehicle they are driving and which way they are headed. Instead of all this taking several minutes to coordinate, it’s done in 15 seconds.”
And the best thing about all this conjoining of hardware, software and humans is that it’s not in some distant future. In fact, a mock crisis was staged in KC in February in a 2.5-mile area of the River Market district that has been wired with sensors as part of the Smart City Tech Conference. The concept was to test out the use of drones and other technologies in emergency situations with KC Drone Company, the FBI, Homeland Security, DEA and others participating.
“It’s all here now. All the pieces are available,” Adams says. “It’s just a matter of getting the software to work together. That’s what we’re working on.”
Liberty Memorial at sunset captured by KC Drone Co.
Some FAA Safety Guidelines for Drones
- Keep your drone within eyesight at all times.
- Avoid airports, stadiums and national parks.
- Do not fly above 400 feet.
- Avoid flying over private property or power lines.
- Do not fly over people.
- Do not drink and fly.
- Avoid flying in bad weather.
- Fly only in daylight.
- Unmanned aircrafts must weigh less than 55 pounds.
- Maximum speed is 100 mph.
- If you want to use your drone for any profit-generating activity, you must get an exemption from the FAA and must have a licensed aircraft pilot at the controls.
Local Drone Resources
Parks with Airfields for Drone Flying
- Longview Park in Lee’s Summit
- Shawnee Mission Park
- Minor Park in Kansas City, Mo.
- Line Creek Park in Kansas City, Mo.
To Register Your Drone: visit www.faa.gov/uas/registration/
Kansas City UAV Club
KC RC Flight Meetup
DJI Phantom KC Flying Club, The Thunderbirds
Professional Drone Companies
KC Drone Company
Multiple applications including aerial photography or precision maps for agriculture, industrial surveying, etc., and aircraft training available. kcdroneco.com
Northland Sky Cam
For aerial photography, northlandskycam.us
Blue River Drones
For aerial photography, blueriverdrones.com