RC drones in the news

Apr 02, 2012 9 Comments by

We’ve been talking about drones, first-person-view (FPV) aircraft and other UAVs a lot recently. These discussions aren’t just limited to the hobby arena; this AP story by Marcus Wohlsen has been getting a lot of attention this week. It’s interesting to look at drones from the perspective of non-modelers. What do you think? Does it help or hurt our hobby?

In this March, 28, 2012, photo, Mark Harrison, right, and Andreas Oesterer, left, prepare their drones for a flight over a waterfront park in Berkeley, Calif. Interest in the domestic use of drones is surging among public agencies and private citizens alike, including a thriving subculture of amateur hobbyists, even as the prospect of countless tiny but powerful eyes circling in the skies raises serious privacy concerns. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

 

BERKELEY, Calif.—Sharp-eyed dog walkers along the San Francisco Bay waterfront may have spotted a strange-looking plane zipping overhead recently that that looked strikingly like the U.S. stealth drone captured by Iran in December.

 A few key differences: The flying wing seen over Berkeley is a fraction of the size of the CIA’s waylaid aircraft. And it’s made of plastic foam. But in some ways it’s just like a real spy plane.

The 4 1/2-foot-wide aircraft, built by software engineers Mark Harrison and Andreas Oesterer in their spare time, can fly itself to specified GPS coordinates and altitudes without any help from a pilot on the ground. A tiny video camera mounted on the front can send a live video feed to a set of goggles for the drone’s view of the world below.

“It’s just like flying without all the trouble of having to be up in the air,” Harrison said.

Thousands of hobbyists are taking part in what has become a global do-it-yourself drone subculture, a pastime that’s thriving as the Federal Aviation Administration seeks to make the skies friendlier to unmanned aircraft of all sizes.

The use of drones in the U.S. by law enforcement and other government agencies has privacy advocates on edge. At the same time, some DIY drone flyers believe the ease of sending cheap pilotless planes and choppers airborne gives citizens a powerful tool for keeping public servants on the ground honest.

Drones are the signature weapon of U.S. wars in the 21st century. Just as Humvees became a presence on U.S. highways in the 1990s after the first war with Iraq, interest in non-military uses of drones from policing to farming is rising.

Government agencies currently need FAA permission on a case-by-case basis to fly drones domestically. Commercial use is banned except for a small number of waivers for companies building experimental aircraft. But lawmakers have instructed the agency to allow civilian use of drones in U.S. airspace by September 2015. The FAA is expected to take the first step this year by proposing rules that would permit limited use of small commercial drones.

Whether a border patrol drone the size of a single-engine passenger plane or a four-rotor police “quadcopter” equipped with gear to intercept cell phone signals, the increasing ease of aerial surveillance seems destined to be put to a constitutional test over privacy.

“Our concern is with all of the drones,” said Jennifer Lynch, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Small aircraft are hard to see, and large drones can fly high enough to stay out of sight, she said. “I think they all pose different levels of privacy risk.”

Lynch has sued the FAA for a list of the 300 waivers it has issued to allow drone use in the U.S. At the same time, she said drones in the hands of average citizens could have important uses.

Among the groups seeking to take advantage of the steep drop in price of drone technology are journalists who want to attach cameras to aircraft the size of small pizzas and that cost as much to buy — about $400 — as a one-hour helicopter rental for a photographer.

In the San Francisco Bay area, Occupy Wall Street activists built the so-called Occucopter designed to monitor police action against protesters from the sky.

In Idaho, wildlife biologists started using a drone for counting fish nets after a helicopter crash killed two colleagues and a pilot.

And researchers are developing techniques to use drones equipped with infrared sensors to detect patches of dry ground in orchards.

Hobbyists say drone prices have been driven down sharply even in the past two or three years mainly by the surge in popularity of smartphones. The chips smartphones use to determine whether they’re being held vertically or horizontally or to locate themselves on a map are the same ones drones use to keep themselves flying straight, level and in the right direction.

The supply of such chips has spiked along with the use of smartphones, sending prices lower.

“Today if you have an iPhone or an Android, you basically have an autopilot in your pocket. You’re just running the wrong app,” said Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and founder of DIY Drones, an online community and company that sells drone kits and parts.

Anderson started DIY Drones in 2007 after spending the weekend building an electronic Lego robot and trying to fly a radio-controlled plane with his kids. The robot didn’t impress the kids on its own, and the plane was hard to fly, Anderson said. So the family used the Legos to build a primitive autopilot and attached it to the plane. The kids thought it was cool for a few weeks, but Anderson became obsessed.

Anderson said safety is a top consideration of his group, and he supports strict observance of the FAA regulations developed in the 1970s to cover the amateur use of radio-controlled planes, which also apply to today’s DIY drones. Those rules include restricting their altitude to 400 feet, requiring them to always be in view of their controller on the ground and prohibiting them from being flown over built-up areas.

That last rule reportedly led to trouble for some Los Angeles real estate agents, who were warned by police to stop using drones to take photos and video of homes for sale, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In Berkeley, Harrison and Oesterer spent more time tweaking wires and software than their drones spent in the air. Part of the reason was battery power: Their drones rely on the latest in lightweight laptop batteries to stay aloft but suck significantly more power. Still, both say would-be pilots don’t need degrees in computer science or electrical engineering to send drones skyward.

Said Oesterer: “It’s getting really close to plug-and-fly.”

Debra Cleghorn

About the author

Executive editor About me: I’m a publishing professional who has a passion for aviation and RC, and I love creating issues, books and a website that help RC pilots to enjoy this sport even more. I admire scale aircraft and enjoy the convenience of flying smaller electrics.

9 Responses to “RC drones in the news”

  1. Glenn says:

    I think Modellers are being nieve if the ignore the potential consequences of their actions. This scares a lot of people and we should not only be sensitive to this but also begin setting out our own code of conduct to ensure idiots do not abuse the technology.

  2. Paul S says:

    The discussion of drones within the modeling community should be the last thing we are doing these days. We are so very lucky to have the current exemption from the drone issue at the moment. More and more discussion of drones by the modeling press can only hurt us. We should be distancing ourselves from any connection to drones. Your continued coverage of drones, drones carrying weapons or any other FPV type of activity may act to hurt the modeling community in the future.

    Stick to what you know and are good at, the support of recreational model aviation.

  3. Larry says:

    First thing to do is stop calling them drones. Using the word “drone” makes people think the military and weapons. Call them something with a postive connotation. Call them RC planes with cameras, aerial cameras, fpv planes or choppers. Maybe somebody can come up with a better word.

    People who fly these craft should follow obvious common sense safety rules, like not flying in an area when the is a high chance hurting someone if something goes wrong, giving you plane a good preflight check and staying away from full sized aircraft.

    Didn’t anyone see the giant pink elephant in the room when watching the AMA/FCC meeting posted on a month or so ago Youtube? What was the average age of the audience? 66 1/2?? What color?? RC modelers/industry needs a diverse group of young folks signing up to become part of the hobby to survive and thrive, younger people seem to be the people interested in FPV flying. America needs our younger generation to be interested in working with and making technology not just using it on their Chinese bult cell phone. RC aircraft with modern gadgets like gps, cameras and autopilots area great ways to get young people interested and hooked. PLAY INNOVATE CREATE THRIVE!.

  4. Ace Ingram says:

    I find that some MAN articles are fairly left leaning and keep pushing a policital button most modelers don’t need to deal with to pursue happiness in our hobby. It may be intentional by MAN or a particular author. To make my person view understood I will not renew my subscription to MAN. The political hacks can have it, my hobby can be enjoyed without the nonsense.
    Ace Ingram

  5. Tom says:

    Drones dangerous? How about giant scale or 1/4, 1/3, 1/2 scale RC aircraft? Now there’s a hazard! What if that 100 pound plane suffers an equipment failure and crashes? What about those high speed RC jets loaded with flammable fuel? Those competition gliders with the needle noses? The point being, it’s easy to single out and try to limit something new. It takes more open-mindedness to embrace something new and find ways to minimize the risk and make it acceptable to the general public. So far (in my opinion) modelers are losing the battle of public opinion with camera planes.

    Look no further than gun enthusiasts and what the media refers to as so-called “assault weapons” for an example. These are nothing more than semi-automatic rifles that have been around for ages, except that cosmetically they look sinister and resemble genuine fully automatic military assault rifles. Private ownership of a fully auto rifle is, for practical purposes, already illegal in the US. But by blurring the distinction and using the term “assault weapons” the gun control groups, media, and politicians invoke an emotional response in the general public that favors a certain point of view.

    Likewise, calling camera planes “drones” immediately conjurs up a military aircraft that may potentially involve military-like consequences. Is this the image we want? Of course, the next step will be restrictive laws which, as we all know, will only limit the law-abiding and do nothing to prevent criminal activity.

    It’s time for the modeling media to get off their duffs and head this off before public opinion and the politicans ruin another hobby. With every reference to “drone aircraft” public concern ratchets up another notch. Articles promoting responsible camera plane use might be a place to start.

    “DIY Drones” is indeed a catchy name, but I question how appropriate it is in a post-9/11 world.

  6. David says:

    Get ready for the law suits when we have a crash into someones property and damage is done.. You will not be able to purchase insurance for this.

  7. dewstarpath says:

    - I agree with Larry (April 6) and Tom (April 9)
    about the use of the word “drone” to descibe the
    modern applications of R/C civilian uninhabited
    craft, along with military UAVs for that matter.

    Most modern civilian RPVs and military UAVs are
    too critical and/or too expensive to be used as
    drones. Unless they are used as expendable targets
    or weapons, the use of the term is anachronistic.

    To respond to Larry’s suggestion, I offer a
    personal one. Since 1990, I have made use of both
    an acronym of my own to describe this emerging
    field, using a well-known terminology that originated
    that same year. I call it STFV, or “staff-vee” for
    short – “Superremote Telepresence Flight Vehicle”.
    The ‘superremote’ part can be used here as an adjective,
    or as a noun – referring to telemetry involving cell-
    phones (already being done) or some future SATCOM
    capability, such as the proposed Iridium satellite
    network of the 1990′s.

    ‘Drones’ are obsolete anyways – simulators can handle
    the tasks in a cheaper and safer enviroment.

  8. Jat Gee says:

    Since Tom Atwood left, MAN has suffered many lapses in editorial oversight like this one. Come on MAN, let’s get with the program.

    Except for rare, carefully planned experiments, unassisted drones have no place in model aviation. I can’t see how they are not in direct violation of the AMA Safety Code:

    B. RADIO CONTROL (RC)
    1. All pilots shall avoid flying directly over unprotected people, vessels, vehicles or structures and shall avoid endangerment of life and property of others.

  9. Wes says:

    Ok, I agree with Paul S and Larry that we shoud quit calling our RC camera planes drones. This just keeps associating the hobby with commercial and military use .

    After all the flack from the left coast about heil mounted cameras for the real estate trade, we should learn to tone down the rhetoric about our handy-dandy “spy planes”.

    A further axe i have to grind is the use of RC models in CSI type TV shows to show some idiot how easy it is to illegally use one of our park flier type models to do some dastardly deed.

    The new camera plane Debra reviewed is really cool as long as we remind users to take pictures of their field rather than playing peeping tom in the neighborhood. It only takes a few idiots to ruin the whole game for the rest of us.

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