By JUSTIN MOORE
A little more forward throttle, a bit more yaw to the left. Perfect. Click.
You might assume that I’m flying an airplane and taking a picture from one, but I’m not. I’m piloting a Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) — also commonly known as an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) — and I just took a picture of San Pedro Springs Park, the second oldest city park in the nation. The picture will help San Antonio residents experience their city parks from a whole new perspective.
Known to the public simply as a “drone,” my DJI Inspire 1 is an extremely capable aerial photography platform featuring a 12-megapixel camera and 4K video camera — all stabilized on a 3-axis gimbal. It is truly a camera sitting on a “tripod in the sky.”
I’ve been serious about photography since 1999, when I started my part-time career as a professional photographer. Like many photographers, I also have a day job that pays the mortgage, working as a research analyst at USAA.
In 2001 I realized a childhood dream when I earned my private pilot certificate. A few years later I got an instrument rating, which cleaned up my flying skills and let me experience the unique joy of working hard on an instrument approach, popping out of a low ceiling and being rewarded with a runway in sight.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the concept of a “flying camera” was literally a match made in heaven for me. Here was this flying machine that appealed to my passion for the blue yonder and this camera, aloft, that let me view my world from a completely new perspective.
So how does this private pilot feel about RPAs? I think there is no denying that they are part of our future.
The positive benefits are many, including the very real benefit of saving lives. Just recently an Inspire 1, like mine, was used to fly a rope across a raging river to a couple that was stranded near their home. Rescuers had tried to get the rope across by boat without success.
RPAs are also helping rescuers in disaster areas get a birds-eye view to assist with damage assessment and to help pinpoint survivors. Drones can also replace some high risk inspections — like cell tower inspections — that in 2013 caused 13 lives to be lost.
Can RPAs be dangerous? Sure they can.
Flying an RPA near an airport or hovering a drone over a large crowd of people is a perfect example of a reckless operation. Manufacturers, like DJI, are trying to help by programming “no fly zones” into the flight controller of their RPAs that can even prevent their engines from starting if an operator is trying to fly at or near an airport.
While efforts like this can be very helpful, the best solution is to hold operators personally responsible for their actions.
Unfortunately, like most advances in technology, the appropriate publication of fair rules and regulations is flying behind the power curve. This is certainly true in the United States where the FAA has yet to publish a final set of rules designed to integrate RPAs into the national airspace, despite a mandate to do so by Congress by 2015.
Section 334 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 states, “not later than Dec. 31, 2015, the administrator shall develop and implement operational and certification requirements for the operation of public unmanned aircraft systems in the national airspace system.”
Without clear guidance from the FAA, some state and local governments have decided to take matters into their own hands with suffocating legislation often built upon misinformation and hearsay.
Take for example, privacy concerns. The DJI Inspire 1 system that I fly has a 24mm wide-angle lens. Like most RPAs, wide-angle lenses are chosen because they provide the ability to capture dramatic and far-reaching aerial views.
Like most wide-angle lenses, however, they don’t do a very good job of magnifying the view of things down below. This means that to “spy on your neighbor” you’d need to effectively fly over their property and hover low enough that your neighbor would know about it — these RPAs are many things, but quiet isn’t one of them — and have a decent chance of knocking the bird down with a well-aimed shot from your favorite projectile.
Once again, this is a matter of holding reckless or inconsiderate operators accountable for their actions. If your neighbor is hovering their RPA low over your swimming pool and you knock it down with a basketball…well, they had it coming.
I’m encouraged though. Most of the time when I fly, a small crowd of onlookers forms. Most of the time, the crowd is fascinated. The adults often sound like kids — asking questions about how it works while looking closely at this marvel of technology that is hovering safely, with no control inputs, thanks to the miracle of GPS.
RPAs don’t have to be a menace. Quite the contrary, they can be a classroom in the sky — igniting an interest in a flying machine that demonstrates so efficiently concepts like lift, thrust, crabbing into the wind, and more.
Before you make your final judgment on RPAs, go spend some time with an operator. Better yet, spend a little time flying one yourself, but be careful. You might just get hooked.
Flying an RPA is no substitute for flying my favorite Cessna 172, but it does scratch that flying itch. And that’s a good thing.