FAA Drone Experts in the Zone

Photo: Cedar Box Photography

By K. Daniel Glover

Drone pilots across the country are getting their requests to fly in controlled airspace reviewed more quickly thanks to a new approach implemented in FAA service centers last fall.

The agency relocated the tasking to review airspace authorizations to subject matter experts in the service centers in Georgia, Texas and Washington. These teams processed a backlog of nearly 20,000 requests in the ensuing months. Now they are focused on the hundreds of new requests submitted through the FAADroneZone each week.

“It has become a model for the world,” said Anthony Schneider, the Air Traffic Organization’s safety director. “It’s really an amazing story.”

It took several years to get to this point of UAS integration into the national airspace system. The first big step occurred with the 2016 implementation of Part 107, the federal aviation regulation that governs commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems. The rules allow commercial drone pilots to fly up to 400 feet in most uncontrolled airspace without contacting the FAA, but they must get permission to fly near controlled airports.

To deter drone pilots from contacting air traffic control towers directly, the FAA in the short term tasked FAA headquarters with authorizing airspace access. “We wanted to shift that work from the field facilities to somewhere else,” said Schneider, who worked on Part 107 implementation at FAA headquarters for two years.

Photo: Cedar Box Photography

Behind the scenes, the agency worked on a more permanent solution – grid maps of the airspace around airports that could be used to approve most requests automatically. The maps eventually were incorporated into the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability, a data exchange that enabled third parties to create mobile applications for airspace approvals.

What the FAA did not fully anticipate is just how sudden and great the demand would be to fly in urban areas for commercial purposes. “There’s not a lot of money to be made in a pasture,” Schneider said. “If you want to make money, you’ve got to go where the people are.”

He said a tidal wave of requests, including more than a thousand in the first week, flooded into the FAA. “People requested everything, everywhere,” quickly overwhelming the nine people in the Air Traffic Organization who analyzed the requests for safety. The stated goal of responding to the requests within 90 days began to slip.

Two developments in 2018 – the debut of the FAADroneZone and the deployment of LAANC – paved the way for moving the manual reviews to the service centers.

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One Love Manassas

Using my FAA-issued waiver and authorization to fly at night near Manassas Regional Airport, I documented the “Turn on Your Light” walk and “Chasing Light” performance at the City Of Manassas Museum back in April. It was part of the One Love Manassas arts event hosted by Historic Manassas Inc.

In addition to shooting the night photography, I produced this video about the event.

Contact me at airscapephoto@gmail.com to provide aerial imagery services of your event.

 

The Making of an Aerial Memory

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

When you’re fighting cancer, it helps to know your friends are there for you. Leo Zambori has a whole host of them who showed their support in a creative way. They retained a volunteer drone pilot.

More than two years later, Zambori still cherishes the memory, according to his mother. “The photo was an amazing pick-me-up for Leo,” Natalie Zambori said after drone pilot Jeremy Lewis re-posted the image on Facebook in January for Leo’s birthday. “He loved and still loves to look at this photo. I remember him saying ‘Wow, all those people did that for me?’”

Lewis, the owner of Flying Dreams Aerial Imaging Services in Martins Ferry, Ohio, captured the memory for the Zamboris not long after he started flying unmanned aircraft systems. He gained early experience on the grounds of Martins Ferry City Schools and put together a video.

When Leo Zambori was diagnosed with leukemia at age 5, school officials and students wanted to let him know he wasn’t alone in the fight. Middle school principal Mike Delatore remembered Lewis’ drone work and reached out to him with an idea – an aerial photo of the student body spelling out Zambori’s name on the football field.

Lewis did the shoot solo, and it took about 20 minutes. “They all assembled on the field in the middle of the track that morning and spelled out Leo’s name along with a heart,” he recalled. “That pretty much says it all. They all came together as one to support this little boy and his family. I was blessed to be allowed to be a part of it.”

Zambori is now in second grade. He loves sports in general and baseball in particular, and he’s a loyal fan of all Pittsburgh sports teams. He has four months left in his three-year, five-month chemotherapy protocol.

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Quake Takes: Damage Assessment by Drone

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

Alaska Aerial Media’s goal of convincing government agencies in The Last Frontier to explore the next aviation frontier paid off recently after an earthquake hit near Anchorage. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities hired the company to map the damages with its fleet of drones.

The 7.0 earthquake rumbled Alaska’s largest city awake at 8:29 a.m. on Nov. 30. Alaska Aerial Media quickly deployed its crews to document the infrastructure damage, and the DOT&PF used the footage to assess the situation remotely and prioritize repairs. After five long days of flight time in the field and editing time in the studio, Alaska Aerial Media had a solid case study for using drones to assess disaster damages.

“It’s pretty impressive technology to be able to capture it in such a small amount of time where they’re trying to restore services or restore roadways while you’re out there mapping,” Alaska Aerial Media founder Ryan Marlow said. “It worked great.”

Alaska Aerial Media is a trailblazer in the drone industry. In 2015 the company became the first in the state to receive Federal Aviation Administration approval to fly drones for commercial purposes. Its two exemptions from airworthiness regulations for specific unmanned aircraft systems applied to aerial cinematography and aerial data collection.

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Cozy Cabin By The Lake

A client of my drone company, Airscape Photography, proposed a barter deal for a private aerial shoot — photos of their family cabin near Leesville Lake in Gretna, Va., in exchange for a family weekend at the cabin. We jumped at the chance for a getaway!

In addition to pictures of the cabin, I captured colorful sunrise and sunset shots, an eerie black-and-white photo of an abandoned house and more. See the full gallery of pictures.

Want to barter for an aerial shoot at your vacation home? We’re open to your pitch! Email airscapephoto@gmail.com.

Danny The Drone Dude

Originally published on the FAA’s internal website and at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

Throughout childhood and into college, I pictured the adult version of myself in a whole host of careers. The ideas ranged from the predictable (doctor) and practical (electrician) to the sensible (electrical engineer) and fantastical (wildlife photographer).

One future that I never could have imagined, or that any aptitude test could have predicted, was becoming a commercial drone pilot. Yet here I am today, living that dream in my spare time while working for the federal agency that taught me how to do it safely.

The genesis of droning dreams
I joined the Federal Aviation Administration as a writer-editor in December 2012, just as the integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the national airspace system became a priority. Congress had addressed the issue earlier that year in a series of mandates, and the FAA published a comprehensive plan and integration roadmap in November 2013.

FAA writer Danny Glover and his son, Anthony, on the job for a client (Photo: Cedar Box Photography)

Back then, I had only a passing knowledge of drones of the military variety, like the Predator and Reaper. But as I learned about smaller unmanned aircraft systems, I started picturing myself at the remote controls. I could experience the thrill of flight without being in the air myself, a prospect that rarely appeals to me.

Periodic exposure to UAS-related issues as a writer and editor heightened my interest. I reported on the first “UAS Day” at the Air Traffic Control Association, edited some content for the “Know Before You Fly” educational campaign, interviewed an FAA lawyer about the legal landscape surrounding drones, and wrote about the Pathfinder research program.

I talked about drones at home often enough that my wife and children heard the not-so-subtle message. They bought me one for my birthday. That’s when this 1980s child of one-joystick Atari games realized I wasn’t technologically adept enough to operate modern electronic toys.

I bounced that drone off every wall and piece of furniture in our house, testing the limits of the flexible plastic construction and propeller guards. Our teenage son, Anthony, was a natural at the controls — but when I let him fly the drone outside, he promptly rebelled against my orders to stay low and away from trees. He snagged the drone on a limb 25 feet in the air.

The whole family, and probably some amused neighbors, watched as an irritated and frantic father tried mightily to rescue his new toy. I tied a small rock to a long stretch of string and repeatedly heaved it into the air until it finally sailed over the limb. A few firm, downward yanks of the string freed the drone but not the rock. It dangled 15 feet above the ground for months, prompting the occasional curious question from visitors to our house. (more…)

Surrounded By Sprawl

There aren’t many working family farms left in Prince William County, and the Virginia Department of Transportation once tried to seize Cedars Farm to build a commuter parking lot. That idea failed in 2015, so I had the opportunity to capture this photo for an Airscape Photography client.

I did the work as a retirement gift for someone at the Prince William Soil and Water Conservation District. Her husband’s parents bought the 125-acre farm in 1936. See more views of the property here.

The Key To UAS Integration

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

Collaboration with the drone industry, state and local governments, and the public is the key to successfully integrating drones into the national airspace system, federal officials said this week at the nation’s biggest technology trade show.

“Let’s figure out the right balances,” Deputy Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Finch Fulton said at CES in Las Vegas, where Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration officials discussed the challenges of drone integration.

Fulton and Earl Lawrence, executive director of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Office, participated in a discussion about drone innovation. The topics included the new UAS Integration Pilot Program and the work of the Drone Advisory Committee.

Fulton opened the discussion by explaining the Trump administration’s “revolutionary approach” in the pilot program. Initiated late last year, the program facilitates partnerships between “lead applicants” in industry and state, local and tribal governments. The partners will work with the FAA to test ideas for advanced UAS operations that currently are heavily restricted.

The city of Palo Alto, Calif., for instance, recently outlined two proposals involving the Stanford Blood Center and Palo Alto Airport. The blood center wants to work with the UAS provider Matternet to deliver blood samples on a designated flight path to and from Stanford Hospital. And the airport is eyeing a partnership with Multirotor to explore ways to integrate drones and manned aircraft while avoiding airfield conflicts.

Fulton said the pilot program is designed to identify “reasonable time, place and manner restrictions” on drone operations. As an example, he said research through the program could reveal that the best way to integrate drone deliveries is to conduct the operations at night.

“Instead of just imposing rules and figuring out ways to say no,” Fulton said, “we come to the public and try to figure out ways that we can say yes and to enable this innovation.”

Lawrence said the pilot program is essential in a world where aircraft are more personal in nature, sometimes flying from people’s palms, but operate in a complex airspace system that evolved over time. The program will pull together experts who know how to achieve safety in their particular realms of expertise in order to develop a “safety culture” for drones.

“We’re having to relearn how we did that almost a hundred years ago now and fit it into the processes,” Lawrence said.

The Drone Advisory Committee is part of that collaborative effort, too. The DAC membership includes representatives from the drone industry, local government, academia and other aviation interests. “It’s our opportunity to reach out and get a good cross-section of individuals who are affected by this new technology,” Lawrence said.

A drone pilot who was part of the panel discussion praised the FAA for successfully integrating drones into the national airspace during last year’s hurricanes in Florida, Texas and the Caribbean. Taylor Mitcham, the “chief drone ninja” at Florida-based SkyNinja, was among the pilots who received emergency FAA authorizations to fly in disaster-stricken areas.

“The FAA had a great response,” she said. “A lot of times we got instant airspace authorizations in a lot of areas that were very critical, especially with our cell-tower inspections that we were doing out in the Florida Keys.”

Lawrence made clear that the FAA is eager to safely achieve that kind of integration on a broader scale by engaging with industry. “We all want to serve the community. We all see the benefit,” he said. “We’re learning together.”

NTSB: Drone Pilot Caused Crash

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

A drone pilot crashed his Phantom 4 small unmanned aircraft system into a U.S. Army helicopter in September because he was flying it out of his line of sight, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded today.

The drone pilot was a hobbyist, not a commercial operator who had passed an airman’s knowledge test to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. The accident occurred 2.5 miles from where he was operating the controls.

The Army pilot, whose Black Hawk helicopter was part of a presidential movement to New York for a United Nations meeting, saw the drone and tried to avoid it but didn’t have enough time.

In addition to flying beyond line of sight, the drone pilot was operating during official night conditions, in an area regularly used by helicopters and in restricted airspace. This demonstrated a “lack of understanding of the potential hazard of collision with other aircraft,” the NTSB report said.

NTSB illustration of the crash scene

NTSB illustration of the crash scene

The agency also criticized the drone pilot’s use of a mobile application with limited capability for alerting pilots to temporary flight restrictions. “Sole reliance on advisory functions of a non-certified app is not sufficient to ensure that correct airspace information is obtained,” the report said. The pilot also did not have Internet access on his mobile device to check for TFRs before the flight.

The operator didn’t know he had crashed until the agency contacted him. “The sUAS pilot reported that he lost signal with the aircraft and assumed it would return home as programmed,” the NTSB said. “After waiting about 30 minutes, he assumed it had experienced a malfunction and crashed in the water.”

The pilot purchased another drone five days after the accident.

Pumpkin Air Patrol

If you live within driving distance of Winchester, Va., and haven’t taken a detour onto Route 522, you’ve been missing one of the best roadside markets in the Old Dominion. The Virginia Farm Market is in its fourth generation of business there.

Every fall, the property famous for its red building with a giant apple on top gets even more colorful as the seasonal pumpkins arrive. This year I had the pleasure of capturing the annual scene from above for the market, the first client of my new company, Airscape Photography.

See more aerial views of the property here.