A Generation of ‘Flying Fools’

When Americans think of hijacking these days, one date sticks in their minds — Sept. 11, 2001, the day that 19 terrorists coordinated the hijacking of four airplanes and killed nearly 3,000 people. But there was a time in aviation history when “skyjackings” were so common that they were a topic of great concern at the FAA.

Stretching from the early 1960s into the mid-1970s, this “golden age of hijacking” featured the hostile takeover of more than 150 aircraft. The outbreak of lawlessness in the air led to new laws, regulations, executive orders and treaties. In addition to experts inside the FAA, pilots, aircraft designers, law enforcers and others brainstormed ways to address the threat domestically, and the International Civil Aviation Organization played a key role globally.

A scene from 9/11 as captured by an FAA employee

“Hijacking — or what to do about hijacking — confronts the government of the United States with serious challenges that require the harnessing of its technological, political and legal skills,” State Department official Frank Loy said in 1969.

The FAA deployed “peace officers” on select flights. It tested a system that combined behavioral profiling of passengers with technological screening and occasional interviews by U.S. marshals. And by the mid-1970s, the foundation of today’s passenger- and baggage-screening system had been laid in airports across the country.

The Cuban connection
It didn’t take long after the first successful flight of a powered airplane for the new technology to become a target of criminality. As noted in the 2017 book Violence in the Skies: A History of Aircraft Hijacking and Bombing, the first known theft of a plane was in 1911, followed by another incident in 1917 that ended with the two scofflaws dying in a crash.

While the earliest unverified accounts of skyjacking date back to 1919 in Hungary and 1929 in Mexico, the incident officially recognized as the first occurred Feb. 21, 1931, in Peru. A rebellion led by Lt. Col. Luis Miguel Sanchez Cerro was the impetus for that crime. Some disenchanted followers of his commandeered a Pan American Airways tri-motor plane for a flight from Arequipa to Lima to drop leaflets on the city. The captive mail pilot, Capt. Byron Dague Rickards, later received a Chicago Daily News award for his daring during that rebellion.

It took another 30 years — and the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba — for skyjacking to surface as a major concern in the United States. Several Cuban aircraft were hijacked to the United States and elsewhere before and after the Castro-led Cuban revolution, but those defections from a newly communist neighbor didn’t stir much angst in America.

Then on May 1, 1961, Antulio Ramirez Ortiz forced a National Airlines pilot to take a detour to Havana, not the United States. Three more such attempts, including the first on U.S. soil, occurred between July 24 and Aug. 9.

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Danny The Drone Dude

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…)

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.

Drone Journalism After A Disaster

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

When disaster strikes these days, it doesn’t take long for drone pilots to document the damage from the air – and for people to start talking about the imagery.

The reactions tend to fall into one of two camps. Those who appreciate the aerial perspectives of nature’s fury celebrate the technology that delivers it. But more cynical viewers (usually other drone pilots) see the footage as evidence of bad behavior.

The pessimists have a point. Drone operations are heavily restricted in disaster zones because of the prevalence of emergency responders flying manned aircraft at low altitudes, and some drone pilots do break the rules. Just this week police arrested a California man for flying his drone near an airport frequented by aircraft fighting wildfires in the state.

But people shouldn’t rush to the judgment that every aerial disaster photo or video was obtained illegally. That attitude undermines the quality visual journalism being produced by conscientious drone pilots, like Josh Haner for The New York Times.

Haner, who last year used his drone skills to help illustrate the “Carbon’s Casualties” series on climate change, was in Santa Rosa, Calif., last week to film the aftermath of deadly wildfires. His footage brings the fire’s impact to life from the sky – and it was all shot legally.

“Exercising the most caution around breaking news is something I’m very passionate about,” Haner told Drone Book. “I think as a journalistic community we need to think about when we fly and make ethical decisions that err on the side of caution.”

Haner shot the footage in two locations outside the range of temporary flight restrictions imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration, a fact that he confirmed beforehand by calling 1-800-WXBrief. He also showed his remote pilot’s certificate to police at the nearest road block, and they told him where he could fly without being over an active fire.

No flight restrictions were implemented in the area of the footage for about 24 hours after the fire started, but Haner and his editors decided against flying over active fires.

“Just because we can fly in areas before TFRs go into effect doesn’t mean we should,” he said. “In this situation we postponed our flights until we felt comfortable there were no fire or rescue flights in the area even though there were no TFRs in effect for a very long time.”

The first TFR took effect as Haner transmitted his footage to the newspaper. “I was glad that I’d already finished as I don’t like going anywhere near TFRs,” he said. “It’s just not worth it.”

Another video in Santa Rosa shot by drone pilot Douglas Thron gained traction online. It featured a U.S. Postal Service truck driving through a neighborhood destroyed by fire.

“It was a trippy thing — he was actually delivering the mail,” said Thron, who was on assignment for NBC’s “Today.” “I was shocked to see him because most of the roads were blocked off, but he obviously had access.”

Thron appears to have flown his drone before a TFR was implemented for the area.

The Los Angeles Times also published aerial imagery of the wildfire’s damage, and its approach to getting the story is worth noting. “No drone was used,” Marcus Yam said in an email. “I flew in a helicopter for those aerial surveys.”

The point is that it’s possible for journalists to obey the law and capture newsworthy aerial footage in disaster areas. Dozens of journalists are, like Haner, certified to fly drones themselves; news outlets can contract the work to highly experienced drone pilots like Thron; or they can go the old-fashioned but costlier route of hiring helicopter pilots.

So the next time you see powerful aerial footage of a disaster scene, resist the urge to jump to any unwarranted conclusions about how it was obtained. Just appreciate the moment.

Blazing An Aerial Imagery Trail

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

Photo: Fireground Images

Keith Muratori has made a career out of fighting fires – and photographing them. Now he is taking his joint passions for extinguishing and chronicling flames to the air.

When he’s not on duty, Muratori listens to an old-fashioned scanner and monitors modern tools like Twitter, fire-paging text services and fire photographer groups on the walkie-talkie app Zello to identify blazes. Then he records the tragic moments with either the camera around his neck or the drone in the air above them.

“The action, operations and vivid colors captured in firefighting imagery are amazing,” said Muratori, a veteran of the Bridgeport Fire Department in Connecticut. “It’s also about capturing the history of the fire service or a fire department, as well as the opportunity for firefighters to learn from this imagery.”

A native of Shelton, Conn., Muratori earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology but developed an interest in firefighting while working on a wellness program for the department that he now calls home. His wife’s admiration for her grandfather, a retired Bridgeport firefighter, also inspired Muratori to make a career change. He initially worked as a volunteer firefighter in Shelton and has been on the paid force in Bridgeport for 17 years.

Muratori’s passion for photography took root at an earlier age, and he naturally gravitated toward documenting fires on film. Fire photographers like John Cetrino and Bill Noonan in Boston and Bob Pressler in the Bronx served as role models. Muratori is one of two official photographers for the Bridgeport department.

 

Watching fires develop while he was behind the lens gave Muratori a new perspective on their behavior, and fighting them inside gave him insights into how to photograph them. “Fire photography became a perfect fit both as a hobby and profession,” he said. “Photographing fires was making me a better fireman, and firefighting made me a better fire photographer.”

(more…)

Grading Drone Innovation

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

The latest Innovation Scorecard from the Consumer Technology Association grades all 50 states based on their drone laws.

Arizona, Georgia and Michigan are at the top of the drone-friendly list because of their efforts to harmonize laws statewide. States like Louisiana, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, on the other hand, are creating rules that are technology-specific, that conflict with federal rules, or that allow localities to go different ways.

“Local and state officials should support national rules that provide an organized and consistent policy framework for the growing number of consumers and commercial operators using drones,” CTA concluded.

The scorecard, which CTA has been producing for three years, encompasses far more than drones, including tax policy, Internet access, and education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The state-by-state breakdown on drones is in the “Open Roads & Open Skies” section of the scorecard, which also covers self-driving automobiles.

Visit the scorecard for detailed explanations of the grades in this chart:

The State Of Drone Regulation

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

Barely a week or sometimes a day goes by without news of a new state or local drone law, but it hasn’t always been so. The earliest such attempt to regulate drones didn’t occur until 2009.

That is one of several insights from a report released today by the Center for the Study of the Drone. “Drones at Home: State and Local Drone Laws” is the first of three reports the center will release this year exploring the topic. Future reports will cover the use of drones by public safety agencies and the methods of enforcing state and local laws.

“Many of the laws that have passed have enacted statutes aimed at restricting the use of drones by law enforcement, prohibiting drones from flying over critical infrastructure, and preventing individuals from using drones to invade someone else’s privacy,” the report said. “Some of the laws have defined strict penalties for violations, including felony and misdemeanor charges and fines.”

The report includes a chart that identifies the state, city, date of enactment and description of each ordinance. Numerous links point readers toward more information.

Here are some of the historical tidbits and key statistics from the report:

  • The first local drone law in Grand Forks, N.D., banned takeoffs and landings from airports, helipads and other unauthorized locations.
  • The rate of drone regulatory activity started climbing in 2015, when 34 were enacted. Another 58 took effect in 2016.
  • The 133 local laws identified in the report apply to more than 30 million people in 31 states.
  • Most of the ordinances (127) restrict drone activities in the private sector but not by law enforcement or others in government.
  • Sixty-seven statutes regulate drone use in parks, roads and other public spaces, the most common topic of oversight.
  • Seven states have banned local drone regulation, and four others have enacted laws claiming state sovereignty over the airspace.

The center’s report adds to an existing body of work on state and local drone regulations by others. These include Drone Law Today, the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National League of Cities and drone lawyer Jonathan Rupprecht.

Update, April 6: The Center for the Study of the Drone released its second report in the “Drones at Home” series, “Public Safety Drones.”

Update, April 27: The center released its final “Drones at Home” report, “Drone Incidents: A Survey of Legal Cases.”

A Grand Search-And-Rescue Tool

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

The National Park Service’s recent drone search for two missing hikers at the bottom of the Grand Canyon wasn’t successful, but it highlighted the potential value of the park’s drone fleet, the only one like it in the national park system.

Grand Canyon chief ranger Matt Vandzura told the Associated Press that unmanned aircraft give searchers the same close look at hard-to-reach places as helicopters but without the risks. “It has dramatically increased our ability to keep our people safe,” he said.

The news of the search for a 62-year-old woman and her 14-year-old step grandson follows by about a month the release of a report about how drones are being used to save lives. Eight of the rescues occurred in the United States and contributed to the rescues of 14 people.

Grand Canyon National Park has five drones and four FAA-certified operators, according to AP. The drones capture video of the canyon’s rugged terrain for officials to review twice, once as it is recorded and once at the end of the day.

In November, after a visitor drove off a cliff and died, drones were sent in to examine the trees and brush and make sure it was safe for a helicopter to fly in and lift the car out.

The next month, rangers used a drone to locate a woman who had jumped to her death. Then they rappelled down to retrieve the body.

The dangers of flying choppers in the canyon were illustrated in 2003, when a Park Service helicopter experienced a mechanical failure and crash-landed on the North Rim. Those aboard suffered only minor injuries; the helicopter was totaled.

Other national parks use drones, but for wildlife research. The use of private drones is prohibited in national parks.

Lifesaving Drone Missions Fulfilled

Originally published at Drone Book
By K. Daniel Glover

Drones contributed to the saving of at least 59 lives in 18 different emergency situations around the world between May 2015 and last month, according to a new report. Eight of the rescues involving 14 people occurred in the United States.

China-based DJI, the leading civilian drone maker, produced the report based on news accounts of the incidents. People were counted as being saved by drones if they were “in a state of danger that could imperil [them],” such as floods, fires and exposure to extreme weather. The drones in these situations also had to play a “material role” in getting the people to safety.

The report calculated that drones are saving about one life a week. “For firefighters, rescue squads and search operations,” the report said, “drones offer an unprecedented way to quickly find missing people with traditional cameras or thermal imaging sensors, as well as to bring them emergency supplies such as water, life jackets, medicine and rescue ropes.”

The report found that drones not only enhance search-and-rescue operations and make them safer for emergency responders, but they also empower civilians. One-third of the saved lives identified in the report involved civilians using their drones.

The report mentioned the following livesaving drone incidents in the United States:

  • Four people in a Texas flood (May 17, 2015). The pilot, Garret Bryl, has become a drone celebrity since then. Featured in Drone360, Droneblog, The Huffington Post, People and other publications, he is scheduled to speak at the ASCEND Conference and Expo in July.
  • Two teenagers trapped by flooding in Maine (June 30, 2015).
  • A missing teacher found in an Indiana field (June 21, 2016). A civilian volunteered his drone for that search, and the success of the operation motivated the county sheriff to look into buying his department a drone.
  • Two missing boaters in Iowa, one of whom had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital after being discovered (July 13, 2016).
  • A North Carolina man lost and stranded in his kayak (Aug. 26, 2016). “They knew he had diabetes and he was elderly, so they had the idea to string up a bottle of water,” volunteer pilot John Frink said. “I hung it from the drone and carried it to him.”
  • A 65-year-old hunter and his dog who got lost in Minnesota (Sept. 17, 2016).
  • A North Carolina man and his dog trapped in their home by the floodwaters of Hurricane Matthew (Oct. 9, 2016). A drone pilot’s decision to post a photo of a flooded home to Twitter led to the discovery of the need for a rescue.
  • And two lost South Carolina kayakers who were found thanks to a fire department’s drone with thermal imaging capability (Jan. 14, 2017).