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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The Legacy of ‘Lawnchair Larry

Clockwise from left: Larry Walters in flight, after the flight and his flight plan (Images: Google, KTLA-TV)

Larry Walters was a truck driver by trade, but history remembers him for the patio chair he drove erratically through the approach airspace to Los Angeles International Airport. Although his risky and illegal stunt turned him into a cult hero, it also cost “Lawnchair Larry” $1,500 in FAA fines and earned him plenty of ridicule. His voyage happened 37 years ago this month.

As recounted in a 1998 New Yorker article, the story began when a young Walters visited Disneyland and saw a lady with a large cluster of balloons. He imagined what it would be like to take flight underneath them. A few years later, Walters saw a weather balloon at a military supply store and concluded that a big bunch of those oversized balloons would be enough to lift him (and a chair) into the air.

He never stopped dreaming about that possibility, but another 20 years passed before Walters acted on the fantasy. While on the road at a Holiday Inn, he sketched a plan on placemats and convinced his long-skeptical girlfriend, Carol Van Deusen, to go along with it. Walters took off from her back yard on July 2, 1982, carried aloft by a batch of balloons that was 150 feet high.

The flight of Inspiration, the name of Walters’ amateur aircraft, didn’t go at all as planned. When the last tether that restrained his chair and 42 helium-filled weather balloons snapped, he soared faster and higher than expected. Rising at 800 feet per minute, he eventually climbed to about 16,500 feet, or nearly three miles high.

Although Walters took a pellet gun in order to pop balloons and stop his ascent, he dropped the gun after shooting seven balloons at about 15,000 feet. By the time he reached his peak height, he was laboring for breath because he had not taken oxygen, and his toes were numb. He thought about jumping and using the parachute he was wearing.

He’s lucky he lived. You’re encouraged to use oxygen above 10,000 feet and required to use it above 12,500 feet in a small plane. And Walters was stuck up there.

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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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An Aerial Farewell Fit for a President

Clockwise from top left: George H.W. Bush as a naval aviator; Bush’s presidential portrait; son George W. Bush and family board for “Special Air Mission 41”; and the plane on the tarmac before the funeral flights began (Photos: George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, White House, U.S. Air Force)

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

As America reflected on the life and legacy of former President George H.W. Bush in December, the FAA worked quickly behind the scenes to keep the funeral procession going — from the Houston area to the nation’s capital and back.

Bush, who served as president from 1989 to 1993, died Nov. 30 at age 94. The events in his honor began Dec. 3 with a flight to the Washington, D.C., area for services at the U.S. Capitol and Washington National Cathedral. Then his body was flown back to Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base near Houston, where it was taken by Locomotive 4141 to the grounds of his presidential library for burial.

The aviation aspects of Bush’s funeral included: “Special Air Mission 41” between Texas and Joint Base Andrews in Maryland; a flyover of the presidential library by the plane carrying Bush’s body; and a 21-aircraft tribute at the library as part of the burial ceremony. The FAA coordinated all of those activities with the Air Force and the Navy.

George H.W. Bush’s body arrives at Andrews Air Force Base. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Andrew Lee)

Ryan Keenley, manager of the FAA’s National Capital Region Coordination Center, served as a liaison between the agency and the military. He started making the necessary connections the Friday Bush died and worked through the weekend.

The last presidential funeral was in 2006 for Gerald Ford, but the NCRCC regularly manages national special security events in the D.C. area. Evangelist Billy Graham’s funeral last year is a recent example.

“We’ve kind of got it down,” Keenley said. “We know what we have to do in terms of airspace restrictions, and then we accommodate the extras.”

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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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A Generation of ‘Flying Fools’

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

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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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.”

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.