At the May General Meeting, John Gallagher and David Baron treated us to an exciting presentation about drones. John is owner of The Hobby Hangout, a New Milford store that sells radio controlled devices. Both John and Dave have extensive experience in outfitting and operating drones of various types. For instance, John outfitted a drone for a client who uses it to look for sharks offshore. Dave used one of his drones to make a video for a home demolition company in Stamford, and the company uses the video in its advertisements.
“A drone is essentially a flying robot. Witness the great interest in how robots will be helpful in coming years and then add the ability to fly; this is the drone.”
John and Dave started their presentation with a description of the capabilities of several drones that they had on stage. All of the drones are battery-powered. Some also include a payload such as a camera. John and Dave started by describing a particular white drone that includes a 4K video camera with remote-controlled zoom. It weighs in at 6 lbs including the camera and batteries. A much larger red drone weighs 18 lbs.
John discussed a green “racing” drone that is capable of 100 miles per hour. He said it can accelerate from zero to 100 mph within just 20 feet! This review author calculates that this implies it can accelerate to 100 mph in just 0.3 seconds, with an acceleration force of about 14 times gravity! Not surprisingly, John commented that this drone is also hard to handle, especially when attempting to hover. This drone is optimized for racing. It therefore has a short battery life of just 6-7 minutes.
John and Dave continued their presentation with an extensive review of the uses for drones. Drones can of course be used for still photography or video filming, and many news organizations own their own drones. John and Dave displayed a spectacular Niagara Falls image that was taken by a drone from an angle that could not be filmed by conventional means.
Drones can be useful in responding to medical emergencies and disasters. For example, a drone can act as a delivery vehicle for emergency supplies. This is not just a thing of the future; it is already starting to happen! The city of Toronto is currently setting up a system of 20 strategically-located drones that are each outfitted with a portable defibrillator. When a 911 call operator receives a call regarding a suspected heart attack victim, this system will quickly deliver a defibrillator. The system will deliver the device to the front entrance of any building in Toronto, within just 120 seconds after the 911 operator’s decision to deploy it! Then the device provides the 911 operator with audio and video contact, and the trained 911 operator can guide a lay person through the use of the defibrillator on the victim. John and Dave showed a video that describes this operation. More advanced future drones can be expected even to serve as aerial ambulances.
Drones have already been used for 15 years in farming, especially in Asia. Drones have advantages over conventional aircraft. For example, drones can accurately deliver insecticide in the right dosage to fruit trees, even on an individual tree-by-tree basis.
Drones can be helpful to fire and police departments. John participated in a local fire department emergency response drill; he flew his camera-outfitted drones and provided real-time aerial views of a large simulated fire. A conventional camera approach, based on an $11 million vehicle outfitted with a 150-foot tower, was also attempted in the same drill. The conventional approach failed to work, because the tower did not deploy correctly. In this case, the drone was not only much less expensive than the conventional approach, but it was the only technique that actually functioned correctly!
Drones can be used in lifesaving. For example, a lifeguard can fly a drone and to a drowning victim and direct it to drop a life preserver. The drone may be a preferable approach, because it can reach the victim much faster than the lifeguard could swim there. Drones can also be used in search and rescue activities. In this work, drones can even work at night by use of thermal imaging sensors. “Forward Looking Infra Red” (FLIR) can make a night-time image look as if it were taken at noon.
Drones can aid in surveillance of livestock and wildlife poaching. An African government currently employs drones to monitor its fences. When its security sensors detect a breach, a drone is deployed. The cost of a drone deployment is much less than the cost of sending a conventional helicopter.
A large drone can reduce fog on a runway simply by flying over the runway and creating sufficient turbulence to blow the fog away.
Drones can help with inspection and other tasks related to tall or inconveniently-located objects. John noted that there were 17 inspector deaths last year, mostly related to the conventional inspection of towers, wind farms, and bridges. These deaths would not have occurred if drones had been utilized instead. A drone can also be set up to determine the stone inventory in a stone supply yard. For this task, the operator locates an x-y coordinate on the stone yard and programs the drone to fly autonomously over each x-y point and measure the height of the stone pile at that point; the operator transfers this information and a spreadsheet app performs a summation to determine the total stone volume. Regarding tasks other than inspection, a drone can even paint a cell tower.
We already have driverless cars, and we expect to shortly see driverless taxis. It is a short leap to also add the flying capability. This is the drone. In fact, Dubai already has a drone taxicab for hire!
In the future, we may rely on autonomous ground vehicles and autonomous drones for most transportation. In fact, children born today “may never need to get an automobile driver’s license, because these self-driving vehicles will likely already be widely available!
There have been many news stories about future delivery services by Amazon and FedEx. John believes that in order to have sufficient battery range, drones in autonomous flights will generally need to be winged aircraft, not the helicopters that are seen in some news shows.
John said that the drone industry has “gotten beat up in this country”, through media reports that typically focus on privacy issues and concerns about interference with conventional aircraft. No one was killed by a drone last year, but John and Dave pointed out that 147 people in the United States died last year in fires caused by toasters. John does not think the drone industry deserves the negative portrayal that it receives in the United States. The media in other countries are generally more supportive of the industry’s potential.
There are three ways to operate drones:
- Direct control. The pilot maintains eye contact with the drone.
- “First Person View” (FPV). The operator controls the drone from the perspective of being in it, by use of real-time video supplied by an onboard camera to the operator. John and Dave commented that this makes it easier to operate the drone’s control surfaces to maintain steady flight, without needing to think in reverse when the drone is heading toward the operator! However, they commented that it is also easy for him to lose track of the actual direction of flight in FPV; for this reason, some headset software apps include an onscreen arrow that shows the direction home.
- Autonomous Preprogrammed Flight. There is no human operator.
John and Dave continued their presentation with information about drone components and how drones work. Drones utilize lithium ion batteries, because this type of battery has a high energy density. They commented that a specially-outfitted drone can be kept continuously aloft by the use of a ground-based laser to provide battery recharge power.
There are a variety of software options for drone operation, including both open source and proprietary software. A software system may keep track of the battery charge and warn the operator when the remaining charge reduces to the amount just necessary to get home. Some software systems will even bring the drone home autonomously; the simplest type of this software utilizes GPS to direct the drone to fly home in a straight line. This means that the operator must be careful that there is no tree, building, or other impediment in the straight path between its current location and home! Many software systems also provide hover capability: if the operator lets go of the control stick, the drone will simply hover and stay within an area of about a 3-foot radius. Recent models of hobby drones can follow a skateboarder through streets, using automatic control to track the skateboarder and avoid obstacles.
John and Dave reviewed government regulations on the drone industry and drone hobbyists. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has spelled out requirements for drone operators, for drones that weigh more than 0.55 lbs, and for drone operation. The regulations appear in Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. A drone operator must have a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS (unmanned aerial systems) rating. Further, each drone must be registered, at $5 for three years. The FAA assigns the same registration number to all drones owned by a pilot. Details are at www.faa.gov/UAS.
The FAA’s Part 107 regulations for drone operation include restrictions:
- Drones may not fly, without permission, within 5 miles of an airport that has a tower. There are free phone apps that show a drone’s position in relation to the closest airports, and there is a simple method to apply for permission.
- Drones may not fly within any national park.
- Drones may not fly higher than 400 feet, to avoid interference with piloted aircraft.
Some drone pilot software systems include a feature known as “Geofence” that automatically prevents the drone from flying within disallowed areas such as national parks and airport 5-mile radii.
John and Dave said a drone must have a parachute if it will be flown over a crowd. The parachute is set up to automatically deploy if the drone starts moving above a predetermined threshold speed toward the ground.
Liability insurance is available from four insurance companies. The going rate is about $10/hour for a $1 million policy. The operator applies for insurance on a phone app. The insurance company decides whether to approve the application based on factors such as the site and the weather. Only liability insurance is available; no insurance is available to cover damage to the drone itself.
John and Dave demonstrated a drone hovering. It maintained its x-y position by using its video camera view of the rug below it. It maintained its elevation by using a distance measurement from the rug. By eye, the drone seemed to be motionless.
John and Dave had many drones on display on tables at the front of the stage. After the presentation, attendees wandered among the drones. John and Dave brought two colleagues Steve and Jay, who are also expert drone operators. There were many opportunities to ask questions and see these drones close up.