Our understanding of the world is generally defined at first by a concept and then narrowed down to specifics. The same goes for our current fascination with unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones. The term UAS is self-explanatory, whereas the more commonly used term ‘drone’ refers to the resemblance, in looks and sound, of some of these aircraft to the male bee. Just like the male bee, high-tech drones are used for work that is “dull, dirty or dangerous.” Poor drones.
As a concept, unmanned aircraft systems are remotely piloted from ground control and vary from those used in military operations, for spying or bombing raids to professional photography and video production, and now to recreational ‘model aircraft’ use that can be given as Christmas gifts and flown – often to the annoyance of others – around the house and in the backyard.
OK. That’s the semantics, the definition taken care of. It’s now time to drill down and focus on one kind of ‘drone’ that is of particular interest in Papua New Guinea.
I am going to look at a quadcopters – a kind of drone that uses four propellers. In the late 2000s, advances in electronics have allowed the production of cheap lightweight flight controllers, accelerometers, global positioning system (GPS) and cameras to be built on board such devices, interacting with a ground control tablet.
Quadcopters are small and maneuverable, can be flown indoors and outdoors, and considering the amount of cutting-edge technology involved, they are relatively inexpensive.
We often think of drones as being associated with photography and video. Lately there have been some stunning images of Port Moresby, Mt Hagen and other parts of the country captured by drones.
According to our friend and professional photographer Rocky Roe who owns and operates one such UAS we have witnessed amazing progress in a very short period of time.
“The drone I use is a DJI Inspire 1 that uses a GPS to help me, at ground control, position it. The drone will hover to a position and light wind will not blow it around, as used to happen with earlier drones. This is a huge step forward.”
“I have a tablet mounted on my controller that allows me to view exactly what the drone’s camera sees. Previously you had to guess what you were photographing. Nowadays, all photos are correctly framed.”
Apart from photography, there are a number of potential uses for quaddies and other forms of UAS or drones – it would appear that the sky is the limit.
Think about this. Around the world drones have been used as a cost-effective tool for surveying, search and rescue missions, aerial surveying of crops, inspecting power lines and pipelines, counting wildlife, delivering medical supplies to remote or otherwise inaccessible regions, reconnaissance operations, parcel delivery, cooperative environment monitoring, border patrol missions, convoy protection, surveillance and crime prevention, coordinating humanitarian aid, detection of poaching, crowd monitoring and so on. Basically anything that requires or could benefit from an “eye in the sky”.
As one archeologist put it: “You can go up three metres and photograph a room, 300 metres and photograph a site, or you can go up 3,000 metres and photograph the entire valley.” That’s our drone.
The Global Market
Like most advances in human technology, it is sad to say that drones have been developed primarily for military purposes. It’s a strange human quirk. War seems to bring out “the best” in us.
Despite the growth of the quadcopter market, it is expected that by 2024 military drones will account for US$10 billion out of a potential US$13 billion global market.
The USA operated over 9,000 military drones in 2014 – and remember, these are high-tech and very expensive pieces of equipment.
As far as “mass consumer” drone manufacture, development and marketing goes, Chinese company DJI leads the way by far with US$500m global sales and as stated by The Economist magazine, DJI is at the forefront of the consumer drone industry.
Based in Shenzhen, China DJI was founded in 2006. According to the company, it benefits from direct access to suppliers as well as the massive pool of young, creative talent that is currently driving China to an unprecedented age of prosperity.
DJI boasts of “an unparalleled commitment to R&D, a culture of constant innovation and curiosity, and a focus on transforming complex technology into easy-to-use devices.”
Building on the ethos of “form follows function,” DJI claims that its products combine advanced technology with dynamic designs and that its products are redefining industries. Professionals in filmmaking, agriculture, conservation, search and rescue, energy infrastructure, and more trust DJI to bring new perspectives to their work and help them accomplish feats safer, faster, and with greater efficiency than ever before.
DJI manufactures a range of consumer drones and accessories. The Phantom and Inspire series being the most popular. Remember our friend Rocky Roe is the owner of a DJI Inspire 1 model.
DJI’s most popular series is the Phantom series and the company’s best model aimed at consumers and enthusiasts is the Phantom 3 Professional, which flies through the air via an easy-to-use remote control and records stabilized 4K footage with a wide-angle lens.
The Phantom 3 Professional is a white quadcopter, with four pylons (each with a rotor), a bottom-mounted camera, and landing struts. The drone measures about 23 inches from wingtip to wingtip and weighs just under 3 pounds.
LED lights at the bottom of each wing help you keep track of it in the air. It’s easy enough to attach the propellers with your fingers—the motors and rotors are both color-coded to ensure proper installation.
The remote control for the Phantom 3 Professional is well designed, with more physical controls, an integrated battery, and the ability to accommodate a full-size iPad as your flight monitor. The 720p Live View feed that streams to the monitor is crisp and smooth (within a reasonable operating range), so you can pilot the drone with confidence even when it’s left visual range.
The Phantom 3 Professional is extremely stable in the air. If you want it to stay in one place, it will do so with ease. And the 3-axis camera gimbal does a fantastic job of keeping the video footage smooth when the Phantom is moving at faster speeds.
Drones: Dos and Don’ts
Of course all responsible drone users want to keep the industry free of nasty incidents and bad publicity. However, there have been a number of incidents around the world that have drawn attention to the darker side of drones. In the UK for instance, pilots were calling for greater research after there were 23 near-misses between drones and airliners during a six month space last year.
Controlling a drone is a common-sense practice, but as is apparent time and time again, common sense is not all that common.
Here are a few handy tips to keep you out of trouble:
- Do get fully acquainted with your drone in a safe environment, and take it one step at a time
- Do take lessons and learn to fly safely
- Do keep line-of-sight when flying your drone
- Do not fly anywhere near a manned aircraft or near an airfield (as a rule, not within four kilometres of airports and airfields)
- Do fly in safe weather conditions. Be careful when there are high winds or reduced visibility
- Do not infringe on other’s privacy. For instance, do not be tempted to fly it over the neighbor’s fence and do not take photos of other people or property without prior permission.
- Do not fly your drone over people or moving vehicles
- Do not fly over sensitive infrastructure such as power stations and government facilities
- Do not fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- For the sake of your drone, be aware of your environment. There have been reports in the Highlands of eagles and hawks actually attacking drones as they protect their territory.
- And a tip from Rocky Roe: “Don’t let the battery level get too low before trying to land. The batteries don’t last long, mine are good for maybe 15 minutes of flying.”
The United States has very commonsense guidelines for flying drones. You can learn more by visiting their website www.faa.gov/uas/publications/model_aircraft_operators
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) makes a very valid point. That is, model aircraft operators are nothing new. Model aircraft and model aircraft clubs have been around for decades. In fact, the legislation goes all the way back to 1981 and it states simply that model aircraft operators cannot fly their crafts more than 400 feet above the ground, must keep them within sight, and should not operate within five miles of an airport without first informing the airport’s operating authorities or aircraft control tower.
The FAA legislation also suggests that there should be regulation regarding commercial use of drones. Under the heading “Wanna Get Paid? You’ll need a Permit” the FAA states: “if you’re planning on using a drone for profit, such as to film a movie or a commercial or any project where you’ll be paid, then you will need to apply to the FAA for a commercial exemption. Even if you’re simply planning on doing a site survey or mapping out an area, you’ll still need to seek out approval.”
This is all food for thought as the Civil Aviation Safety Authority of PNG (CASA) are currently deliberating and drafting guidelines for our own use of drones within Papua New Guinea.