This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
Advanced aerial drones have transformed battlefields abroad and law enforcement at home. Now unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming powerful tools for civilians. A new federal law clears the way for expanded commercial applications, including photography, agriculture and environmental monitoring. Activists are using drones to film police tactics at Occupy protests and document corporate pollution. But the explosion of unmanned aerial systems also raises safety and privacy concerns. We explore the promise and potential dangers of DIY drones.
- Joseph V.R. Paiva Chief Operating Officer, Gatewing NV
- John W. McGraw Deputy Director, Flight Standards Service, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
- Matthew Schroyer Founder, DroneJournalism.org; Developer, "Drones for Schools" educational program, Entrepreneurial Leadership in STEM Teaching & learning (EnLiST) Partnership, University of Illinois Urbana - Champaign
- Matt Waite Professor of Journalism, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Creator Drone Journalism Labs
John McGraw talks about new regulations from the Obama administration concerning unmanned aerial drones and U.S. airspace:
The Friendly Skies are Getting Crowded
Historically, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) (aka “drones”) have primarily supported U.S. military and intelligence activities abroad. But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) projects that 30,000 drones could be operating domestically by 2020.
Last week President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, commonly known as the FAA Reauthorization Act. The law clears a major barrier to commercial drones, ordering the FAA to develop regulations for testing and licensing civilian drones by 2015. Investors believe the commercial market – adapting drones for photography, mapping or advertising uses—could someday be worth billions of dollars.
Law enforcement agencies like U.S. Customs and Border Protection already use drones to monitor the border and conduct counter-narcotics surveillance, operating modified versions of high-tech, expensive drones used on battlefields. Privacy advocates worry that the rapid domestic expansion of UAS technologies in commercial fields will increase surveillance and further erode the expectation of privacy. The FAA has also raised concerns about safety and licensing.
Most attention in the domestic drone debate has focused on relatively expensive UAS systems, adapted from defense technology. But a diverse group of tinkerers, activists and small-business owners are using light-weight, inexpensive drone systems to capture stunning aerial images and video.
This drone technology is also creating space for a new kind of citizen journalism: drone journalism.
Rivers of Blood & Occupy Protests
Last month, government agencies launched a criminal investigation against a Texas meat-packing plant, after an amateur drone pilot captured images that appeared to document illegal pollution. The unidentified drone pilot noticed red spots in the water, now believed to be pigs’ blood illegally dumped into the river:
Aerial drones are also being used to document political demonstrations. Occupy Wall Street protesters have used an “Occucopter” to monitor police tactics. Pro-democracy activists in Russia and Poland have also used drones to create arresting images and videos of street protests:
Off-the-Shelf and DIY Drones
Retailers already sell relatively sophisticated aerial drones off-the-shelf. For example, the Parrot AR.Drone Quadrocopter — a drone controlled by smartphones—retails for less than $300.
Backyard tinkerers and makers are also building their own drones, using open source platforms, and sharing tips and videos on sites like DIYDrones.com. One of the most popular drones is the ArduCopter Quad, “multirotor amateur UAV development platform and is meant for DIY people”
A number of European companies have developed sophisticated UAV platforms in a higher price range. A Polish company called RoboKopter captured the above images of street protests in Warsaw. A Belgian company called Gatewing designed the X100 aerial drone for sophisticated photomapping purposes:
Current FAA rules have limited the adoption of these sophisticated UAV systems within the United States. Without a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA), unmanned vehicles can only be operated below 400 feet and within eyesight of the operator. Industry analysts predict that a new licensing regime will create a vibrant new marketplace for these systems.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Domestic drones are coming, and the skies are getting crowded. American military drones have already transformed the airspace above Afghanistan and Yemen. Now, the FAA predicts 30,000 unmanned vehicles will be operating inside the United States by 2020.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe said 2015 in the billboard. 2015 is when the commercial drones will be permitted. That rapid expansion is raising tough privacy and safety concerns. But the advent of cheap aerial drones is also creating opportunities for a new kind of citizen journalism. Last month, an amateur drone pilot sparked a government investigation of a Texas meat packing plant. Using an inexpensive off-the-shelf drone, that pilot captured photographic evidence that the factory was dumping pigs' blood into the river, pictures of a creek running bright red with blood.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThis hour, we're exploring drone journalism and other creative uses for unmanned aerial vehicles. Joining us from studios in Lincoln, Neb., is Matt Waite, professor of journalism and creator of the drone journalism lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Matt Waite, thank you for joining us.
PROF. MATT WAITEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios in Urbana, Ill., is Matthew Schroyer, founder of DroneJournalism.org. He's a developer with the Drones for Schools educational program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Matthew Schroyer, thank you for joining us.
PROF. MATTHEW SCHROYERThank you very much for having me.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation. Call us at 800-433-8850. What is the nature of your interest in unmanned aerial vehicles or drones? Matt Waite, I'll start with you. It's been called the river of blood. Late last year, an amateur pilot was flying an aerial drone along outside of the Dallas, Texas, capturing images of the Trinity River. As he reviewed the images from the flight, he started noticing spots of bright red along a creek next to an old industrial meat packing plant.
NNAMDIThe Columbia Packing Company is now accused of illegally dumping pigs' blood into the river. It's being investigated by six different government agencies. You say this could be a preview of the future. What is drone journalism?
WAITEWell, I think it's important to understand that drones are really a tool, and we've -- journalists have been using tools to do their jobs for a long time, I mean, you know, from telephones to smartphones to computers to all kinds of things. And I think drones add another tool to the toolbox. I think the river of blood example is a fantastic example of investigative reporting done by somebody who wasn't -- wouldn't consider themselves as investigative reporter.
WAITEYou can see the opportunity there for journalists who have -- have been given a tip that pollution is going on, being able to get images of that really, really quickly and very, very inexpensively. It adds another -- a tool to -- for journalists to do their jobs.
NNAMDIWell, we typically think of drones as those odd-looking, sleek gliders that patrol the airspace of Yemen or Afghanistan, but there's a very different corner of the drone industry occupied by DIY makers and hobbyists and being built in backyards and garages. For example, you, Matt, use a drone called the Parrot AR Quadrocopter, something I can buy at a local Brookstone. Give us a sense of what these types of drones look like and how they work.
WAITEWell, it's important to understand that the Parrot AR Drone is essentially a toy. They call it a flying video game. And it's -- you know, it's about 18 inches by 18 inches square. It weighs a couple of pounds. It's mostly made of Styrofoam. If you are thinking that it's something akin to, you know, the Predator drones that the military flies, it's laughable, really. It is a tiny little toy.
WAITEAnd I'm very, very good at crashing it. I can mash it into all kinds of things. And I'm also very, very good at breaking it. So, you know, the $300 thing that I can get at a local mall is very, very different from the $5 million Predator drones or the $20 million Global Hawks that the military can fly, and they can fly for, you know, hours and hours and hours, even with their in-flight refueling, days, where I get 15 to 20 minutes, tops. And I think that's an important distinction that we're -- that the kinds of tools that are available to, you know, your average citizen right now.
WAITEThis is not -- go ahead.
NNAMDIMatthew Schroyer, it's my understanding that, on the other hand, you use what's called a fixed-wing drone. Can you explain?
SCHROYERYeah. Fixed-wing is just a term meaning that it has no movable rotors. A rotor craft would be -- helicopters is what most people are familiar with, but a fixed-wing is more -- it's similar to just a normal airplane. And that provides an ability to glide and to extend the flying time or the rotoring time around an area. So you can stay hovered for, you know, a little bit longer than a quadcopter but probably no longer than an hour.
SCHROYERBut with proper technology, you could probably keep one aloft for maybe four hours or longer with advanced thermal sensing technology.
NNAMDIWe're talking about drones and new civilian uses for unmanned aircraft, taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think about the rapid expansion of aerial drones in domestic airspace? 800-433-8850. Do you agree that these will be important tools for journalists, for activists? Or do you worry about how the government will be using it? 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow.
NNAMDIYou can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Or send email with your questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Matthew Schroyer, we have talked about inexpensive drones that you can buy at Brookstone's. There's also a variety of European and Australian companies that are creating more expensive, more sophisticated systems, but there's also a dedicated community of what you might call backyard tinkerers who are building their own drones using open-source tools. Tell us about DIY drones.
SCHROYERWell, yeah, a DIY drone is a wonderful community online, and it's a community based around drone enthusiasts. So these are people, who, for fun, take standard radio-controlled airplanes, the kinds that have been flying for decades, and they outfit them with microcontrollers that read GPS so that they know where they are above the ground, and they fly them in patterns. So this is a hobby.
SCHROYERAnd the website has about 22,000 people at this point developing and talking about these drones, and they've really developed the technology not only from a capability standpoint as far as what they can do, how long they can stay aloft, where they can fly, but also bringing the cost down. So you can actually learn a lot from the website and produce your own drone, develop it for about $1,000, which puts it in a wonderful price range for journalists and backpack journalists.
NNAMDIMatthew, you've been exploring possible applications for drones in education and in science. Tell us about the Drones for Schools program.
SCHROYERSure. So I work for a National Science Foundation called -- a grant called EnLiST, and that's an acronym for Entrepreneurial Leadership in STEM Teaching and Learning. And what we do at our grant is we provide professional development and leadership training to science teachers in the K-12 grades. And the teachers who go through our program, we call them teacher leaders, and they go often start science programs at their own schools.
SCHROYERThey build -- they do things like build small-scale biodiesel plants. They engage in teaching across grades and across school districts. And as a part of that, I'm developing an educational engineering program around these drones, the same kind of technology that you can read up on about diydrones.com and the stuff that we are pursuing at dronejournalism.org. And it's really representative of a big push now to include engineering as part of a K-12 science education program. And it really just goes to show how many applications for these systems there really are.
NNAMDIMatt Waite, let's talk about political protests. Some of the best examples of drone journalism to date come from pro-democracy protests in places like Poland and Russia. We also know that Occupy Wall Street protesters experimented with drone journalism. What's the idea here?
WAITEWell, for a long time -- it's almost a sport, particularly in Washington, D.C., with crowd estimates. You have the organizers of protests say that they were, you know, thousands and thousands of people. There are people who are either in the police or against the -- whatever the protesters' aims are, and they'll say no, no, it was really hundreds of people. What drones would give you is the ability to go up in the air...
WAITE...and get a bird's-eye view of it.
NNAMDIAnd, I guess, that means you will be able to pin down more specific numbers because the authorities use all kinds of apparently shifting sands of crowd estimate...
WAITEThe ability to get an image from the air, you can then use some very basic math on here's the area of ground that's covered if we estimate that, you know, a person takes up so much space, that would mean this is how many people there would be. You get much more accurate assessments.
NNAMDIHere -- we go to the phones -- is Ryan in Falls Church, Va. Ryan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RYANHi, Kojo, long-time listener, first-time caller. It's great to be on the show. I work for an aerial photography firm in Falls Church, Va., called Digital Design & Imaging Service. You may know us from doing the crowd counts for CBS News, for the Jon Stewart and the Glenn Beck rally.
RYANWe specialize in more balloon operations, which means a test balloon, a helium balloon on the ground...
RYAN...and we fly under different guidelines than the UAVs that you're discussing here, but we compete directly with those companies. And it's my understanding that even though there are a lot of UAVs currently flying over U.S. airspace, that many of those are not -- well, many of them are flying illegally under the pretense that's it's a hobby, where we are a commercial entity. Can you discuss that as well as the safety of not fixed-wing but the propellers and five-foot diameter helicopters that are flying over D.C., New York, L.A., throughout the country? Thank you very much.
NNAMDIWell, interestingly enough, Ryan, we talked with John McGraw, the deputy director of the Federal Aviation Administration, about that very topic, especially as it affects so-called hobbyists. And we'll be hearing from him shortly. So stay tuned. We'll be getting an answer to your question, I think, but I don't know if either Matt or Mathew wants to weigh in right now.
SCHROYERYeah, I can. Right now, the rules are that it can't be done for commercial purposes, and journalism is very much considered a commercial purpose. So the hobbyist rules are nothing over 400 feet, nothing near groups of people, no commercial purposes and nothing out of your sight. So, yeah, if commercial entities are flying unmanned aerial vehicles and using the product that they create out of it and selling it, it's not permitted under FAA guidelines.
NNAMDIHowever, Ryan, last week, President Obama signed the FAA reauthorization bill, and tucked inside that very large piece of legislation was a provision requiring the FAA to begin allowing commercial drone usage by 2015. It's been hailed by some for eliminating a major obstacle to a new industry. Others have called it the advent of high-altitude privacy Death-star. What do you say, Matthew?
SCHROYERIt's strange. I get this reaction a lot from people, and I think people's reactions to the idea of commercial drones tends to fall on a continuum. On one side, you have people who think this is the coolest thing they've ever seen. I mean, you know, there's the inner child that just believes that, oh, you know, what could be cooler than flying robots with cameras? There's the other side of this. And that is, this is completely creepy, and I'm absolutely not comfortable with this.
SCHROYERAnd I think somewhere in there is the truth, and I think you're missing the point if you think this is only creepy. And I think you're a little bit naive if you think this is only cool.
NNAMDIHow about you, Matt?
WAITEYeah, it's definitely a continuum, and we can see more examples every day of how this is actually shaking out. One of the more recent things to happen involving privacy in these drones was in South Carolina earlier this month. Some activist attempted to record a pigeon shooting happening on a private area of land in South Carolina. And so they used a multicopter, which is very similar to what Matt is using.
WAITEIt was a homebrew kit, and so they flew it from a public highway and tried to peek over the tree line into this private hunting ground to see this pigeon shooting happening, and the hunters actually shot back at the drone. And the drone was damaged to the point where it had a -- basically a controlled fall down to the ground on the highway, and so it brought up questions as to whether -- are the activists impugning on the private property of the land?
WAITEYou also have to go back and look at Supreme Court cases, which establish the control of that airspace, and they basically say that the common law doctrine that you own -- that your ownership of the land that extends to the edge of the universe basically has no place in the modern world and that basically the air above the minimum safe altitude prescribed by the aviation authority means it's a public highway and basically part of the public domain.
WAITESo these are things that we haven't -- that we've grappled with before, but I think drones will allow us to re-evaluate those laws and maybe set new expectations of privacy.
NNAMDIHere's Tom in Annapolis, Md. Ryan, thank you for your call. Tom, go ahead, please.
TOMYeah, I'm a model maker of the naval academy, and we have the midshipmen do a lot of drone construction. And they call it DBF, Design/Build/Fly program. I don't know if you're familiar with that, but my understanding was it was an interest in tracking what midshipmen or an ordinary person could put together using the Internet and basic resources and what they could fly, and then checking out their sources and their quality to find out what a terrorist could potentially make.
NNAMDIWhether terrorists can potentially make a drone?
TOMYeah, yeah. And so by tracking the midshipmen, how they went about getting resources and designing and all that, then you have a better idea of what an individual, you know, with bad purposes could do.
NNAMDISo now you find it curious that the government would be permitting this to happen at a commercial level and at the level of activists and people who consider them journalists? You're thinking about the security aspect of this, Tom?
TOMYeah. I mean, it's neat that everybody can do it. It's just interesting that the government was interested in tracking, you know, the resources that a normal person would have in order to, perhaps, track what a terrorist might be looking out.
NNAMDIWell, I'd like to pose a hypothetical situation to our guest, a scenario. Suppose I decide to build one of these funny looking quadrocopters and test it out on the Mall or across the street from the White House. How high will that quadrocopter get, and how long will I get to play with it before I end up, well, in police custody? Matt.
SCHROYERI would say not long on either one of them. It's generally prohibited to fly near large groups of people, and the Mall would certainly fall under that. I think that police are going to view you askance because this is just not something that a lot of people do. Now, with the quadcopter, you're still looking at 15 to 20 minutes of flight time. So if in that time that you have been flying around, somebody notices you, somebody calls the authority, you know, you're probably going to get a talking to at the very least.
SCHROYERYou know, there's another aspect here, and that's, you know, how responsible is it to do that. These platforms, you know, they're really new, and they're fairly difficult to fly. And there's a lot of responsibility that goes with putting something as heavy as a remotely piloted vehicle over someone's head with a risk that you might, you know, crash into them. You know, the dangers of these things, you know, physically tend to be fairly simple. They fall out of the sky. They hit somebody in the head, and that would be bad.
SCHROYERSo, you know, I think there is going to be some -- there's a lot of research that has to go into the reliability of these. I think there is going to be a tension between people that want to use these things to cover news and safety to a level that we haven't really had to think about before as journalists.
NNAMDITom, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, you'll hear the conversation that we had with John McGraw, deputy director of the Federal Aviation Administration, on this very topic. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Advanced aerial drones are already transforming battlefields abroad and law enforcement at home. And as we have heard, a diverse group of tech savvy journalists, activists and small businesses are beginning to experiment with other creative uses for civilian drones. But unmanned aerial vehicles also present a unique challenge for the Federal Aviation Administration keeping the sky safe with so many different actors sharing the national airspace.
NNAMDIAfter all, a four- or five-pound drone may seem to be perfectly safe, but what happens if it gets caught in an airplane engine or falls from the sky and hits someone? The FAA projects that there could be upwards of 30,000 aerial drones in the air by the year 2020, and joining me now is John McGraw, deputy director for flight standard service at the Federal Aviation Administration. John McGraw, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. JOHN W. MCGRAWWell, thank you so much for asking me.
NNAMDIOver the last decade, we've seen rapid advances in the technology and the materials that go into these new unmanned vehicles. Can you give us a sense of how this technology is changing the national airspace?
MCGRAWSure, I'd be glad to. In fact, the technology across the board in aviation has been advancing. So new materials, new propulsion systems, new automated systems, new electronics have really allowed aircraft to be built in a way that they hadn't been in the past. It's an exciting time and an exciting technology. We currently have unmanned aircraft systems, and we use the term unmanned aircraft systems because it's not really a drone.
MCGRAWIt's system that has an operator, typically a pilot, at the controls, but they're just not on board the aircraft. They're in a remote location or in a different location. So the UAS community now consists of aircraft that range from a few ounces, maybe six inches wingspan all the way up to more than 30,000 pounds and more than 200 feet wingspan. So it's a very broad range of vehicles. And we're working with, of course, with the industry to make sure that they're safe when they fly in our airspace.
NNAMDILast week, President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, also known as the FAA Reauthorization Act, into law. The media focused on blockbuster issues like labor rights and other provisions. But tucked away in that legislation was the requirement that will change how these aerial drones or unmanned aircraft systems are handled by the FAA. What essentially does it say?
MCGRAWWell, what it essentially says is by September 2015, one of the provisions in there -- and there are a number of provisions related to unmanned aircraft systems, but one of those is that by 2015, we will provide for access to the NAS for this aircraft. Again, I think we have been working for a number of years with the industry and are very close to being able to, sometime this year, publish rules that will allow the small unmanned aircraft to fly in the airspace -- in our airspace safely with other aircraft.
MCGRAWWe're continuing to work with them on standards for the larger unmanned aircraft for them to be safe in our airspace system. And we're confident that by the 2015 deadline we'll be able to set those standards.
NNAMDIWell, under the current rules, most commercial applications for these systems, for so-called drones, are either banned or highly regulated. But small unmanned aerial systems, also known as sUAS, are permitted as long as they're operated for nonprofit purposes. What are the current regulations?
MCGRAWWell, the current regulations are that, you have to be able to meet the same operating requirements as manned aircraft. We currently don't have a set of design standards for how you build these vehicles. Many of them were built by companies that were supporting the Department of Defense. They were built to -- for a military environment. They were built for that mission, and they performed marvelously for Department of Defense.
MCGRAWThey weren't necessarily built with the idea in mind that they would be operating in our National Airspace System. You know, in the U.S., we have 100,000 operations today. In instrument flight conditions, we have over 230,000 general aviation aircraft that could potentially be flying on any given day. So we have a lot of traffic in the U.S. And they really weren't built to a standard that will allow them to fly in a unfettered way or without regulation in the U.S.
MCGRAWWe've been able to let some operate because we worked individually with the agencies that are -- you know, that are requesting it to make sure that they put the right safety standards around that particular operation. But we're close to being able to set standards, so that these can fly essentially like any other airplane.
NNAMDIWell, this group has to adhere, it's my understanding, to two basic rules: stay under 400 feet, and keep in eyesight. Why is that important?
MCGRAWWell, the requirement to staying under 400 feet for the small aircraft, as well as for the modelers, is to make sure that they don't conflict with our general aviation aircraft that are typically flying 500 feet and above. So the idea of having them in sight so the operator can make sure that if there is other traffic that the operator can then turn the small aircraft around and keep it clear and make sure there isn't a collision with it. Or if it has any problem, the operator is then seeing the problem and can make sure it's safe and doesn't hit anybody on the ground.
NNAMDIWe're talking with John W. McGraw. He is deputy director, Flight Standards Service with the Federal Aviation Administration. Five years ago, the FAA issued a notice that required special permitting to operate drones or as we've been calling them -- as we've been calling these unmanned aerial vehicles. Many within the industry say that that notice effectively shut down the commercial drone industry and that it's effectively preventing a potential -- potentially billion-dollar industry from taking hold. Do you think that's fair?
MCGRAWI don't think that's completely fair. I think, as this technology has emerged, people were using these in a way that no aircraft had been used before. And so we are responsible to try to make sure they're operating it in a safe way. And to date, we haven't had anyone come forward and apply and go through the process of certifying that the aircraft could be certified like any other aircraft would be and operated in exactly the same way.
MCGRAWWe do think that with the rule that's coming out some time within the next year, it will help enable that community to take advantage of this new technology in a much bigger way.
NNAMDIAs the agency moves to craft new broader rules, do you anticipate rules that differentiate between for-profit companies and nonprofit or recreational uses?
MCGRAWYes. Our approach would be that the -- that for-profit would have a different level safety, a different expectation, a more stringent set of requirements as other -- and other aviation -- other aircraft that are commercially operated have a different level of safety and a different expectation from the public. And also, probably, we want to fly in a different area than the not for profit, the modelers and hobbyists, would want to fly. So, again, our focus on -- is on making sure that operation is safe.
NNAMDIWill that be under the new rule you're talking about?
MCGRAWThat would be under the new rule we're talking about. Yes.
NNAMDIDoes it also makes sense to differentiate based on the weight of a drone system between a vehicle that weighs less than four pounds and heavier ones that might present a clearer safety challenge?
MCGRAWIt does, and we are looking at it that way. Certainly, the larger aircraft that are going to operate at higher altitudes typically can create more of a hazard than the smaller ones. So we are looking at it in terms of what hazard that each of these could present to someone on the ground or another aircraft, and we're going to make sure that those are safe.
NNAMDIUnder the current rules, prospective drone operators need to apply for permits from the FAA, and that applies to both civilians and law enforcement. What is a certificate of authorization for an unmanned aerial vehicle? And how long does that process typically take?
MCGRAWWell, it varies depending on what the government agency wants to do with the vehicle. The certificate of authorization allows them to apply and defines the set of limitations that allows their operation to be safe. So it prescribes what kind of training the pilots would need, what area they're going to operate in, what aircraft they're operating, what they're -- what they do in the event of any kind of an emergency or malfunction.
MCGRAWSo it puts a very detailed set of requirements on the operation to make sure that no one on the ground or in the air is put at -- in jeopardy during their operation. Once they've described that to us, then we give them the authorization to operate. In some cases, it takes months and months and potentially even a year. We have worked over the past two years to really streamline the process, and now the average is down to 30 to 60 days, somewhere in that time frame.
MCGRAWPart of that is because the operators now understand what's -- what is needed to be safe. This is an emerging technology, and so they're learning as we're learning. And it's becoming easier for them to apply once they've gone through this once or twice.
NNAMDIWell, a number of civil liberties groups have raised privacy concerns about this, and I know that the FAA has been sued for information about some of that data. You cannot talk about that specifically, but can you tell us how the permitting differs for private versus official permission for, say, police departments and the like?
MCGRAWWell, sure. And that's an issue that we're -- as this emerges and gets bigger, and there are more and more of these that we know we're going to have to work through. The private entities can apply for an experimental airworthiness certificates. So that's kind of a technical term for the ability for a private entity to fly one of these. It's essentially a very similar set of operating requirements that we have under our COA or Certificate of Authorization or Waiver.
MCGRAWSo the two are very similar in terms of providing the same level of safety. One, though, is for a civilian operator to ask us for approval to fly and the other is for government entities to apply.
NNAMDIThat was John McGraw, deputy director of the FAA's Flight Standard Service. You can see a longer video of our conversation with Mr. McGraw on our website, kojoshow.org, where you'll also find lots of video examples of drone journalism. However, if you'd like to join the conversation right now that we're resuming, you can call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Matthew Schroyer, founder of DroneJournalism.org. He's a developer with the Drones for Schools educational program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
NNAMDIHe joins us from studios in Urbana. And Matt Waite is a professor of journalism and creator of these drone journalism lab at the University Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He joins us from studios in Lincoln. Gentlemen, in researching this topic, we found that a lot of small UAV users are expressing frustration about the current rules and that the FAA has not been very talkative, if you will, about its approach to drones. How would you assess the FAA's role in this conversation? First you, Matt.
WAITEI think a lot of the frustration is that technology is moving a lot faster than the law, and the more years we get into this kind of advanced technology, the more frustrating laws seem to be. You know, my experience being a journalist and seeing how, you know, how ideas become laws and how laws are made and how regulations are done, I kind of recognize that it takes a really long time. But in our kind of modern times of, you know, almost bewildering speeds of technological advance, I can see why a lot of people are frustrated by that.
SCHROYERI agree. I think a lot of it is -- that the FAA has a tremendous responsibility on their shoulder. And I think that people need to understand that its job is to protect the national airspace, protect people from unfortunate incidents that might come from the national airspace. And so it's -- it was clear from the start that this would take a lot of time, but there is a lot of confusion as to far as -- so far as what the rules are and what qualifies as recreational, for instance.
SCHROYERI mean, that's one of the rules that says that you can fly under 400 feet away from built-up areas, away from airports, but it's not so clear as what recreation really is. Is that what a nonprofit is when they're trying to collect drone journalism? Is that what a organization who is trying to advocate for animals -- Is that what they're doing when they're flying a drone over a pigeon shoot in South Carolina? And so it is kind of debatable, and it's not really codified into any regulation at this point.
SCHROYERSo we're really looking forward to the new FAA guidelines and hoping that they'll provide a, you know, clear context as well as to what we could do with these drones and what's acceptable.
NNAMDIJoining us now in the studio is a man who's had a lot of experience with certificates of authorization. He is Joseph Paiva, chief operating officer with Gatewing, which is a Belgian unmanned aerial system developer. Joe Paiva, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. JOSEPH V.R. PAIVAThank you. Glad to be here.
NNAMDIGatewing, as I said, is a Belgian company that produces a very interesting drone system called the X100, widely considered one of the most sophisticated civilian drones for aerial surveying. But your access to the U.S. market has been severely curtailed by government regulations. Tell us about the X100. What does it do? And why is it so tough to sell in this country?
PAIVAWell, the X100 is designed as a surveying and mapping tool. Most people think of a photograph taken from the air pointed directly downward as being the analog of a map, but it really isn't because there are quite a few distortions in a photograph. Best way to illustrate this is -- think about taking a picture from a plane looking straight down, which is kind of hard in a normal plane. But if there's a smokestack, for example, and you were not directly over the smokestack, it doesn't show up as a nice circle.
PAIVAIt shows up as an oblong object in the photograph. So that's a very simple, quick way, in radio terms, to describe what distortions might be. So we have changes in elevation in the ground. The ground isn't perfectly flat. And as you get away from the center of the photograph, the scale actually changes. So one of the things we do is collect overlapping photographs, very high overlap, about 75 percent as we proceed down what we call a flight line.
PAIVAAnd our flight lines themselves overlap about 75 percent so that using some fairly advanced and fairly recent advanced mathematics are able to then transform that photograph pixel by pixel into something that looks like a photograph but is really a map, and you can make measurements from it. So we have interest in this type of system, not just from professional surveyors and mappers, but professionals of every stripe, environmentalists, people who do mines, people who do construction. Agriculture is a big area.
PAIVAIn the U.S. -- certainly, the first part of your program has clearly outlined why we have trouble selling it widely because commercial users or commercial applications of this technology is not feasible under the current regulations. So we approach a very limited market and, in fact, doing fairly well with it, and that is the government community. We have actually flown in this country in what is so-called restricted air space.
PAIVASo as a commercial operator or commercial manufacturer, we cannot fly in this country without a special air readiness certificate which we're in the process of initiating. But in the meantime, people who have restricted air space, typically to universities -- but if people read this recently enacted bill in Congress, they will see that Congress has mandated that there be six UAS test sites established, and these will also have restricted air space.
PAIVAAnd the restriction is simply that other unmanned aircraft cannot enter the space up to a certain altitude. So as long as the operator of this UAV field gives us permission, we can operate. So we have been very successful getting government organizations that have access to this kind of space to do the demonstration so that they can then either work in the restricted air space or apply them for COAs just like any other agency needs to.
NNAMDIMatthew Schroyer, talk a little bit about where you see the X100 fitting in to the overall spectrum of unmanned aerial vehicles.
SCHROYEROh, I would love to have one, personally.
SCHROYERWish I could fly one today. But, yes, photo mapping is a wonderful capability for a journalist in terms of providing extra context to a story, for instance. In Joplin, Mo., for example, Joplin experienced a horrible outbreak of tornadoes in the recent past. And there is actually a website called The Daily. It's owned by News Corp. And they hired a drone to fly and to survey that damage. They, unfortunately, were told that they could no longer do that after those -- after the footage showed online.
SCHROYERBut they were able to map some interesting or showed some video of some damage surveil. And so what you could do with a photo map is you can examine where the damage actually occurred. You can find out which houses were more sturdily built, you know, that might also follow into an investigation about housing codes and building regulations. So there's a lot of applications for photo mapping that a journalist could really use something like the Gatewing for.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we’ll continue this conversation with Joe Paiva, Matthew Schroyer, and Matt Waite and those of you who called us at 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about drones or unmanned aerial vehicles. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org, where you can find links and videos to learn more about what drone journalism is. We're talking with Matt Waite. He is a professor of journalism and creator of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Matthew Schroyer is the founder of dronedournalism.org. He is a developer with the "Drones for Schools" educational program at the University of Illinois Urbana.
NNAMDIAnd John McGraw is the -- who we spoke with earlier from the FAA, is deputy director of Flight Standards Service at the Federal Aviation Administration. Joining us in studio currently is Joe Paiva. He is chief operating officer with Gatewing, a Belgian unmanned aerial system developer. I'll go directly to the phones and start with Bart in Silver Spring, Md. Bart, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BARTHey, Kojo. I really enjoy your show. I'm a golf course superintendent, and I spend most of my day riding around with earphones, listening to you and Diane and everybody. But I had an idea for a drone to fly over the golf course with, like, an infrared lens to let us know what areas need more water. Just wondering how feasible that would be. And...
NNAMDII think you just stepped into Joe Paiva's territory. Joe, could you respond, please?
PAIVAYes. Enthusiastically, yes, as long as we can work with the Federal Aviation Administration. So I'm afraid you might have to wait till 27 months have elapsed. But the fact of the matter is that, around the world, we do sell drones or UAS with either an infrared system or a near-infrared system that's capable of detecting changes in vegetation because of the infrared signature. I mentioned earlier, agriculture, and probably a better way to say is all growing things, things that botanists like to think about.
PAIVASo whether it's a forest or grass or a root crop, you can actually detect stress from pests, from moisture and so forth and actually use it. So we actually have customers doing this to detect disease in oil plant -- palm oil plantations in Africa, for example. And we even have people with vineyards looking at it to try to figure out when the right time is to pick the grapes.
NNAMDIMatthew, it's my understanding that you're also looking at possible agricultural applications.
SCHROYERYes, absolutely. It's a wonderful application for the drone. As I said before, there's many, many applications for this, and we'll only discover more as the FAA loosens its regulations or provide a clearer context regulations in the United States. Agriculture is one of them. I mean, there's 6 billion people on the planet growing every day, and they all need their food from somewhere. So that food's got to come from somewhere.
SCHROYERAnd the more information we can get about our crops, the faster they can grow. The more food they can grow, the more we can get -- keep people fed. So I expect that that will be a great application for drones that has a great public service context just like drone journalism.
NNAMDIBart, thank you very much for your call. Matt, we got an email from Christina in Baltimore, who says, "As someone who's had to get a protective order before, I'm concerned about privacy issues. There's potential for stalking here without violating such an order. And I can imagine how this tool could be abused by paparazzi to spy on celebrities and other people." How can we be sure that it won't be abused, Matt, or is that -- and Christina's the wrong question?
SCHROYERNo, I think it's a very valid question. My answer is we can't be sure that it won't be abused by people. Every tool that's ever been invented has been misused by someone, and I don't think that drones will be any different. What will come from this will be case law, lawsuits, legislatures that will have to step in and adjust stalking laws to include this. I think another thing to be aware of is, you know, the technological limitations of these are, you know, are pretty severe. There's -- you only get so much flight time.
SCHROYERThere's only so much kind of freedom of movement to be able to look around at these things. I can sit in my car and gather a lot more salacious details than I can with a drone right now just because of the technological limitations. But I think those are serious legal and ethical questions that we will run into as the skies open up and as more people use these. I just don't want people to get kind of this kind of Hollywood idea of what's possible with these. The limitations are pretty severe, and there are much better ways to do nefarious things than with the drone.
NNAMDIWell, Jo Paiva, we got this email from Bill, who says, "What restrictions can an individual property owner enforce? How noisy are these UAVs? In addition to the visual privacy and safety issues, I'm concerned about the noise. I live in an area that is frequently overflown by low-flying helicopters. They're so noisy that you can feel the vibrations, even when sitting in an overstuffed chair with your feet up." How noisy, Jo?
PAIVAI can sympathize. Our drone, for example, runs with an electric motor, which is actually quite hard to hear at 400 feet, especially if there's a light wind blowing. Yes, you can hear it. And it doesn't sound even as loud as the electric fan you might have, sitting, cooling you on a hot summer day. So in that sense, it's not a huge problem.
PAIVAYes. I can understand the privacy issues, and I think one of the ways to handle it is to make sure that purveyors of the these systems work hand in glove with the regulatory authorities, whoever that is -- in the case of the United States, that's the Federal Aviation Administration -- and make sure that the way they communicate and train the users and tell them how to operate is consistent with it. We'll always have rogues. We just have to figure out how to deal with them the best.
NNAMDIWell, you operate in Europe and in Australia and New Zealand. It's my understanding that they already have regulations that deal with issues like noise.
PAIVAYes. Not so much the noise, but simply putting up an object that is not a manned aircraft. And it's interesting how it's being handled. For example, in South Africa, our dealer was basically told by the civil aviation authority there that they didn't have quite the full suite of regulations they needed, but they would evaluate them on a case-by-case basis because it was such an important technology, in this case, to help aid in one of their industries, which is mining.
PAIVASouth Africa is a big mining country. Same thing happened in Australia, but Australia has now created quite a few good set of regulations. And, actually, these civil aviation authorities around the world, including the FAA, communicate with each other regularly. We at Gatewing participate and sometimes are solicited for advice from the European organization, and we know from those contexts that we know that the FAA also communicates with the Europeans.
NNAMDIMatt, why are the -- why are Europe and Australia, New Zealand so far ahead of the U.S.?
WAITEIt's -- I think it's just a question of the government was more mobile to answer the problem. They have a lot more latitude over there as far as what hobbyists, nonprofits can do to launch drones and work a unmanned aerial system. And I think that that would be a really good example for the United States to look at and for other countries to look at in trying to sort of liberalize the laws around drones, and that includes drone journalism.
NNAMDIWe got an email from John, who says, "I flew RC planes, remote-controlled, in the 1970s. What distinguishes drones from RC models, and what are the differences in the rules of operation? If I put a camera on an RC plane, does it become a drone?" And then here is Karen in Baldwin, Md. Karen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KARENHi. Yes, I have a 14-year-old son who is building a drone, and I told him I thought that there must be rules regulating this, and plus airspace limitations. I apologize if I'm asking for information that you've already given, but I wonder if you can tell me what we need to comply with to be, I guess, within regulations. And are there any organizations we can join to keep up with this?
NNAMDIAnd your son's drone has a camera on it, Karen?
KARENYes, it does.
PAIVAWhether it has a camera on it, if you plan to operate under modelers or remote-controlled regulations, one of the best places is an organization that you can look up on the Internet, ama.org. It sounds like American Medical Association, but it isn't. It's Aeronautical Modeling Association, and they are very good at helping people who want to get into this and also to be responsible once they put their vehicles in the air.
NNAMDIAnd, Matt, where does this leave remote control hobbyists in general? Is there a danger that the attention being brought by drones will end up leading to more restrictions on everyone?
WAITEI think that...
SCHROYERThere are a lot of RC enthusiasts who are very scared of that very idea, that they're really scared that if, you know, a rogue drone operator comes along --and my kind of understanding is drone versus RC is a drone has some level of autonomy. You can put a microcontroller on there and let it be autonomous versus RC, which is always connected to somebody on the ground.
SCHROYERThere are shades of gray in there that we can go on all day about, but the RC community is very concerned about this, that there are hobbyists and it gets shut down by somebody doing something dumb with a drone, or even an RC aircraft.
NNAMDIAnd a last quick question from Talid (sp?) for you, Matt. Talid, you got about 20 seconds.
TALIDYes, I appreciate that. And I have just a quick reminder to the listening audience of a movie called "Eagle Eye." I'm sure the guest may remember that movie in which RC, I believe, you know, operated on its own, and through its own artificial intelligence began targeting civilians and others.
NNAMDIMatt, you got 10 seconds to respond.
SCHROYERWe're a long way from that.
WAITEI would say let's try to avoid that.
NNAMDITalid, thank you very much for your call. Matt Waite is a professor of journalism and creator of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Matthew Schroyer is founder of dronejournalism.org. He is a developer at the Drones for Schools educational program at the University of Illinois Urbana. And Joe Paiva is chief operating officer with Gatewing, a Belgian unmanned aerial system developer. Thank you all for joining us, and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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