Welcome to Droning On


Tesla_boat1Welcome to Droning On, Hackaday’s new column covering all things unmanned. In this column we will primarily focus on aerial vehicles, both fixed and rotary wing. Expect to see traditional R/C, as well as First Person View (FPV) models, computer controlled autopilot systems, as well as anything new that shows up on our radar.

First, a little bit of history. The earliest radio control vehicle in history was designed by a man known well to Hackaday, Nikola Tesla. Tesla presented a radio controlled boat at an electrical exhibition in New York in 1898. Tesla called the system “Teleautomaton” and said the craft utilized a borrowed mind. In addition to cruising around a man made pond, the boat could solve equations by blinking lights atop two of its masts. Tesla would encourage viewers to call out math equations, then flash the lights from the boat’s control panel.

For many years R/C as well as its cousins Free Flight and control line were hobbies occupied solely by hackers. One needed to have metal machining skills to build engine parts, draftsman skills to read plans, and carpentry skills to build airframes. Radios were built from tubes. Control, if it may be called such, was all or nothing – so-called “bang-bang” systems. Much like their model railroad compatriots, R/C plane modelers built with the parts they had on hand. Several early DIY R/C planes were controlled by rotary telephone dials. Dial 1 to pull up, 2 to turn left, etc. Control surfaces were moved by rubber powered escapements rather than the servos we’ve come to know and love. Aerodynamics also came into play. With such rudimentary control systems, planes were designed to be inherently stable. Thankfully there were numerous proven air frame designs available from the free flight arena. Slow flight, high dihedral, and docile stall behavior were the rule of the day. Early R/C planes could be thought of as free flight vehicles with occasional suggestions via radio control. Click past the break to find out more about drone history, and to read about the recent FAA judgement.

norma-jeaneThe burgeoning  R/C industry gave rise to military drones. The Radioplane OQ-2 was designed by actor/Hobby Shop owner Reginald Denny. The OQ-2 saw operation as a target drone, often used to improve the targeting skills of Navy gunners. Models that survived target practice were landed via parachute. The OQ-2 and its derivatives were produced in the thousands in the World War 2 era. In the height of the OQ-2’s popularity, Yank magazine ordered a photo shoot in the factory. Norma Jeane Dougherty, one of the OQ-2 Factory workers, was selected to pose with partially assembled OQ-2s for the shoot. The resulting photo helped launched her career as Marilyn Monroe.

As time went on helicopters also saw use as drones. The Gyrodyne QH-50 DASH was a contra-rotating rotary wing craft flown from WWII era Navy Destroyers. The QH-50 first flew in 1959, with a mission of finding and attacking Russian submarines. Interestingly, the DASH used rotor tip vanes to achieve yaw control, as the rotor blades were directly linked in via the turboshaft engine gearbox. 755 DASH systems were built. When shipboard service ended, they were used to tow aerial targets at White Sands and China Lake until their retirement in 2006.

The last 15 years or so has seen an explosion of smaller drones, often categorized as “Small Unmanned Aerial Systems” (sUAS). This category covers military, commercial, and personal drones, as well as R/C systems. The increase in prevalence can be traced to several technologies improving. Thanks to MEMS technology, gyroscopes and accelerometers are now chip scale. In the past, precision gyros were large, heavy systems. Even Radio Control helicopter gyros were 1.5” square boxes containing a power-hungry motor and a spinning brass wight. Lithium batteries, both Li-Ion and LiPo have increased power density and maximum current over their Nickle-Cadmium (NiCAD) and Nickle Metal Hydride (NiMH) counterparts. Electric motors have advanced from the brushed motors of the past to efficient brushless motors. The move from inrunner to outrunner motors has eliminated the need for power robbing gearboxes. Frequency hopping 2.4Ghz Radios have had a huge impact on the R/C side of things. Older 72MHz radios operated on single frequencies. If two radios were transmitting on the same frequency, a flying aircraft would not be able to discern which one was from its transmitter, leading to “shoot downs” and crashes.

But it’s not all clear skies and calm winds in drone land. Media coverage often equates small drones operated by private citizens with large military drones. Public privacy concerns abound. In the USA, a long brewing fight over drone flight has come to a head.

Historically, the Federal Aviation Administration has maintained control for full scale aircraft in the United States. The semi-official governing body of model aircraft has been The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). The AMA has existed since 1936 as a voluntary organization. In June of 1981, the FAA issued an advisory on the operation of model aircraft (PDF link). The AMA expanded upon these rules in their official safety code (PDF link).

With respect to full scale aircraft, the primary takeaways from these rules are:

  1. Fly below 400 feet above ground level (AGL)
  2. Do not fly within 3 miles of a full scale airport without permission of the airport operator.
  3. Yield to human carrying aircraft.

While 2 and 3 are common sense, rule 1 has always been disregarded and treated with disdain. YouTube is filled with videos of planes, helicopters, and multicopters over 400 feet. Travel to any AMA field on any given Sunday, and you’ll find models flying above 400 feet.

This was the state of affairs until the early 2000’s, when aerial photography became popular in the model aircraft crowd. As systems improved, modelers began performing for-pay photo shoots.  In 2007, the FAA issued a notice effectively banning commercial flight of small unmanned aerial systems. While private use is still legal, An entire industry sits waiting for the governing body to set some regulations in place. This is a situation near and dear to my heart. I last wrote about it 3 years ago in my own blog. Between 2005 and 2013, federal foot-dragging was the name of the game. Some commercial R/C photography companies sprang up, many using the “loophole” that they were flying their R/C planes with cameras for fun, and only selling the pictures for profit. Several of these operators have received informal calls as well as formal cease and desist letters from the FAA.

trappy-libertyThings came to a head with a 2011 commercial flight made at the University of Virgnia by Raphel Pirker, aka Trappy of Team Black Sheep. Trappy is a Swiss citizen living abroad. His plane is a 56” Styrofoam flying wing, which he often flies via First Person Video (FPV). In the past he’s made incredible non-commercial flights. One example has Trappy flying near several famous New York City bridges as well as The Statue of Liberty. Videos like this put Trappy squarely in the cross-hairs of the FAA. They decided to act with a $10,000 fine on the UVA video. Trappy appealed the issue to a court case, which was decided by Judge Patrick G. Geraghty on March 6, 2014 (PDF link). Jude Geraghty’s threw out Trappy’s fine. He further ruled that the restrictions put into place by the 2007 FAA notice were not enforceable, as they were simply policy notices, not created as part of the formal rule-making process. At first blush it would seem that the skies over the USA have been opened. However, the FAA has appealed the ruling to the National Transportation Saftey Board. According to the FAA press release, this keeps Jude Geraghty’s decision from taking effect until the NTSB makes a decision. The FAA has also issued a news statement “Busting Myths” about Unmanned aircraft. Consider the source, and take this one as you may.

That about wraps it up for the first edition of Droning On!

[Images from Wikimedia Commons]

15 thoughts on “Welcome to Droning On

  1. As far as I can tell, the FAA myths article is accurate, but depressingly one-sided. The truth is that these systems *do* fall under FAA regulation. It’s just that the FAA has always said, “Eh, fuck it, we have bigger fish to fry. Go have fun.” It’s exactly the same situation as the FCC and CB radio. They *DO* have authority over those bands, it’s just that they have used that authority to say that they’re not going to regulate it closely.
    The right question, of course, isn’t whether they have the authority to regulate, it’s how much they should care about what we’re doing and make sane decisions about using that authority to interfere with us.

  2. I like the new column! Liked hearing some of the history too. For those interested, some relevant wikipedia knowledge is airspace classifications, in particular class G airspace:


    When you really read the regs, uncontrolled airspace is just that, uncontrolled, as in anything goes. You can technically even fly IFR without a flight plan or radio contact with ATC (doesn’t mean its smart though). I personally see little difference between a manned airplane in IMC in class G and an unmanned drone in class G. Neither can “see and avoid” (unless the drone has FPV!).

    That said, for those wanting to push the limits of the 400′ rule, I highly recommend learning about airspace classifications and how to read aeronautical charts. http://www.skyvector.com is a great place to look at various charts for free to get familiar with them. At least staying in uncontrolled airspace will keep your drones and (more importantly) the other airplanes with humans on them away from each other.

    An interesting trend to watch would be the increased reliance on GPS and worldwide wireless data networks for air traffic control. Traditional radio-based navaids are being phased out, and even radar coverage may be reduced (see http://www.boeing.com/commercial/aeromagazine/articles/qtr_02_10/2/ ).
    When every airplane in the sky can report its own speed and position essentially through the internet, reliance on radar and controller workload are reduced. Workloads are already being reduced by the recent introduction of CPDLC and automated deconfliction of flight plans (basically text messaging instead of voice transmissions over VHF radio). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Controller%E2%80%93pilot_data_link_communications)

    What this means for small drones, I hope, is that this transition to a more automated, data-driven form of ATC will allow the FAA to safely open up more airspace to drones. It will certainly take time though. Ironically, the aviation world moves very slowly and carefully, especially when compared to the world of hacking typically covered on this website. The planes I fly were built closer in time to the Wright brothers in 1903 than to 2014! Do realize they move slowly because with human aviation the risks are extremely high. Ok, this post is way too long, I’m done. Thanks for the article!

    1. Great post Keegan! You’re absolutely right about GPS becoming important. With ADS-B, radar becomes *somewhat* more obsolete. (I’d never want to get rid of radar completely). Part of the problem is getting systems like ADS-B and TCAS into small planes. The average Cessna driver doesn’t want to spend thousands to upgrade his avionics, and I completely understand that. On the drone side, all those sensors will feed into ‘sense and avoid’ systems – giving drones the ability to avoid a collision on their own.

  3. Ahh, the FAA. Because pilots want to fly into each other so badly that they need a government agency to force them to stop.

    All else aside, though, excellent column.

  4. From the busting myths page:

    “The FAA expects to publish a proposed rule for small UAS – under about 55 pounds – later this year”

    Is that 55lbs of rules or the UAV? Really, it could go either way with the gov…

    1. I seem to recall the AMA has always had a 55 lb limit in it’s rules, if memory serves correctly. FAA likely just copied that to avoid disagreement. As far as the 400 foot AGL rule for models the FAA always had that but it was just when within a certain distance of an airport and always made complete sense. The soaring enthusiasts break 400 feet every flight, it’s the objective, longest flight which means highest. The aircraft radios have about a half mile range in any direction, but straight up the range is a lot greater. In both cases we just called it “further than you can see it”.

      Haveta say… it sounds like the rules haven’t changed much if at all.

  5. Everyone should watch this video about the stubbornness of the FAA in trying to regulate Search and Rescue (SAR) drone usage. Made me sick!
    I would say “ABUSED their authority” @scorinth, nothing sane here.

  6. I would like to point out that while the old FAA Model Aircraft Operating Standards appears to restrict the flight of model aircraft to altitudes less than 400ft, this is not the case. The very bottom edge of the text in those lines is faded, which makes for the appearance of a period after “above the surface”. This is actually meant to be a comma, which changes the meaning completely. The AMA code in the linked PDF shows the clarified wording, “[Model aircraft pilots will] not fly higher than approximately 400 feet above ground level within three (3) miles of an airport without notifying the airport operator.” This allows for radio-controlled flight at any height desired, except within three miles of an airport. This misinterpretation of the rules has been made many times over the years, and many model aircraft fields list the 400ft “limit” on their rule boards even today.

    1. There has been quite a bit of discussion on the 400 foot rule. While the FAA document does show a fax/scanner style skip where the tail of the comma would be, I’m relatively sure that was a period. The capitol W in “When” on the next line would attest to this.
      The FAA seems to stand by that rule in this document:


      The AMA discusses the rule directly in this 2012 blog entry: http://amablog.modelaircraft.org/amagov/2012/03/08/your-questions-answered-the-400-foot-limit-for-model-aircraft/

      From my perspective it would appear that the FAA rule is 400 feet, but they have not enforced it. The AMA has taken the official stance not to abide by it.

  7. As a UAV operator in the US Army and an avid HackADay reader, I look forward to this column. The capabilities available to the average person with the array of autopilot systems currently being sold is astounding and growing everyday. Not just the autopilots but the camera stabilization, battery, motor and many more facets of a UAV.
    I can’t think of a more perfect union of tech and hacking (for me at least).

    I do hope that FAA does come up with something in a timely manner as it affects those of us wishing to transition into commercial UAV/UAS after our service.

  8. As someone who designed and built a “wheeled ROV” (Probe II SG) at the turn of the century I’m drooling all over myself to read these articles!

  9. I’ll use a term here because only for who the shoe fits could find it offensive. Bozos, not reasonable people acting reasonably, are why regulations are created. Clearly there are Hackaday readers making comments for who the shoe fits. Not unreasonable to consider there are those in both government and NGO SAR organizations would abuse any UAV that they are entrusted with for who the shoe fits. A notion that uncontrolled means anything goes not to be regulated is not only unreasonable it ignores the facts in place. The public law created by Congress and cited by the FAA for the basis for it’s action. Also unreasonable to believe anything goes in air space where manned aircraft need to travel through as part of their normal operation. That doesn’t mean that other aviation SAR UAV can’t safely share uncontrolled air space. Where would be the harm in requiring UAV having a minimum radar signature, a high visibility surface, along with notifying other aviation where they well be operating. Nowhere in following the link did a see a mention of a FAA proposed rule making effort, or creating legislation to try to find US Congress sponsors for. They better get on the ball to get their concerns heard early on. SAR groups might find their access to lower cost but safe to operate, effective UAV constructed in home shops legislated out of their reach by the luminance of commercial UAV manufacturers. Money talks, while amateurs aren’t necessarily bullshit, bullshit walks. A sad cop out would be to loose without trying.

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