FAA Finalizes Rules For Drones, UAS, and Model Aircraft

The FAA and DOT have finalized their rules for small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, or drones), and clarified rules for model aircraft. This is the end of a long process the FAA undertook last year that has included a registry system for model aircraft, and input from members of UAS and model aircraft industry including the Academy of Model Aeronautics and 3D Robotics.

Model Aircraft

Since the FAA began drafting the rules for unmanned aircraft systems, it has been necessary to point out the distinction between a UAS and a model aircraft. Thanks to the amazing advances in battery, brushless motor, and flight controller technology over the past decade, the line between a drone and a model aircraft has been fuzzed, and onboard video systems and FPV flying have only blurred the distinction.

The distinction between a UAS and model aircraft  is an important one. Thanks to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2012, the FAA, “may not promulgate any rule or regulation regarding a model aircraft” under certain conditions. These conditions include aircraft flown strictly for hobby or recreational use, operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines (read: the safety guidelines set by the Academy of Model Aeronautics), weighs less than 55 pounds, gives way to manned aircraft, and notifies the operator of an airport when flown within five miles of a control tower.

Despite laws enacted by congress, the FAA saw it necessary to create rules and regulations for model aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds, and operated in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines. The FAA’s drone registration system doesn’t make sense, and there is at least one pending court case objecting to these rules.

The FAA’s final rules for UAS, drones, and model airplanes change nothing from the regulations made over the past year. If your drone weighs more than 250 grams, you must register it. For model aircraft, and unmanned aircraft systems conducting ‘hobbyist operations’, nothing has changed.

Unmanned Aerial Systems

The finalized rule introduced today concerns only unmanned aircraft systems weighing less than 55 pounds conducting non-hobbyist operations. The person flying the drone must be at least 16 years old and hold a remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating. This remote pilot certificate may be obtained by passing an aeronautical knowledge test, or by holding a non-student Part 61 pilot certificate (the kind you would get if you’d like to fly a Cessna on the weekends)

What this means

Under the new regulations, nothing for model aircraft has changed. The guys flying foam board planes will still have to deal with a registration system of questionable legality.

For professional drone pilots – those taking aerial pictures, farmers, or pilots contracting their services out to real estate agents – the situation has vastly improved. A pilot’s license is no longer needed for these operations, and these aircraft may be operated in class G airspace without restriction. Drone use for commercial purposes is now possible without a pilot’s license. This is huge for many industries.

These rules do not cover autonomous flight. This is, by far, the greatest shortcoming of the new regulations. The most interesting applications of drones and unmanned aircraft is autonomous flight. With autonomous drones, farmers could monitor their fields. Amazon could deliver beer to your backyard. There are no regulations regarding autonomous flight from the FAA, and any business plans that hinge on pilot-less aircraft will be unrealized in the near term.

DJI Phantoms are now ‘drones’

This is a quick aside, but I must point out the FAA press release was written by someone with one of two possible attributes. Either the author of this press release paid zero attention to detail, or the FAA has a desire to call all unmanned aircraft systems ‘drones’.

The use of the word ‘drone’ in the model aircraft community has been contentious, with quadcopter enthusiasts making a plain distinction between a DJI Phantom and a Predator drone. Drones, some say, have the negative connotation of firing hellfire missiles into wedding parties and killing American citizens in foreign lands without due process, violating the 5th amendment. Others have classified ‘drones’ as having autonomous capability.

This linguistic puzzle has now been solved by the FAA. In several places in this press release, the FAA equates ‘unmanned aircraft systems’ with drones, and even invents the phrase, ‘unmanned aircraft drone’. Language is not defined by commenters on fringe tech blogs, it is defined by common parlance. Now the definition of ‘drone’ is settled: it is an unmanned, non-autonomous, remote-controlled flying machine not flown for hobby or recreational use.

Easy DIY Telemetry Goes the Distance

[Paweł Spychalski] wrote in to tell us about some experiments he’s been doing, using cheap 433 MHz HC-12 radio units as a telemetry radio for his quadcopter.

In this blog post, he goes over the simple AT command set, and some of the limitations of the HC-12 part. Then he takes it out for a spin on his quadcopter, and finds out that his setup is good for 450 meters in an open field. Finally, he ties the radio into his quad’s telemetry system and tethers the other end to his cellphone through a Bluetooth unit for a sweet end-to-end system that only set him back around $20 and works as far out as 700 meters.

The secrets to [Paweł]’s success seem to be some hand-made antennas and keeping the baud rate down to a reasonable 9600 baud. We wonder if there’s room (or reason?) for improvement using a directional antenna on the ground. What say you, Hackaday Antenna Jockeys?

Also check out this very similar build where an ESP8266 replaces the Bluetooth module. And stashes it all inside a nice wooden box! Nice work all around.

Master’s UAV Project Takes Flight

Pushing the maker envelope all the way to the Master level, [Przemyslaw Brudny], [Marek Ulita], and [Maciej Olejnik] from the Politechnika Wroclawska in Poland packed a UAV full of custom sensor boards for their thesis project.

The Skywalker X-8 FPV drone underwent extensive modifications to accommodate the embedded systems as well as upgrading the chassis with carbon glass to withstand the high load and speeds they would need to perform their tests. The ailerons were customized for finer control of the drone. But for our money, it’s all the board design that supports those sensors which is really fun to delve into.

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Power Glove Takes Over Quadcopter Controls

Gerrit and I were scoping out the Intel booth at Bay Area Maker Faire and we ran into Nolan Moore who was showing of his work to mash together a Nintendo Power Glove with an AR Drone quadcopter. Not only did it work, but the booth had a netted cage which Nolan had all to himself to show off his work. Check the video clip below for that.

The control scheme is pretty sweet, hold your hand flat (palm toward the ground) to hover, make a fist and tilt it in any direction to affect pitch and roll, point a finger up or down to affect altitude, and point straight and twist your hand for yaw control. We were talking with Nolan about these controls it sounded sketchy, but the demo proves it’s quite responsive.

The guts of the Power Glove have been completely removed (that’s a fun project log to browse through too!) and two new boards designed and fabbed to replace them. He started off in Eagle but ended up switching to KiCAD before sending the designs out for fabrication. I really enjoy the footprints he made to use the stock buttons from the wrist portion of the glove.

A Teensy LC pulls everything together, reading from an IMU on the board installed over the back of the hand, as well as from the flex sensors to measure what your fingers are up to. It parses these gestures and passes appropriate commands to an ESP8266 module. The AR Drone 2.0 is WiFi controlled, letting the ESP8266 act as the controller.

Hackaday Prize Entry: Raspberry Pi Zeros And Drones

How do you get eyeballs on a blog post? Put Raspberry Pi Zero in the headline. How do you get even more eyeballs? Put the word drone in there too. Lucky for us, there’s one very special project in the Hackaday Prize that combines both. It’s the Pi0drone from [Victor], and it’s exactly what it looks like: a flying Raspberry Pi Zero.

[Victor] has been working on the PXFmini, a ‘shield’ or ‘hat’ for the Raspberry Pi that integrates a barometer, IMU, and a few PWM outputs into a very small form factor that is just a shade larger than the Raspberry Pi Zero itself. It comes with standard connector ports for UART and I2C to attach GPS and on screen display for FPV flying.

Of course, there are dozens of flight controllers for drones and quads out there, but very few are running Linux, and even fewer platforms are as well supported as the Raspberry Pi. To leverage this, [Victor] is running Dronecode on the Pi for mission planning, real autopilot, and everything else that turns a remote controlled quadcopter into a proper drone. It works, and it’s flying, and you can check out the video proof below.

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Find a Drone

Flying a drone usually leads to–sooner or later–crashing a drone. If you are lucky, you’ll see where it crashes and it won’t be out of reach. If you aren’t lucky, you’ll know where it is, but it will be too high to easily reach. The worst case is when it just falls out of the sky and you aren’t entirely sure where. [Just4funmedia] faced this problem and decided to use some piezo buzzers and an Arduino to solve it.

Yeah, yeah, we know. You don’t really need an Arduino to do this, although it does make it easy to add some flexibility. You can pick two tones that are easy to hear and turn on the buzzers with a spare channel or sense a loss of signal or power.

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The Coming Wide-Spread Use of Drones in Agriculture

Whether you call them UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), UAS (Unmanned Aerial System), Drones, or something less polite – people are more familiar than ever with them. We’ll call them drones, and we’re not talking about the remote-controlled toy kind – we’re talking about the flying robot kind. They have sensors (GPS and more), can be given a Flight Plan (instructions on where to go), and can follow that plan autonomously while carrying out other instructions – no human pilot required. Many high-end tractors are already in service with this kind of automation and we’ve even seen automated harvesting assistance. But flying drones are small and they don’t plant seeds or pull weeds, so what exactly do they have to do with agriculture?

There are certain things that drones are very good at, and there are things in agriculture that are important but troublesome to do or get. Some of these things overlap, and in those spaces is where a budding industry has arisen.

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