UK To Register Multirotor fliers

The British government has shown a surprisingly light touch towards drone fliers in the face of the strident media demands for them to be banned following a series of reports of near-misses with other aircraft. That is about to change with reports of the announcement of a registration scheme for craft weighing over 250 g (about 9 oz). Details are still a bit sketchy, but it is reported that there will be a written test and an element of geofencing around sensitive locations.

Our friendly professional multirotor flier’s reaction is that the existing laws are clear enough, and that this is likely to be no deterrent to any people who already use their drones illegally. It seems that the UK government is following the lead set by the USA in this matter, with the 250 g limit on that side of the Atlantic having already spawned an industry of smaller craft. Time will tell on whether the measures will be effective, we suspect that their success will depend on their not being overly stringent.

[Editor’s note: Following a lawsuit, the US FAA registration requirement was struck down for hobbyists because model aircraft are explicitly excluded from the FAA’s purview. The Brits are not likely to be so lucky.]

If there is a positive side to this announcement, it might be that the 250 g class of multirotor will inevitably become the focus of a lot of attention as manufacturers and engineers work to pack the most performance into the small platform. This small silver lining to the drone registration cloud might not be much, but we’ll take it.

We’ve covered the UK drone story as reported in the media in detail in the past.

Palace of Westminster image: Diliff [CC BY-SA 2.5].

London Gatwick Airport Closes Runway In Alleged Drone Strike

London is one of those cities with an identity problem when it comes to airports. There is no one London airport, instead a group of airports serve the city at various distances from it. London Gatwick is the second largest of these, and sits with its single runway in the Sussex countryside about 30 miles south of the city.

If you follow British news sources, you may have heard a little about Gatwick in the last couple of days. Its runway was closed for two short periods and a selection of flights were diverted, because of what is being reported as a drone sighting. This is an extremely serious matter, responsible multirotor owners will be painfully aware of the distance and altitude regulations surrounding flights near airports.

An oft-shared drone identification guide for airline pilots, of uncertain provenance.
An oft-shared drone identification guide for airline pilots, of uncertain provenance (phantompilots.com).

If you are familiar with the way that drone stories are reported by the mass media, you will probably not need to click on the link above to the BBC reporting to find out its tone. There is significant concern within the multirotor community that it presents a very one-sided view, and takes at face value the assertion that the sighting was a drone, when in fact there is no proof at all of that being the case. For those of us who have seen many such stories come and go it is difficult not to agree with the drone pilots, there is at best some lazy reporting in the air, and at worst some outright journalistic irresponsibility.

As Hackaday readers, you are used to writers with an in-depth knowledge of the subjects upon which they write. We don’t know all possible facets of technology and we occasionally get things wrong, but we all have very strong backgrounds in the tech, hacker, and maker industries and communities we write about. We have engineering education, we’ve worked in a wide variety of technology industries, we build our own stuff for fun, and we’ve founded and run hackspaces.

By comparison the journalists whose work you will read in the mainstream media are generalists. They will have a specific educational background and a particular set of interests, but in their work they cover whatever stories tumble off the endless conveyor belt of events. Thus when a drone story appears, they find themselves out of their normal comfort zone of politics or local news, and can not rely on their experience to inform their coverage of it. The responsible journalistic approach is to do a little research and ask the pertinent questions asking for concrete proof of drone involvement. We’re still waiting for that to happen in these allege drone encounters.

Multirotor building and flying is a significant feature of our community, and anything that brings the attention of law enforcement to the kind of work we do should be a worry to us all. Multirotors are not the only things covered by Hackaday that could be misrepresented in the same way. We’ve visited this topic before, take a look at our analysis of a series of air proximity reports blamed on drones. Some of them, you couldn’t make up.

Gatwick airport image: Andre Wadman [GFDL 1.2].

The Tri Rotor Drone: Why Has It Been Overlooked?

A DJI Phantom 3. Zimin.V.G. [CC BY-SA 4.0]
If you are a watcher of the world of drones, or multirotors, you may have a fixed idea of what one of these aircraft looks like in your mind. There will be a central pod containing batteries and avionics, with a set of arms radiating from it, each of which will have a motor and a propeller on its end. You are almost certainly picturing a four-rotor design, such as the extremely popular DJI Phantom series of craft.

Of course, four-rotor designs are just one of many possible configurations of a multirotor. You will commonly see octocopters, but sometimes we’ve brought you craft that really put the “multi” in “multirotor”. If the computer can physically control a given even number of motors, within reason, it can be flown.

There is one type of multirotor you don’t see very often though, the trirotor. Three propellers on a drone is a rare sight, and it’s something we find surprising because it’s a configuration that can have some surprising benefits. To think about why, it’s worth taking a look at some of the characteristics of a three-rotor machine’s flight.

Continue reading “The Tri Rotor Drone: Why Has It Been Overlooked?”

The ARRL Raises A Stink About Illegal FPV Transmitters

We have all been beneficiaries of the boom in availability of cheap imported electronics over the last decade. It is difficult to convey to someone under a certain age the step change in availability of parts and modules that has come about as a result of both the growth of Chinese manufacturing and Internet sales that allow us direct access to sellers we would once only have found through a lengthy flight and an intractable language barrier.

So being able to buy an ESP8266 module or an OLED display for relative pennies is good news, but there is a downside to this free-for-all. Not all the products on offer are manufactured to legal standards wherever in the world we as customers might be, and not all of them are safe to use. We’ve all seen teardowns of lethal iPhone charger knock-offs, but this week the ARRL has highlighted an illegal import that could take being dangerous to a whole new level as well as bring an already beleaguered section of our community to a new low.

The products the radio amateurs are concerned about are video transmitters that work in the 1.2GHz band. These are sold for use with FPV cameras on multirotors, popularly referred to as drones, and are also being described as amateur radio products though their amateur radio application is minimal. The ARRL go into detail in their official complaint (PDF) about how these devices’ channels sit squarely over the frequencies used by GLONASS positioning systems, and most seriously, the frequencies used by the aircraft transponders on which the safety of our air traffic control system relies.

The multirotor community is the unfortunate recipient of a lot of bad press, most of which is arguably undeserved and the result of ignorant mass media reporting. We’ve written on this subject in the past, and reported on some of the proposals from governments which do not sound good for the enthusiast. It is thus a huge concern that products like those the ARRL is highlighting could result in interference with air traffic, this is exactly not the association that multirotor fliers need in a hostile environment.

The ARRL complaint highlights a particular model with a 5W output, which is easily high enough to cause significant interference. It is however just one of many similar products, which a very straightforward search on the likes of AliExpress or eBay will find on sale for prices well under $100. So if you are concerned with multirotors we’d urge you to ensure that the FPV transmitters you or your friends use are within the legal frequencies and power levels. We’re sure none of you would want an incident involving a manned aircraft on your conscience, nor would you relish the prospect of the encounter with law enforcement that would inevitably follow.

In the past we’ve taken a look at some of the fuss surrounding reported drone incidents, and brought you news of an Australian sausage lover in hot water for drone-based filming. It’s a hostile world out there, fly safe!

The World’s Lightest Brushless FPV Quadcopter

When a claim is made for something being the world’s lightest it is easy to scoff, after all that’s a bold assertion to make. It hasn’t stopped [fishpepper] though, who claims to have made the world’s lightest brushless FPV quadcopter. Weighing in at 32.4 grams (1.143 oz) it’s certainly pretty light.

The frame is a circular design cut from carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer, and on it are mounted four tiny brushless motors. In the center are the camera and battery on a 3D printed mount, as well as custom flight and speed controller boards. There are a series of posts detailing some of the design steps, and the result is certainly a capable aircraft for something so tiny. If you fancy experimenting with the design yourself, the files are available for download on the first page linked above.

There are two aspects to this build that make it interesting to us. First, the lightest in the world claim. We think someone will come along with something a bit lighter, and we can’t wait to see a lightest multirotor arms race. Good things come of technology races, which brings us to the second aspect. Governments are busy restricting the use of larger multirotors, to the extent that in some parts of the world all that will be available for non professionals will be sub-200g toy craft. Any project like this one which aims to push the boundaries of what is possible with smaller multirotors is thus extremely interesting, and we hope the community continue to innovate in this direction if only to make a mockery of any restrictions.

To get some idea of the sort of legislative measures we might be seeing, take a look at our coverage of a consultation in just one country.

UK Government to Hold Drone Licensing Consultation

All over your TV and radio this morning if you live in the UK is the news that the British government is to hold a consultation over the licensing of multirotors, or drones as they are popularly known. It is being reported that users will have to sit a test to acquire a licence before they can operate any machine that weighs above 250 g, and there is the usual fog of sloppy reporting that surrounds any drone story.

This story concerns us on several fronts. First, because many within our community are multirotor enthusiasts and thus we recognise its importance to our readership. And then because it takes as its basis of fact a series of reported near misses with aircraft that look very serious if taken at face value, but whose reported facts simply don’t match the capabilities of real multirotors. We’ve covered this issue in the past with an incident-by-incident analysis, and raised the concern that incident investigators behave irresponsibly in saying “It must have been a drone!” on the basis of no provable evidence. Indeed the only proven British collision was found to have been with a plastic bag.

Of course irresponsible multirotor fliers who threaten public safety should be brought to book. Lock them up, throw away the key, whatever is appropriate. But before that can be done, any debate must be conducted on a level playing field. Our final concern is that this is an issue which is being framed almost entirely on the basis of one side’s interest groups and hysteria on the part of the uninformed about a new technology, rather than a balanced examination of the issues involved. It’s the old “People are having fun. This must be stopped!” idea that infects so much lawmaking, and it’s not very pretty.

Fortunately while it is being reported in some quarters as a done deal as in “Drone fliers must sit a test”, in fact this story is “The Government will ask people what they think about drone fliers sitting a test”. It’s a consultation, which means a Parliamentary committee will sit down and hear evidence before deciding on any legislation. The good news about consultations is that they are open to submissions from the general public, so if you are a British multirotor flier you can submit your own arguments. We will keep you posted with any news about the consultation as we have it.

Header image: 최광모 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Drone Snags A Snag, Pilot Faces Fine

If you hail from somewhere to which Australian beers have been exported, you could be forgiven for forming a view of the country based solely on TV adverts for Foster’s, or Castlemaine XXXX. Entertaining 30-second stories of wily young Aussies, and their inventive schemes to get their hands on a cool glass of the Amber Nectar.

Whether it’s an accurate depiction or not is something you’d have to ask an Australian, but it seems to provide a blueprint for at least some real-life stories. An Australian man in Sunbury, west of Melbourne, is to face a fine of up to A$9000 for using his multirotor to pick up a sausage in a bun from a stall in a superstore car park, and deliver it to him relaxing in his hot tub.

From one perspective the video of the event which we’ve posted below the break is a very entertaining film. We see the flight over houses and a main road to a local branch of Bunnings, an Australian hardware store chain. Their sausage sizzle is a weekly institution in which local non-profit groups sell barbecued sausages from a stall in the car park as a fundraiser. The drone lowers a bag on a string over people queuing, with a note saying “Please buy snag(Aussie slang for sausage) and put in bag, here’s $10”. Someone complies, and the tasty treat is flown back over suburbia to our hero in his tub. It’s fairly obviously a production with many takes and supporting actors rather than a real continuous flight, but the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority is nevertheless investigating it. Breaches of the rules are reported as being use of a drone within 30 metres of people, as well as flight beyond the line of sight and over a populated area. The original video has been taken down, but it lives on courtesy of Australian tech site EFTM.

Aside from providing our readership with entertainment courtesy of our Australian friends there is an important message to take away from this story. It’s likely that if they can adequately prove that their flight was never out of the line of sight they can escape some of the charges, but even so they have strayed into difficult territory. We’ve written about drone hysteria on the part of authorities before, and we are living in an age during which twitchy agencies have shown themselves willing to view what we know to be little more than grown-up toys as something akin to terror weapons. Of course people who use multirotors for wilful endangerment should be brought to book in no uncertain terms, but the line between that and innocuous use feels sometimes to have been shifted in an alarming direction. Please keep entertaining us with your multirotor exploits and hacks, but never take your eye off how what you are doing could be misconstrued by those in authority. We’d prefer not to be writing up drone stories involving fines.

Continue reading “Drone Snags A Snag, Pilot Faces Fine”