Hackaday Links: January 3, 2021

Last week we featured a story on the new rules regarding drone identification going into effect in the US. If you missed the article, the short story is that almost all unmanned aircraft will soon need to transmit their position, altitude, speed, and serial number, as well as the position of its operator, likely via WiFi or Bluetooth. The FAA’s rule change isn’t sitting well with Wing, the drone-based delivery subsidiary of megacorporation Alphabet. In their view, local broadcast of flight particulars would be an invasion of privacy, since observers snooping in on Remote ID traffic could, say, infer that a drone going between a pharmacy and a neighbor’s home might mean that someone is sick. They have a point, but how a Google company managed to cut through the thick clouds of irony to complain about privacy concerns and the rise of the surveillance state is mind boggling.

Speaking of regulatory burdens, it appears that getting an amateur radio license is no longer quite the deal that it once was. The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a $35 fee for new amateur radio licenses, license renewals, and changes to existing licenses, like vanity call signs. While $35 isn’t cheap, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s better than the $50 fee that the FCC was originally proposing. Still, it seems a bit steep for something that’s largely automated. In any case, it looks like we’re still good to go with our “$50 Ham” series.

Staying on the topic of amateur radio for a minute, it looks like there will be a new digital mode to explore soon. The change will come when version 2.4.0 of WSJT-X, the program that forms the heart of digital modes like WSPR and FT8, is released. The newcomer is called Q65, and it’s basically a follow-on to the current QRA64 weak-signal mode. Q65 is optimized for weak, rapidly fading signals in the VHF bands and higher, so it’s likely to prove popular with Earth-Moon-Earth fans and those who like to do things like bounce their signals off of meteor trails. We’d think Q65 should enable airliner-bounce too. We’ll be keen to give it a try whenever it comes out.

Look, we know it’s hard to get used to writing the correct year once a new one rolls around, and that time has taken on a relative feeling in these pandemic times. But we’re pretty sure it isn’t April yet, which is the most reasonable explanation for an ad purporting the unholy coupling of a gaming PC and mass-market fried foods. We strongly suspect this is just a marketing stunt between Cooler Master and Yum! Brands, but taken at face value, the KFConsole — it’s not a gaming console, it’s at best a pre-built gaming PC — is supposed to use excess heat to keep your DoorDashed order of KFC warm while you play. In a year full of incredibly stupid things, this one is clearly in the top five.

And finally, it looks like we can all breathe a sigh of relief that our airline pilots, or at least a subset of them, aren’t seeing things. There has been a steady stream of reports from pilots flying in and out of Los Angeles lately of a person in a jetpack buzzing around. Well, someone finally captured video of the daredevil, and even though it’s shaky and unclear — as are seemingly all videos of cryptids — it sure seems to be a human-sized biped flying around in a standing position. The video description says this was shot by a flight instructor at 3,000 feet (914 meters) near Palos Verdes with Catalina Island in the background. That’s about 20 miles (32 km) from the mainland, so whatever this person is flying has amazing range. And, the pilot has incredible faith in the equipment — that’s a long way to fall in something with the same glide ratio as a brick.

Federal Aviation Administration Announces Major Drone Rule Changes

If new rules from the FAA regarding unmanned aircraft operations in the US are any indication, drones are becoming less of a niche hobby and more integrated into everyday life. Of course, the devil is in the details, and what the Federal Aviation Administration appears to give with one hand, it takes away with the other.

The rule changes, announced on December 28, are billed as “advanc[ing] safety and innovation” of the drone industry in the United States. The exciting part, and the aspect that garnered the most attention with headline writers, is the relaxation of rules against night operation and operating above people and moving vehicles. Since 2016, it has been against FAA regulations to operate drones less than 55 pounds (25 kg) at night or over people without a waiver. This rule can be seen as stifling innovations in drone delivery, since any useful delivery service will likely need to overfly populated areas and roadways and probably do so at night. The new rules allow these operations without a waiver for four categories of drones, classified by how much damage they would do if they were to lose control and hit someone. The rules also define the inspection and certification regimes for both aircraft and pilot, as well as stipulating that operators have to have their certificate and ID on their person while flying.

While this seems like great news, the flip side of the coin is perhaps less shiny. The rule changes also impose the requirement for “Remote ID” (PDF link), which is said to be “a major step toward full integration of drones into the national airspace system.” Certain drones will be required to carry a system that transmits identification messages directly from the aircraft, including such data as serial number, location and speed of the drone, as well as the location of the operator. The rules speculate that this would likely be done over WiFi or Bluetooth, and would need to be receivable with personal wireless devices. The exact technical implementation of these rules is left as an exercise to manufacturers, who have 30 months from the time the rules go into effect in January to design systems, submit them for certification, and get them built into their aircraft. Drone operators have an additional year to actually start using the Remote ID drones.

For the drone community, these rule changes seem like a mixed bag. To be fair, it’s not exactly unexpected that drones would be radio tagged like this, and the lead time allowed by the FAA for compliance on Remote ID seems generous. The ability to operate in riskier environments will no doubt be welcomed by commercial drone operators. So who knows — maybe the rules will do what they say they will, and this will stimulate a little innovation in the industry. If so, it could make this whole thing a net positive.

Hackaday Links: December 20, 2020

If development platforms were people, Google would be one of the most prolific serial killers in history. Android Things, Google’s attempt at an OS for IoT devices, will officially start shutting down on January 5, 2021, and the plug will be pulled for good a year later. Android Things, which was basically a stripped-down version of the popular phone operating system, had promise, especially considering that Google was pitching it as a secure alternative in the IoT space, where security is often an afterthought. We haven’t exactly seen a lot of projects using Android Things, so the loss is probably not huge, but the list of projects snuffed by Google and the number of developers and users left high and dry by these changes continues to grow. Continue reading “Hackaday Links: December 20, 2020”

Poor Maintenance Could Have Led To Fatal B-17 Crash

In October the Nine-O-Nine, a fully restored Boeing B-17G bomber owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, crashed with thirteen people on board. After landing hard and skidding into the de-icing tanks at the Bradley International Airport, all but the tail and port wing of the 74 year old WWII aircraft was destroyed. Seven lives were lost in the accident, including that of Pilot Ernest “Mac” McCauley, who was regarded as one of the most experienced B-17 pilots in the world.

While the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation is still ongoing and hasn’t made a final determination as to what ultimately brought down the Nine-O-Nine, enough serious maintenance issues were uncovered while examining the wreckage that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has decided to rescind the Collings Foundation’s license to conduct any more paid flights on their remaining WWII aircraft. While many have spoken out in support of these “living history” flights, the FAA says they must be conducted in such a way that they don’t hinder the safety of other air traffic.

With the vast majority of the B-17’s airframe gone, the NTSB investigation has focused on the four 1,200 horsepower Wright R-1820 “Cyclone” engines recovered from the crash site. Investigators found that hastily attempted repairs to engine number 4, which is believed to have failed in-flight, were actually hindering normal operation:

Regarding engine 4, to prevent the magneto “P” leads from separating from the
magnetos, someone had attempted to rig the magneto leads in place with safety wire.

Inspection and testing of engine 4 left magneto revealed the movement of the safety-wired lead caused grounding to the case, which rendered the magneto lead inoperative.

Further, all of the spark plugs in the number 3 and 4 engines were found to be fouled and had electrode gaps that were out of tolerance. From an examination of the aircraft’s maintenance records, it was also learned that an arcing and burned wire had been replaced without any investigative steps taken to find what caused the failure to begin with.

With basic maintenance tasks either not being performed or at least done incorrectly, the FAA has called into question the culture of safety at the Collings Foundation. The paper is careful not to directly accuse the Foundation or any of its staff with outright negligence, but the implication seems clear.

The loss of Nine-O-Nine hit especially close to home for Hackaday. Just a month prior to the crash we had the opportunity to tour the aircraft, and came away with a newfound respect for not only those who designed and built the iconic bomber but the brave young men who flew it. Losing such a rare and historically significant aircraft and its crew was already a tragedy, but to find that negligence may be to blame is truly inexcusable.

MCAS And The 737: When Small Changes Have Huge Consequences

When the first 737 MAX entered service in May of 2017, it was considered a major milestone for Boeing. For nearly a decade, the aerospace giant had been working on a more fuel efficient iteration of the classic 737 that first took to the skies in 1967. Powered by cutting-edge CFM International LEAP engines, and sporting modern aerodynamic improvements such as unique split wingtips, Boeing built the new 737 to have an operating cost that was competitive with the latest designs from Airbus. With over 5,000 orders placed between the different 737 MAX variants, the aircraft was an instant success.

But now, in response to a pair of accidents which claimed 346 lives, the entire Boeing 737 MAX global fleet is grounded. While the investigations into these tragedies are still ongoing, the preliminary findings are too similar to ignore. In both cases, it appears the aircraft put itself into a dive despite the efforts of the crew to maintain altitude. While the Federal Aviation Administration initially hesitated to suspend operations of the Boeing 737 MAX, they eventually agreed with government regulatory bodies all over the world to call for a temporary ban on operating the planes until the cause of these accidents can be identified and resolved.

For their part, Boeing maintains their aircraft is safe. They say that grounding the fleet was done out of an “abundance of caution”, rather than in direct response to a particular deficiency of the aircraft:

Boeing continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX.  However, after consultation with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and aviation authorities and its customers around the world, Boeing has determined — out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety — to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 MAX aircraft.

Until both accident investigations are completed, nobody can say with complete certainty what caused the loss of the aircraft and their passengers. But with the available information about what changes were made during the 737 redesign, along with Boeing’s own recommendations to operators, industry insiders have started to point towards a fault in the plane’s new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) as a likely culprit in both accidents.

Despite the billions of dollars spent developing these incredibly complex aircraft, and the exceptionally stringent standards their operation is held to, there’s now a strong indication that the Boeing 737 MAX could be plagued with two common issues that we’ve likely all experienced in the past: a software glitch and poor documentation.

Continue reading “MCAS And The 737: When Small Changes Have Huge Consequences”

The FAA Mandates External Registration Markings For Drones

Drone fliers in the USA must soon display their registration markings on the exterior of their craft, rather than as was previously acceptable, in accessible interior compartments. This important but relatively minor regulation change has been announced by the FAA in response to concerns that malicious operators could booby-trap a craft to catch investigators as they opened it in search of a registration. The new ruling is effective from February 25th, though they are inviting public comment on it.

As airspace regulators and fliers across the world traverse the tricky process of establishing a safe and effective framework for multirotors and similar craft we’ve seen a variety of approaches to their regulation, and while sometimes they haven’t made complete sense and have even been struck down in the courts, the FAA’s reaction has been more carefully considered than that in some other jurisdictions. Rule changes such as this one will always have their detractors, but as an extension of a pre-existing set of regulations it is not an unreasonable one.

It seems inevitable that regulation of multirotor flight will be a continuing process, but solace can be taken at the lower end of the range. A common theme across the world seems to be a weight limit of 250 g for otherwise unrestricted and unregistered craft, and the prospects for development in this weight category in response to regulation are exciting. If a smaller craft can do everything our 2 kg machines used to do but without the burden of regulation, we’ll take that.

FAA Proposes Refined Drone Regulations

The wheels of government move slowly, far slower than the pace at which modern technology is evolving. So it’s not uncommon for laws and regulations to significantly lag behind the technology they’re aimed at reigning in. This can lead to something of a “Wild West” situation, which could either be seen as a good or bad thing depending on what side of the fence you’re on.

In the United States, it’s fair to say that we’ve officially moved past the “Wild West” stage when it comes to drone regulations. Which is not to say that remotely controlled (RC) aircraft were unregulated previously, but that the rules which governed them simply couldn’t keep up with the rapid evolution of the technology we’ve seen over the last few years. The previous FAA regulations for remotely operated aircraft were written in an era where RC flights were lower and slower, and long before remote video technology moved the operator out of the line of sight of their craft.

To address the spike in not only the capability of RC aircraft but their popularity, the Federal Aviation Administration was finally given the authority to oversee what are officially known as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) with the repeal of Section 336 in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. Section 336, known as the “Special Rule for Model Aircraft” was previously put in place to ensure the FAA’s authority was limited to “real” aircraft, and that small hobby RC aircraft would not be subject to the same scrutiny as their full-size counterparts. With Section 336 gone, one could interpret the new FAA directives as holding manned and unmanned aircraft and their operators to the same standards; an unreasonable position that many in the hobby strongly rejected.

At the time, the FAA argued that the repealing Section 336 would allow them to create new UAS regulations from a position of strength. In other words, start with harsh limits and regulations, and begin to whittle them down until a balance is found that everyone is happy with. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao has revealed the first of these refined rules are being worked on, and while they aren’t yet official, it seems like the FAA is keeping to their word of trying to find a reasonable middle ground for hobby fliers.

Continue reading “FAA Proposes Refined Drone Regulations”