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An Interview with “The Drone Lawyer,” Brendan Schulman

Commercial-drones-053M-573x450Brendan Schulman, “the drone lawyer,” is Special Counsel in the Litigation Department at the law firm Kramer-Levin, where he heads the firm’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems practice. He successfully defended Raphael “Trappy” Pirker in the first-ever federal case involving the operation of a commercial drone in the United States. He has two decades of hands-on experience with unmanned aircraft technology, and has been quoted in hundreds of news media outlets on the topic of Unmanned Aircraft Systems and is frequently invited to speak on the topic. He counts 3D Robotics among his many clients. A few days ago I spoke with Brendan at length about the current state of drone laws in the U.S. The FAA just announced it will issue exemptions for filmmakers to begin using drones for cinematography on set. Can you explain what these exemptions mean?

Earlier this year the FAA said that it would start to consider exemption requests for limited commercial use of drones. The first set of applicants were cinematographers, some of whom will now be granted exemptions. However, an FAA exemption alone doesn’t give a filmmaker the right to fly, but rather the ability to apply for permission to fly. Each job still needs to get approved for specific sets, locations, etc.

A bunch of burdensome regulations also apply: The FAA requires a flight crew of three people; one of the crew must be an FAA licensed pilot; and the 400 ft. flight ceiling is measured from the ground up, meaning you couldn’t fly a foot above a 400-foot rooftop, if you wanted to film that from above. Essentially these filmmaking operations are being treated as if they’re full, manned aircraft operations.


Ultralight aircraft.

But they’re replacing those manned operations.

Exactly. I think what the filmmakers are doing is actually using the drone more like a camera crane or boom, not flying very high very often. Obviously a drone doesn’t pose nearly the same hazard as a full-size helicopter, but the FAA treats it that way. And these regulations make it more burdensome to take aerial cinematography than to get into an ultralight vehicle and fly yourself in an actual airplane. No licensing required there.

For me, the real worry about these stiff filmmaking regulations is that the FAA is courting a very real risk to innovation. Making it this burdensome will outweigh and possibly torpedo possible future benefits. But it really doesn’t surprise me that this is their starting point. We’ve seen for a long time that the FAA has a very conservative approach to any new technology, and this reflects that philosophy.

For instance, the FAA has been working on integrating Next-Gen Air Traffic Control systems for over a decade now; they’re way behind and way over budget. The agency is simply not historically good at adapting to new technology, and for good reason in the context of passenger travel. But personal drones are simply not in the same category as an airplane. We need a new paradigm for this new technology, because new technology simply doesn’t exist in current frameworks; I mean, look at Über, Airbnb, digital music, smartphones, the list is endless. So the question here is, if drones aren’t engaged in transportation, why are we in the same framework as transportation?

Sure. But there are legitimate concerns about safety, such flying over crowds and populated areas, near airports. What risks are there?



I think very little, actually: There’s no one on board, the products are decreasing in weight and size, the technology is improving, the safety mechanisms becoming more advanced. Obviously pilots should exercise caution when flying drones in more complex environments, such as near crowds. But we should also acknowledge that if there’s an injury it would surely be minor, not anything near what might be inflicted by a manned copter or airplane.

We can support this claim, in fact, because we’ve accumulated decades of knowledge and experience with injuries related to model aircraft. And not only are injuries highly unusual, they result in only bumps and scrapes. There have been only two reported deaths in connection with model aircraft activity, and very few serious injuries, most of which involved people stunt flying too close to themselves with large and aggressive copters. Drones have a slower rotor speed, smaller propellers, and on-board safety mechanisms like Return to Launch. Serious safety concerns are comparatively minimal. It doesn’t make sense that the FAA should devote its resources to bumps on the head.

Obviously there’s a desire to prevent collision with a passenger airplane. We’re all interested in preventing that possibility. But right now we’re talking about flying in isolated areas, like on farms, and on movie sets—there are no planes flying through there. We should build on the decades of experience of safe use of model airplanes by hobbyists in terms of avoiding manned air traffic.

Why do the regulations concern you enough that you’ve taken up these cases?

Well, we would reduce the number of companies who can innovate, we’d lose a lot of opportunity to do good, and we’d increase the burden of getting involved. I mean, I can’t believe that Congress or the country wants robotics companies that are testing small components to have to go get regulatory approval. Something like that makes perfect sense for a multimillion-dollar passenger aircraft, to have everything planned in advance, but for small-frame, personal technology, the framework doesn’t make sense. We need to enable this technology. It can do all of us a whole lot of good.

The FAA is rumored to be considering issuing exemptions for drone applications in agriculture. Can you speak to that?


3DR drone doing work in precision agriculture.

Agriculture is one of the biggest applications for the technology. It’s obvious that taking an aerial view would help farmers better see and learn what’s going on on their land. Not only is the practice economical, but it’s environmentally friendly. And most of those fields are in remote locations, so concerns are minimal.

The FAA has expressed concern about drones interfering with crop-dusters, when crop-dusting itself is actually one of the most dangerous jobs in the country—top three or five, I think—crashing into power lines and antennae and such because they fly so low. So that’s another thing that doesn’t make sense: Holding back promising technology because of an aviation operation that is historically unsafe. The FAA would have said no to crop-dusters today: Planes that fly 50 feet above a field and then back through a pesticide cloud?

But twenty years ago in Japan, Yamaha crop-dusting drones were developed and implemented at the insistence of the Japanese government. Now that’s an example of the kind government leadership that we need here in order to take on these issues and logically integrate the technology.

Any updates on the FAA’s case against Trappy?

Trappy’s case is still pending on appeal. In the interim I’m representing a number of commercial drone companies as well as the Academy of Model Aeronautics in lawsuits against the FAA concerning their June interpretation, which purports to impose new restrictions on both recreational and model aircraft. There’s concern about what the FAA is imposing on model aircraft, statements that seem to preclude commercial activity that wasn’t precluded before. And that pending litigation matter could further impact the development of drone regulations.

There is the interesting case of Texas EquuSearch, a search and rescue organization based in Texas that was able to obtain emergency approval from the FAA to use a drone in a rescue operation. However, the drone they were using came from a government agency—the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which is part of the Department of Commerce—who were using a government-approved MLB Superbat drone to do wildfire studies. The agency’s research was concluded and their drone was sitting around, and Texas EquuSearch had the opportunity to use it. I was glad to see the FAA and EquuSearch cooperating, and was happy to have that result, to see this technology embraced and applied for a good purpose. But it wasn’t a blanket approval for the team, just a one-time use for three days. The stars aligned nicely because a government agency happened to have a drone and wasn’t using it. So does this reflect a long-term approval for search and rescue technology? It’s not clear how often that situation would come up; it seems pretty unique.

I’d like to reiterate that the real question here is where the value of this technology is going to end up. Will it get realized by the end users who are making and building and innovating, or will it get caught up in a heavy-handed regulatory scheme where a lot of the efficiency will be lost in getting approval and licenses? That’s a real question for the country about what the approach should be in the long run. We seem to be heading down a road to regulations that will look a lot like full-blown aviation regulations. The question for everyone is whether that’s what we need to achieve the appropriate level of safety and fully realize the potential social and economic good that the arrival of this technology heralds.

Follow Brendan Schulman on Twitter, @dronelaws.

The post An Interview with “The Drone Lawyer,” Brendan Schulman appeared first on 3drobotics.com.

3DR Drones, Making Maps and Wine in Sonoma County


For the past year or so 3DR has been working closely with Ryan Kunde of DRNK Wines, of one California’s storied Sonoma County wineries. Ryan uses our drones to create aerial maps and overviews of his vineyards, field references which help him make more informed decisions about grape selection and blends, and better see and understand vine stress and vigor. A few weeks ago 3DR made one of our regular visits to the Kunde Family Vineyard to create some maps with Ryan as he gears up for this year’s harvest, and will have a video of this use case forthcoming. Writer Jolene Patterson was there with us, too, and wrote an excellent overview of Ryan’s project with 3DR and the future of drones in viticulture.

In the coming weeks, this blog will cover agriculture and mapping applications in detail. To lead us in, here’s an abridged version of Jolene’s informative and insightful article about 3DR at Kunde Vineyards. Viticultural Drones—Just Another Tractor? Nature’s signs are ever present in the Kunde Family Vineyard as Sonoma County’s harvest approaches with copious amounts of ripening grapes, yellowing leaves, and hungry birds. But the morning air whispers a subtle mechanical sound as a 3D Robotics‘ autonomous multicoper lands among the vines.

Drone news is often military related, but drones can be used for everything from agriculture to delivering pizza.  The 2014 Precision Aerial Ag Show drew 1,000 midwest farmers, and Japan has been extensively using drones in agriculture for 15 years. 3D Robotics wants farmers to use drones the way they would any piece of farming equipment and is creating products to meet those agricultural needs.

Ryan Kunde, 5th-generGrapes Smallation viticulturist and winemaker from DRNK Wines, is surveying the grapes to be harvested in the Kunde Family Vineyards near the old winery ruins in the Sonoma Valley AVA. Kunde Family Vineyards is a remarkably diverse 1,850 acre farm, with less than 40% of its land devoted to vineyards and topography that varies from 1400-foot mountain tops to rolling hills to a valley floor. The vineyard acreage is home to around 20 varietals grown in a volcanic band of “Red Hill” soil.  Ryan is very familiar with this large vineyard; he grew up here among these sustainably-grown vines talking easily about the the land, the lakes and grapes in a knowledgeable but unpretentious manner. But today he wants a bird’s eye view of these vineyards to help him assess areas of vigor and stress, because he needs to determine harvest timing and row locations.

This time of the year, growers and winemakers alike are walking the vineyards sampling the fruit and making tDrone 1 Whiteheir most important decision of the year – when to harvest. But is that really the only question? More and more I am hearing that separating the grapes from different areas of the vineyard so that more complex and interesting wines can be blended at bottling is almost as important as harvest timing. How do you evalutate all of the important or possibly important grape variations within a large vineyard like Kunde Family Vineyards? For Ryan the answer is viticultural drones. Drone photographic images can be accumulated long-term to assess vineyard patterns and perform maintenance. Additionally, they can be used for on-demand aerial images as he is doing today.

Imaging 2Images are created from autonomous, fixed-wing planes and multicopters with a point-and-shoot camera mounted inside. 3D Robotoics software then stitched the images together to generate the 3D model of the vineyard. Color variations in the 3D photographic model of vineyard help select sampling areas for possible seaparation during harvest.  Then it was back to the manual process and out into the vineyard to pick grapes to test for harvest readiness, using additional tools of the harvest (refractometer).

SamplingDrones are obviously not a replacement for a knowledgeable vineyard manager or winemaker, but another farming tool.  Drones can be a cost-effective solution in difficult terrains, newly acquired vineyards, or large properties to assess areas for manual evaluation or maintenance.  This evaluation can include watering or fertilizations requirements, pest control, general vineyard vigor, or harvest readiness. Ryan can send vineyard workers with guided GPS to specific areas of the vineyard to work and make informed decision about grapes to be separated during harvest so that he has the ability to make better decisions and better wine once the grapes are back in the winery.

Imagery is not uncommon to agriculture, but hiring planes or using satellite technology is more expensive and subject to weather and timing.  Planes often need to be hired weeks in advance and satellite images are difficult when clouds interfere.

Drones technology is moving to meet this agricultural need with two trends drivening drone expansion (and reducing pricing) one is open source technology and second is the development of the Maker Movement for do-it-yourself (DIY) techies. Ryan’s interest in technology began with a childhood interest in radio-controlled cars. Today, he owns autonomous fixed-wing planes and is beta-testing multicopters, both equipped with GPS location systems and point-and-shoot camera technology.

The most important factor in any harvest is still the man or woman guiding the process, our wonderfully talented growers and winemakers, but using every available tool to make the best decision can give you an edge. Ryan is producing some incredible wines with a complexity that I love. So perhaps it isn’t just another tractor, but a new innovative tool to allow a talented winemaker to improve his winemaking starting in the vineyard!

Read Jolene’s article in full here.

The post 3DR Drones, Making Maps and Wine in Sonoma County appeared first on 3drobotics.com.

From The Economist, Chris Anderson on Drones: A Short History, Long Future

_Q7A8808 In this interview with GE’s “Look Ahead” section in The Economist (his former employer), Chris explains why he thinks drones will change the way we work, play and live, as well how a dad with a spare weekend became one of the most prominent advocates of affordable drones and began mass-producing them himself.

3D Robotics Partners with Intel, Develops New Drone Power

On Tuesday, 3D Robotics announced that we’ve partnered with Intel in the development of Edison, a new microcomputer that basically gives you PC power in postage stamp size, at an almost universally accessible price. We’ve worked closely and for a long time with Intel on this project because the combination of Edison’s incredible power and  affordability will lead to truly revolutionary advancements for our company, and for the Internet of Things in general.

The Edison board has the kind of processing that at one time you could only find in a personal computer. This means that when we integrate Edison into our next-generation autopilot, we’ll be able to make incredible leaps forward in on-board image processing, sense and avoid, new classes of sensors, and artificial intelligence, with many more eggs yet to be discovered and cracked open. The technology is now here. The challenge now is to start doing important and interesting things with it.

For instance, for the big announcement on Tuesday we ran a demo of IRIS+ using an “optical” version of our 3PV™ Follow Me technology, with Edison as a companion computer to our Pixhawk autopilot. That sounds way too technical. But what that really means is that with the extra computing power from Edison, 3PV™ can now track people and objects with vision instead of relying on a GPS signal, so you won’t need to carry another device on you anymore—you can just go and the drone will visually recognize where you are and keep the camera on you.

it_photo_214981_52 3DR CEO Chris Anderson called the partnership, “A rich collaboration between Intel’s engineers and ours to integrate the Edison into our platform and add image processing power.” For Chris, Edison unlocks what you might call “the long tail of drones.” In other words, drones won’t come in a handful of sizes and models with a handful of universal capabilities, as they do today. Instead, drones will be customized and adapted, changed and invented and reinvented to meet an untold number of needs and solve an untold number of problems, most of which we aren’t even aware of today. That’s the long tail. With additional computing power from Edison, 3DR will build drones that can do more things for more people in more industries, and eventually drones that can be infinitely tailored to meet the many unique needs of the real world that are out there now, waiting for their applications to come along.

WikiDrones: What “Open Source” Means to 3DR Customers


At 3D Robotics, all of our software is open source. And we’re not alone: a huge percentage of major companies develop or run on open source software and systems, including Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, WordPress, Twitter, Netflix, Mozilla, even MasterCard and Bank of America. Most of the internet is hosted on open source Apache servers, and the bestselling smart phones in the world, Android devices, are also open source.

What does open source mean? In short, it means anyone has the freedom to run your program, to change the program, to redistribute exact copies, and to distribute modified versions. Companies see many advantages in this open source model: technological advancement, cost, efficiency, security, ethical cred, etc. At 3DR, we’re deeply proud of our open source roots, and proud to support open efforts like ardupilot: these people and projects are to thank for all that 3DR is today, and they matter deeply to us in both principle and practice.

But: We’re also aware that, to almost everyone on the planet, this stuff doesn’t matter at all. Most people, and rightly so, just care if the thing they use works well or not. However, if you’re looking to buy a drone, our open source model really does matter to you, and in very practical ways. Here’s why.



First, and obviously, open source means we can keep prices down in favor of fostering more development. For instance, this means that we can sell you a Pixhawk, one of the most sophisticated and capable autopilots on the planet, for less than $300. Comparable autopilots sell at four or five times that amount. So if you don’t think you see the benefits of open source from day to day, you can see the open source spirit in our encouraging prices. But you’ll find you get even more from those prices…



Many products have built-in obsolescence, meaning they fall apart and age prematurely, so that you need to repair them or buy new versions regularly. Obviously, this is a lucrative business model, particularly at the speed that the high-tech world changes. How many iPods have you gone through?

But because 3DR drones are open source, they have built-in evolution. As we continue to develop cool new software functions and improve on already existing ones, you can keep pace with us and download the latest for free. So if you buy an IRIS or an X8, its software won’t go obsolete, it will only improve. As that old saying goes, “Wine and drones from 3D Robotics get better with time.”


Advanced technology, fast

Not only will your software keep pace with the company, we’ll both do so at an incredible rate. 3DR are the stewards of the DIY Drones community–today there are over 55,000 of us–home to an enormous and almost disturbingly intelligent and dedicated global developer base. With this number of experts working in concert around the world, we come up with new and better features and functionality and implement them in our products and software much faster than a closed-source company ever could. Imagine Wikipedia, but for drones. And they do it all for free, for you.


Because we have so many top-shelf minds at work here, we’re able to respond what our customers need. Instead of only offering products to our customers–telling them what they want–we have the capacity to listen to what they want, and more importantly, to incorporate their ideas quickly into our products. This goes from high-end specialized enterprise applications to cool consumer features: It’s how we developed and refined our advanced 3PV Follow Me mode, for instance. So if you have an operation you need a drone to perform, or a great idea for an app, chances are we can make it happen.

Plus, if you’ve got a mind to do it, you can always just edit and add to the code yourself. That’s what free and open can do. For proof of how useful and beneficial this is, just ask the multitude of drone companies built on our platform.

In the end

Open source projects embrace open exchange, collaboration, and community contribution. And this means as much to you and your daily decisions as it does to us geeks on the other side of the screen. Thanks to open source projects, where Wikipedia was once a punchline, it is now a given. And where drone was once a dirty word, now they can be anything we, and you, want them to be.

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