What is the difference between drones and remote controlled aircraft? What is the inflection where drones have now catapulted into this new category that is causing these new regulatory hurdles?
An audience member posed the question during a town hall style session at the Drone World Expo in San Jose. Here’s the response from Gretchen West, a senior advisor with Hogan Lovells.
Gretchen West: This industry has had an identity crisis for many, many years. The term drone was used years ago by the military to talk about unsophisticated targets and has evolved into a slang word used today. Many – especially with military or government backgrounds – have fought against using the term drone to describe the technology, but “drone” is now embedded and very unlikely to change.
It’s not about the vehicle itself. It’s about how it’s used, and that’s how the regulations have been formed.
There really is no difference between a drone and a remote controlled aircraft as far as regulations go from a terminology standpoint. If you’re flying for sport, you’re classified as a hobbyist. The second you’re flying that same exact aircraft and make money off it – you’re doing cinematography, something with agriculture – that becomes a commercial operation and then it falls under the FAA bucket.
So the vehicle you’re flying or what it’s called isn’t what differentiates, it’s how you’re using it. And there is a lot of grey area between commercial and recreational use which the FAA is working to better define.
It’s an identity crisis in terminology, but it comes down to the use case.
Coombs’ expertise is rooted in the military, where she served as a former Navy pilot. Coombs was a flight and academic instructor for the U.S. Navy and was responsible for managing training and professional development of hundreds of students, and has received Navy Commendation and Humanitarian Assistance Medals for tsunami relief missions in Sumatra. She was also awarded the Navy Achievement Medal for actions that resulted in saving an aircraft.
Drone Girl: What are you working on right now?
Mel Coombs: xCraft has been consuming my life all week actually; they’re prepping their first shipment to go out this week. xCraft came to us (Lee & Hayes) just one year ago and now they’ve come so far, and even been on Shark Tank. This is all in the span of one year.
What are the parallels you see in coming from a military background vs. the commercial and consumer drone market?
It’s kind of interesting. When I started in patent law we didn’t have a great deal of aerospace clients here, so I had very limited exposure right away. With xCraft, it’s been a lot of fun to be able to draw the parallels with my experience in the military and understanding airspace and aviation language and personalities.
Going through the user manual for X Plus One, I was just like, ‘oh! This is so awesome.’ It’s like a NATEC manual in the Navy. They’ve written it almost the same. It’s so neat that they’ve thought of all of these things and spelled it out fort the customer, to make it as simple as possible for the customer.
What’s the wildest patent you’ve ever seen in the drone industry?
I don’t think any idea is really truly crazy. Technology is moving so fast. People would have thought 10 years ago that the things we have today in drones would never happen. As long as an expert in the field can see that would happen — I have an aerospace background — it’s easy to see if something will work aerodynamically or will not. As long as it will work aerodynamically or adds a feature to the device to make it work, then the sky is the limit.
A lot of stakeholders in the manned aviation field dislike drones, and I’ve noticed some tension. Is that true, and what are your thoughts?
There is a need for the drone industry. My job in the Navy was a search and rescue pilot. We supplied ships by carrying cargo underneath. We would fling loads between ships, but a lot of that capability can now be done by a large unmanned helicopter. As long as you make the drone safe so that it’s not going to hurt somebody, it knows how to function and how to land, drones actually keep more people safe.
What is most exciting to you as of late in the drone industry?
The thing I get most jazzed about is the ability to deliver packages to people’s houses and to do that efficiently and effectively. Of course you have the safety issues, but it’s exciting to know you can have something to delivered to your house in a few hours. From there, I’m excited about implementation such as the X PlusOne because you can increase your deliveries 10 fold because it can travel so much faster.
What has your experience been as a woman in the industry?
As a pretty definite minority in the aviation industry, it’s been an interesting road for sure. I think as I’m sure you’ve experienced, we have to work a heck of a lot harder than our male counterparts, just to prove ourselves. But if you can hold your own, if you can keep producing, at a certain point in time they stop seeing you as, “you’re just a girl, you can’t do this”. People start respecting you as a professional. It’s like ‘wow, you’re an aviator.’ Though it takes a little bit more to get there, once you’re there, you almost appreciate having to work harder to get there.
What’s in your future?
I hope that we are able to get more aviation clients and do more drone work, produce more patents to help people build their businesses
And what advice do you have for people in the industry?
Everything is growing so fast. No idea is stupid. Even the slightest improvement can be worth a lot of capital. Anybody that has an idea should seek out patent counsel and at least talk to an attorney to protect their ideas and grow a business around it. Look what xCraft did in one year. Come up with our idea, talk to a patent attorney and get a patent filed and get business going. Don’t think your idea is stupid.
The software update is an expansion of its geofencing program, a virtual barrier which literally prohibits the drone from taking off or flying into areas in its geofence. DJI already uses geofencing in “no-fly-zones,” which are mostly airports and Washington, D.C.
Think that just sounds like more limitations for drone pilots? It’s not. I outline the two reasons why everyone should applaud DJI’s move in my latest post over at Drone Coalition. Check it out here.
The world’s largest drone maker, DJI, is rolling out a software update to its drones designed to limit flying over sensitive areas like prisons and airports.
The drone company currently uses geofencing, a software feature that acts as a virtual barrier, to completely prevent its drones from flying over “no-fly-zones,” which are mostly airports and Washington, D.C.
The update, which will come with new DJI drones later this year or as a software update to existing drones, expands the list of restricted flight locations to include prisons and power plants. There have been many reported incidents of drones dropping drugs over prison yards.
But some users may need access to fly over restricted locations, such as drone flight instructors who train their students at airports, or firefighters using a drone to see over a burning building.
So DJI is also allowing certain users to unlock the geofence.
A new system will provide temporary access to restricted flight zones to drone operators with verified DJI accounts registered with a credit card, debit card or mobile phone number.
Watching PRENAV’s drones in action resembles something of a laser dance party.
At least, if your first intro to them is their award-winning video “Hello World.” Out of 153 total submissions to the Flying Robot International Film Festival, the San Francisco Bay Area-based startup PRENAV’s video on their work took home the top prize in the festival’s “LOL WTF” category.
But the video means a lot more than just, “WTF.” It’s a literal and creative representation of how precise autonomous drone flight can be.
“The video began as an exploration of how we could demonstrate precision drone flight in a visually appealing way,” saidNathan Schuett, CEO of PRENAV. “We decided to try something that had never been done before – drawing accurate shapes, letters and animations in the sky with a drone – and we’re very pleased with how ‘Hello World’ turned out.”
The company’s drones take photographs of subjects such as cell towers and wind turbines from precise locations in close proximity to other structures to build 3D reconstructions. The images are used to inspect damages, serial numbers, nuts and bolts.
The product launch of the PRENAV precision drone system is slated for 2016.