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How Journalists are Using Drones in War Zones: An Interview with International Aerial Photojournalist Gail Orenstein

Drones have enabled journalists to capture stories with a new perspective and enabled them to cover stories that were previously out of reach or too dangerous to cover in the field. We met with photojournalist Gail Orenstein to learn how she incorporated drones into her storytelling career.

Gail has been a photographer for over 20 years and has been using drones as part of her reporting toolkit for the past three years. She has traveled, often on her own, to 84 countries. Her recent work has focused on drone journalism in conflict zones. Her work has been distributed worldwide by international news outlets including CBS News, The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Mashable, Washington Post, TIME, The BBC, The Telegraph, and many more. She has also been featured as a “Top UAS Predictor in the Field” by Women and Drones.

Kurdistan Iraq - Gail Orenstein

Gail surveying a refugee camp in Kurdistan, Iraq, 2017.


Read on to learn about Gail’s experiences traveling with her drone and using it to document stories in places like Ukraine, Iraq, and Georgia. Gail shares with us how drone laws differ around the world compared to drone laws in her home, London. She also gives us advice to share with those who want to use drones in journalism.

Begin Interview

How did you become a photojournalist?

I come from a large, close-knit family, and my mother has a deep love of photography. Every room in our home was inundated with photographs, and my mother had a great story to go with each one.

Visual storytelling comes naturally to me as it does to my mother, so it made sense for me to go into photography. I started photographing on the streets of Chicago in my early twenties while attending school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I began getting official assignments after I graduated, and from there, things took off.

At what point did you start incorporating drones into your reporting?

I incorporated drones into my work three years ago after an eye-opening experience in Syria. I was smuggled into Kobane, Syria to cover the Syrian war in 2014.

One day we were in a safe house, and suddenly there was a military drone strike against ISIL forces in the building next door. The power of the strike was insane—everything around us was blown to pieces. The next day a Kurdish commander took us to the site of the strike. It looked like a huge sinkhole with glass everywhere. I felt so lucky we were next door and not in that building. Safety is always an issue in a conflict zone, but this was really close.

Syria - Gail Orenstein

Damage in Syria. Image Credit: Gail Orenstein










My experience in Syria increased my concerns about safety; running around in the field was getting more and more dangerous. I also realized that these stories were getting much bigger. I need aerial equipment to cover these stories. Droning was an obvious solution to both these issues. Now with a drone, I can soar above and get really dramatic footage with less risk to me personally.

When you first started to use drones, what were some lessons you learned?

First, I had to become an expert on the drone laws of the local countries, and these laws change very quickly. When I arrive in a new country, I always take a photo of the airspace regulations webpage, so if I am stopped I can say I have the updated regulations on my iPhone. Also, I never travel anywhere without serious drone liability insurance that covers me globally.

Second, I had to get fully licensed. I decided it would be best to have both a CAA license and an FAA license. Let me tell you, I am so happy I did that. It was costly and very time consuming, but when I take out both licenses I am always flagged through customs. Well, so far anyway.

I also keep my professional journalism credentials up to date and notarized. For a professional drone pilot, it is my personal experience that obtaining the right certifications and professional paperwork is the first and most critical step. Only then do I get to think about what equipment I want to take.

Once I have all of my documentation sorted I get to think about the kind of drone I will take for my next assignment. A professional drone journalist needs a fleet of drones. There are major differences between battery life cycle, the size of the drone, weight, camera quality.

What is your favorite drone to fly for aerial photojournalism?

Right now it’s the DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0. I’ve used it to produce some of my most complex work to date. I really like this particular drone although it is a bit cumbersome. I still have my Mavic, and I just bought a Parrot Anafi.

Though the industry has moved on, I still have a real soft spot in my heart for the Parrot Bebop 2, as it was the first drone I carried around when I started. Though it lacked many features I take for granted now I never had any trouble traveling with it. I could carry it around in one arm and fly it off the iPad. It gave me a lot of freedom, and I was able to move about Bangladesh and Iraq with it and do some work I am still very proud of.

How do drones improve your ability to document stories through photography?

The obvious answer to that is that I can get the big picture quicker. I can access the area much faster without having to spend hours or days walking around. So, I can photograph larger areas to show the impact of catastrophic events or document the number of people in a refugee camp. It also allows me to see in real time where I might want to go to get further documentation on the ground later on.

I cannot believe I worked without this tool for 30 years. It has changed my work on so many levels in recent years.

You have traveled internationally to 84 countries. What has been your experience traveling with a drone, taking it through airports, and receiving approval to fly?

It varies dramatically from nation to nation, with some places demanding I get written letters from governments ministries to pretty open policies about droning. You really need to spend time researching beforehand, have your paperwork in place, and be prepared to deal with changing red tape, especially in areas where drone laws are not established or in areas where the civilian population has not picked up droning.

One experience I look back on is traveling with a drone to Nepal. I had not received my certification yet, and I was refused access to certain areas. It is now one of the most strict countries to receive permission to drone. After the earthquake in April 2015, every done hobbyist took a drone to Nepal, and they flew over UNESCO sites, temples, and really sacred places of worship. This caused the government officials to crack down on Nepal drone policy.

Tell me about your experiences recently traveling to countries like Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine. How did flying in these countries compare to flying where you live in London? Is there anything about UK drone laws you want to share with us?

In places like Iraq, Ukraine, and Syria the uptake of drone usage is much higher than in the UK. Drones in these countries aren’t only used by the military, but also by film-makers and journalists. Surprisingly, these countries have a more established drone culture than in a place like the UK. People are accustomed to drones because of the war, and there are a local culture and industry around drones.

Due to the war in the East, the Ukrainians, in particular, have developed a strong culture of handmade reconnaissance drones they use on the frontlines. They have excellent engineering schools and a lot of determination—a very powerful mix when it comes to getting things done. Matrix UAV is just one startup Ukranian UAV company that is leading a new wave of hand-built drones. They are building drones that they hope will carry blood to the frontline as well as bring back wounded Ukrainian soldiers while also doing reconnaissance missions. I am deeply impressed with the start-up UAV movement in Ukraine.

Ukraine - Gail Orenstein

Ukrainian Military. Image Credit: Gail Orenstein


When I was in Georgia I took a train to Azerbaijan. I was told I would have no problem crossing the border. When I arrived in Azerbaijan, the customs officials told me they would have to confiscate my drone equipment. I took out my proper licenses and press documents. These were very heavily examined. My papers saved me from having to give up my drone. The customs officials told me that since I had these official papers they would let me through. I learned that the drone laws in Azerbaijan are enforced much more strictly than drone laws in Georgia. You have to register your drone with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Azerbaijan, and there is no flying in Baku without permission. So again, be careful and keep yourself protected as laws change arbitrarily.

Here in the UK, I recently flew into a bird migratory path by accident. This was outside London, and I am very very careful about migratory paths. The birds had already migrated a few months before, I had checked the area, the map, and everything appeared okay. During the flight, the local Canal and River Trust approached me and said I could not drone in the area because it was over a bird migratory path. It did not matter that the birds had left months ago. There are lots of places in the world were the laws and locals are much more pro-drone than drone laws in the UK. So again, you need to do your homework not only about local laws but also about local culture.

Tell me about your most recent project using drones.

I am working with an Azeri film-maker Rashad Abeyev about a film covering the Caucasus region. I am working simultaneously as a drone journalist in these places. I have had an opportunity to film the most amazing different groups of people and their settlements, including Azeri fishermen on the Caspian Sea. Also, we are incorporating into the film a village of mountain Jews living near Dagestan on the border with Russia. The mountain Jews really fascinate me, since as a Jew I had never heard of them. I went to Quba in Azerbaijan and droned the synagogue and the surrounding area—it was amazing.

What project are you most proud of that involved drones?

I am very proud of the work I did with the Rohingya refugee crisis on the Myanmar and Bangladesh border. I was there at the start of the genocide on the Bangladesh side when thousands of Rohingya were fleeing Myanmar. I was able to get a great deal of drone footage during the height of the monsoon season. I caught severe phenomena, but I was determined not to leave without that aerial footage. No camps had been built yet. There were masses of people struggling against the elements to get to safety and build really massive refugee cities on muddy hills very quickly.

YouTube Video


I did this work in 2017 moving about independently using my own drones and loading my work up at night. Suddenly a lot of relief agencies working there contacted me about my work, which gave me a real sense of satisfaction as they wanted to use the aerial footage. I realized at that point the aerial footage was the evidence. You cannot fake a news story from the sky. It was a great feeling to share that footage with these agencies.

Most of all I am proud of the women that write to me. I hope that women continue to work in this industry and don’t give up. Sadly, I saw statistics about the growth in the industry, and men are making the most gains. We cannot lose the female perspective, what a horrible loss.

What advice would you give to an aspiring photojournalist who wants to use drones?

Be prepared to work and study hard. Review the work that is out there. Photojournalism is already two fields merged into one, which means you have to learn to be a photographer and a journalist. Most photojournalists also do video, so to do that job too you have to learn to use your camera to do video work when needed.

Drones add a new dimension to an already difficult job. You really have to take the time to get properly trained and certified. You need to put in the hundreds of hours of flight time to develop your skills, to build confidence, and to be aware of safety. When I fly, I fly for all—I think about other pilots, and I am determined to stop any reckless droning I witness or hear about. We must work as a community to keep our standards high.

You also need to learn air laws/drone laws and the masses of technical and regulatory information that goes with droning. I have spent months in classes learning theory and in ground school in the US and UK.

This is a really demanding job, on top of international regulations, technical specifications, operation manuals, and a regulatory environment that is constantly changing. I don’t say this to make those considering entering drone journalism afraid. Don’t be afraid. Instead, be prepared to train for at least a few years. Droning is a profession taken up by many and pursued by few.

To learn more about Gail Orenstein, visit her website. Let us know how you think drones have impacted the way we document and view news from around the world, or share your thoughts on this interview, by hopping into this thread on our community forum.

The post How Journalists are Using Drones in War Zones: An Interview with International Aerial Photojournalist Gail Orenstein appeared first on UAV Coach.

Drone Tracks Aims to Make $1 Drone Shipping a Reality, but Are There Hidden Costs?

Drone deliveries are back in the news, this time with a plan from Statupstaging Inc. to use a hooked mechanism to reduce costs and increase safety. However, our research suggests this plan is riddled with hidden costs and lacks public support.

Startupstaging Inc. recently announced their plans to roll out $1 drone deliveries using what they call “Drone Tracks”—a system of tracks that run along pre-set routes, which drones would be attached to during flight.

Here’s a depiction of the idea in action, taken from the Drone Tracks website:


Some proposed benefits for the idea of attaching drones to tracks were listed in a recent statement issued by Startupstaging Inc.:

  • Customer-scheduled delivery with active tracking: you know where your package is and when it will arrive.
  • Eco-friendly: Less cardboard and fewer vehicles on the road with the use of reusable boxes
  • Mail delivery with drones would eliminate the USPS budget deficit.
  • Airplanes don’t need to worry about drones crashing into them during landing/take-off.

The system creates consistent and predictable flight paths allowing for safer and easier organization, much like roads for cars.

– Startupstaging Inc.

In the same statement, Startupstaging Inc. also lists a few other surveillance-related benefits as a secondary positive to using the approach of attaching drones to tracks. These ideas have to do with catching criminals or potential terrorists by using footage from an “eye in the sky.”

However, these benefits frankly seem somewhat naive—we already have video surveillance throughout urban areas, and it’s hard to imagine the Drone Tracks idea being implemented anywhere except urban areas. Further, while a higher vantage point might reveal more useful data, drones are already being used for this kind of surveillance, and there doesn’t seem to be a need to attach them to tracks to gather it.

Are There Hidden Costs to the Drone Tracks Idea?

The immediate concern one has when considering the Drone Tracks idea is the infrastructure cost. That is, in order to implement this kind of drone delivery approach, tracks would first have to be built throughout the area where deliveries are to be made.

And it looks like Startupstaging Inc. is hoping not to foot that bill—in doing research for this article, we came across a petition created earlier this month on MoveOn.org asking for “…legislation to launch the implementation of Drone Tracks, which can result in safer drone flights and cheaper delivery.”

So far there’s only one signer, and that signer is also the author of the petition: Startupstaging Inc.

The Idea of $1 Drone Delivery Isn’t a New Thing

There’s probably a good reason Startupstaging Inc. is proposing shipping with drones at just $1 per delivery.

Amazon, through their drone delivery Amazon Prime Air, first made the claim that they’d be able to conduct drone deliveries for just $1 so long as the package being delivered met these two criteria:

  • Packages must weigh fewer than five pounds.
  • The delivery distance must be within ten miles of Amazon’s facilities.

The catch?

Amazon made this announcement almost three years ago, in December of 2015.

YouTube Video

Fast forward to today, and we are much farther along when it comes to making drone deliveries a reality.

In Iceland, TanzaniaSwitzerland, and elsewhere drone deliveries are now a part of everyday life. But in each place where drone deliveries have been implemented, a huge, complex infrastructure has been created to enable the deliveries.

This infrastructure isn’t a system of physical tracks, such as those proposed by Startupstaging Inc., but rather it’s a system of shared data, generally called a UTM (Unmanned Traffic Management). To be fair to Startupstaging Inc., the creation of these UTMs have been supported in many instances by government funding, and it’s unlikely that private industries could pay to create all of the infrastructure needed to get drone deliveries up and running.

Right now NASA is working in partnership with the FAA to further UTM technology here in the U.S. In addition, there are currently pilot programs in place in the U.S. exploring drone delivery (among other things).

So while it does seem likely that we’ll see inexpensive drone deliveries arrive here before too long, it seems a little far-fetched to imagine that tracks will be built to implement these deliveries in every city in the U.S.

It could be that some cities will build tracks for specific drone delivery routes—it’s certainly not implausible—but we’d bet that UTM will be the real way forward when it comes to creating an infrastructure to enable drone deliveries here in the U.S., just as it has been elsewhere in the world.

Where do you think drone deliveries are headed? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.

The post Drone Tracks Aims to Make $1 Drone Shipping a Reality, but Are There Hidden Costs? appeared first on UAV Coach.

The Top Thermal Cameras for Drones from DJI, Yuneec, and FLIR

In this article, we share a list of the top thermal cameras for drones. Our list includes cameras from companies like FLIR, DJI, and Yuneec. The camera you choose may be heavily determined by the drone you fly—many thermal cameras are made only to fit specific drone models. We provide specs and information on compatibility to help you determine the best thermal drone camera for your project.

Yuneec thermal camera and drone

The Yuneec H520 hexacopter and CGOET thermal camera.

What Can Drone Operators do with a Thermal Camera?

Aerial thermography is one of many UAS applications where you can make money in the drone industry. When equipped with a special thermal camera, drones can translate thermal energy (heat) into visible light in order to analyze a particular object or scene.

This field has multiple humanitarian and societal benefits as well. Thermography is being used by public safety members to find missing persons, firefighters to put out damaging fires, and agricultural workers to identify more efficient cultivation and harvesting methods. These are just a few of the drones for good efforts we’ve seen in aerial thermography.

List of the 7 Top Thermal Cameras for Your Drone

This list includes the top thermal cameras for drones. Our list features the top FLIR thermal cameras as well as thermal cameras from DJI and Yuneec.

Some of the most important differentiating factors between each camera are whether they are radiometric or non-radiometric and whether they are stable or attached with a gimbal. Radiometric thermal cameras display a thermal image and provide temperature measurements; non-radiometric thermal cameras display a thermal image only. Cameras with a gimbal allow the operator more control over the camera’s movement than those without.

1. FLIR Duo Pro R

  • Thermal Resolution: 336 X 256 / 640 X 512FLIR Duo Pro R
  • Radiometric: Yes
  • Gimbal: No
  • Retail Price: $5,199

FLIR touts this HD dual-sensor thermal camera as “the most powerful dual-sensor imaging solution in the world for small commercial drones.” The FLIR Duo Pro R combines a high resolution, radiometric thermal imager, 4K color camera, and a full suite of on-board sensors to bring you thermal and hi-def color images in flight. A fully integrated GPS receiver, IMU, magnetometer, and barometer provide all the data needed to create accurate orthomosaics without integrating external flight controllers.

2. FLIR Vue Pro R

  • Thermal Resolution: 336 X 256 / 640 X 512
  • Radiometric: Yes
  • Gimbal: No
  • Retail Price: $3,349

This is the first camera FLIR equipped with radiometric technology. The radiometric drone thermal camera can save still images with accurate, calibrated temperature data embedded in every pixel. With this camera, you can also geotag images and control the camera function by integrating with your drone’s control system. This camera is popular for professional sUAS applications like building and roof inspections, power grid inspections, infrastructure analysis, precision agriculture, and public safety.

  • Compatible with: Comes with precision mounting holes: two M2x0.4 on each of two sides & one bottom 1/4-20 threaded hole on top. Contact the FLIR Support Team with questions about compatibility: 866-667-7732.
  • Shop for the FLIR Vue Pro R on Amazon

3. FLIR Vue Pro

  • Thermal Resolution: 336 X 256 / 640 X 512
  • Radiometric: No
  • Gimbal: No
  • Retail Price: $2,349

The FLIR Vue Pro is a professional-grade thermal camera for drone operators. This camera comes at a lower price tag because it does not offer radiometric technology like the Vue Pro R. However, this thermal imaging camera still enables the operator to measure and record temperatures and differentiate them through different color palettes. This model does not store the data onboard, rather it records digital video and still imagery to a removable micro-SD card. Like most FLIR thermal cameras, you can also geotag images and control the camera function by integrating with your drone’s control system.

  • Compatible with: Comes with precision mounting holes: two M2x0.4 on each of two sides & one bottom 1/4-20 threaded hole on top. Contact the FLIR Support Team with questions about compatibility: 866-667-7732.
  • Shop for the FLIR Vue Pro on FLIR.com

4. DJI Zenmuse XT

  • Thermal Resolution: 336 X 256 / 640 X 512
  • Radiometric: Optional Upgrade
  • Gimbal: Yes
  • Retail Price: Contact DJI for pricing

The Zenmuse XT combines DJI’s gimbal expertise and image transmission with FLIR’s industry-leading thermal imaging technology. The camera on the DJI Zenmuse XT is developed by FLIR. It provides high-sensitivity thermal imaging and provides accurate temperature measurements ideal for analytics and telemetry. Stabilized and controlled by a custom DJI gimbal, it provides smooth, clear imagery and 360 degrees of seamless rotational movement. Video and images are stored on a removable SD card.

5. DJI Zenmuse XT2

  • Thermal Resolution: 336 X 256 / 640 X 512
  • Radiometric: No
  • Gimbal: Yes
  • Retail Price: Contact DJI for pricing

The Zenmuse XT2 integrates a high-resolution FLIR thermal sensor and a 4K visual camera with DJI’s stabilization and machine intelligence technology. The advanced thermal sensor provides high sensitivity imaging for infrastructure monitoring, energy inspections, firefighting, search and rescue missions, and more. With a fully-integrated dual payload, professionals can capture actionable thermal and color visible data in a single flight.

6. Yuneec CGOET

  • Resolution: 1920 x 1080p / 30 FPS with adjustable temperature detection
  • Radiometric: No
  • Gimbal: Yes
  • Retail Price: $1,900

The CGOET combines thermal imaging and a low light camera with a 3-axis gimbal, capable of a continuous 360° rotation. With the thermal imaging camera, the temperature in the image selectively measures and indicates relative temperature differences. The residual light IR lens has 20x higher sensitivity than the human eye and captures excellent images, particularly in low light conditions.

7. Yuneec E10T

  • Thermal Resolution: 336 X 256 / 640 X 512Yuneec E10T
  • Radiometric: No
  • Gimbal: Yes
  • Retail Price: $7,999

Yuneec’s launch of the E10T was one of the biggest surprise announcements at InterDrone 2018. The E10T is an all-in-one, three-axis gimbal, dual thermal imaging and residual light camera available in two versions with different lens options: 320 by 256-pixel or 640 by 512-pixel thermal resolution. The H520-E10T system was specially developed for inspection, safety and search & rescue applications.

One of the most impressive capabilities of this thermal camera is that it allows you to stream the thermal and residual light image simultaneously to the remote control and then look at the image as an overlay or picture-in-picture. The E10T will be available later this year in four lens configurations for the two resolution options. The 320-pixel thermal resolution will start at $4,999, while the 640-pixel thermal resolution will start at $7,999.

Share your favorite thermal imaging camera for drones on our community forum. Interested in other types of camera drones? Check out our Top Camera Drones Guide next. It contains tons of camera drone recommendations for cinematographers, real estate marketers, and sUAS service providers.


The post The Top Thermal Cameras for Drones from DJI, Yuneec, and FLIR appeared first on UAV Coach.

Flyability Recruits College Graduates to Advance Underground Drone Technology

U.S. government agency DARPA wants to revolutionize how we operate in the underground world with drones. Underground settings, also called subterranean settings, are difficult and sometimes unsafe to work in. DARPA believes drones could help military and civilian first responders operate more efficiently in subterranean settings such as tunnels, urban underground, and cave networks.

The current hazards of subterranean environments vary drastically from setting to setting, and they have a high level of unpredictability—these environments can degrade or change over time and are often too high-risk for personnel to enter. To help overcome these challenges, DARPA has launched the Subterranean or “SubT” Challenge. The challenge seeks novel approaches to rapidly map, navigate, and search underground environments during time-sensitive combat operations or disaster response scenarios.

Flyability Team CERBERUS

Flyability Elios in action for public safety. Photo courtesy of Flyability.


Team CERBERUS Competes in Subterranean Challenge

Flyability has joined forces with the Autonomous Robots Lab at the University of Nevada, the Robotic Systems Lab of ETH Zurich, the Autonomous System Lab of ETH Zurich, the HiPeR Lab of U.C. Berkeley, and Sierra Nevada Corporation to compete in the challenge. Together, they form Team CERBERUS.

The environments where the challenge is taking place have a lot in common with those where our customers are deploying Elios daily. Taking part in the prestigious Subterranean DARPA challenge is an opportunity to collaborate with university laboratories and companies which are the best in their R&D fields.

—Adrien Briod, CTO, Flyability

Team CERBERUS envisions the collaboration of walking and flying robots as the groundbreaking robotic solution for subterranean deployments. Through the combination of best of bread products and research projects, it will provide field experts with an autonomous, robust, and reliable way to fulfill their mission even in an unpredictable, and hostile subterranean setting. The team hopes their cumulative expertise will enable the successful development and reliable operation of the CERBERUS system in the SubT Challenge.

Take a look at Team CERBERUS’ collaborative walking & flying robots concept developed for the SubT Challenge in the video below:

YouTube Video


Subterranean Challenge Events and Schedule

The challenge consists of three preliminary circuit events and one final event. Teams can compete in one or both of two complementary research tracks: the Systems track, and/or the Virtual track.

Teams that compete in the Systems track will develop and demonstrate physical systems to compete in live competitions on physical, representative subterranean courses, and focus on advancing and evaluating novel physical solutions in realistic field environments. Teams that compete in the Virtual track will develop software and algorithms using virtual models of systems, environments, and terrain to compete in simulation-based events, and explore larger-scale runs in simulated environments that explore significantly expanded scenario sizes and durations. Team CERBERUS has elected to compete in both tracks.

All teams will participate in three circuit events. Each circuit covers a different subdomain:

  • Tunnel systems
  • Urban Underground
  • Cave Networks
DARPA SubT Challenge

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge explores innovative approaches and new technologies to rapidly map, navigate, and search complex underground environments. Photo courtesy of DARPA.


Teams will have plenty of time to design, test, and refine their systems/software since the challenge events will be spread out across a three year period, Fall 2018 – Fall 2021. The final event, planned for 2021, will put teams to the test with a course that incorporates diverse challenges from all three environments. The winner of the systems competition will take home a $2 million prize, while the winner of the virtual competition will earn a $750,000 prize.

Flyability Recruits Graduates to Support Team CERBERUS

Flyability is now recruiting specific profiles opening the door to talented graduates to join the Flyability adventure and contribute to the success of Team CERBERUS.

These openings include internships in a variety of STEM fields:

  • Mechatronics
  • Propulsion
  • Software
  • Electronics
  • Sensor Fusion
  • Automation
  • Mechanical Design
  • Firmware

For a list of all internship and job openings at Flyability, visit Flyabiliy’s jobs page. For additional drone job opportunities, check out our Guide to Drone Jobs.

How do you think Team CERBERUS will perform during the SubT Challenge? Do you think they will excel in one circuit event category over the others or fair evenly in all three? Share your thoughts about the SubT Challenge and Team CERBERUS in this thread on our community forum.

The post Flyability Recruits College Graduates to Advance Underground Drone Technology appeared first on UAV Coach.

New FAA Reauthorization Act Has Big Implications for Hobbyist Drone Pilots

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 was signed into law less than one week ago, on Friday, October 5th.

The Act secures funding for the FAA for another five years, through 2023, and covers an array of items drone-related and otherwise. It’s worth noting that the length of time for the reauthorization is itself a big deal—as reported recently in the Washington Post, a five-year bill has not been passed since the 1980s.


Big Changes Coming for Hobbyists

Hobbyist drone pilots will be among those most impacted by the drone-related changes in the new Act.

One of the biggest changes in the Act is the repeal of Section 336, also known as the Special Rule for Model Aircraft. With the repeal, hobbyist drone pilots will be subject to FAA regulations similar to the regulations commercial drone pilots are required to operate under.

Up to this point, hobbyists have been treated as an entirely separate group of drone pilots from those flying commercially. But it looks like that will no longer be the case, and all drones will now be viewed similarly by the FAA, at least from a regulatory perspective.

In addition to now being subject to regulations about not flying near airports or above 400 feet—restrictions commercial pilots have under the FAA’s Part 107 rules—the Act also allows the FAA to require hobbyist drone pilots to pass a knowledge test before flying. (Commercial pilots have to pass the Part 107 test and receive a Part 107 certificate to fly.)

Image source

Here is a summary of Section 349 of the new Act, which covers new hobbyist drone rules, taken from the website of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation:

This section creates a framework for the operation of recreational [i.e., hobbyist] aircraft including operating requirements, aeronautical knowledge testing, and the qualifications for community-based organizations that support recreational aircraft activities. This section also includes a process for FAA to periodically update operational parameters for recreational aircraft.

[Note: The bold is ours in the above quote.]

Right now it’s unclear when testing and other requirements might actually be implemented for hobbyist drone pilots.

In a recent statement about the 336 repeal the FAA states that “the Reauthorization Act cannot be fully implemented immediately, please continue to follow all current policies and guidance with respect to recreational use of drones.”

Here is everything the FAA lists as new requirements for hobbyist drone pilots:

  • Fly for hobby or recreation only
  • Register your model aircraft
  • Fly within visual line-of-sight
  • Follow community-based safety guidelines and fly within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization
  • Fly a drone under 55 lbs. unless certified by a community-based organization
  • Never fly near other aircraft
  • Never fly near emergency response efforts

One thing to call out in this list is the second bullet regarding registering model aircraft.

Up to this point hobbyists only had to register themselves as pilots. Requiring each drone to be registered, as commercial pilots must do, allows for the implementation of remote ID tracking and the possibility of creating a system, such as a UTM, for tracking who’s flying exactly what where.

Another interesting thing about this list is that a new knowledge test is not mentioned.

It could be that the FAA is exploring alternate certification options for hobbyist pilots, such as joining or abiding by the requirements of an approved community organization, which could oversee hobbyist certification and bypass the need for the FAA to create and administer a brand new knowledge test for hobbyists.

Amid all of this uncertainty, only one thing does seem likely—none of these changes are going to happen over night.

Hobbyist Advocates Speak Out Against 336 Repeal

Some in the drone industry have been advocating for a repeal of Section 336 for a while now to bring hobbyist operations under a tighter regulatory umbrella.

Those on the repeal side want to place restrictions on hobbyists in order to avoid the type of rogue drone-related accident that could turn the tide of public opinion and derail advances in commercial regulation, such as the growth of FAA-approved BVLOS operations for inspections, deliveries, and other commercial applications.

Image source

But others have been vocally opposed to the repeal.

The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) has been one of the main organizations leading the anti-repeal effort. In a blog post about the new Act the AMA lists these concerns about the Act, and specifically the portions pertaining to the repeal of Section 336:

  • The bill does not stop irresponsible drone operators – it only harms our safe and long-standing model aviation community, which has posed no new risk.
  • The [new] 400-foot altitude cap also excludes AMA and the USA from participating or hosting many world aeromodeling events sanctioned by the FAI through the AMA and NAA.
  • This bill curtails events and harms charities, stifling youth involvement in STEM education.

While we support commercial drone endeavors, Congress should not allow for-profit companies to dictate legislation abolishing a segment of the hobby with a strong, eighty-plus year safety record.

– From a statement issued by the AMA

Other Drone-Related Changes in the New Reauthorization Act

In addition to the changes for hobbyists, the new Act contains some other noteworthy drone-related changes and updates.
Here’s a summary:

Drone Deliveries

In SEC. 348 of the bill, the FAA is given one year to update existing regulations to authorize the carriage of property by operators of small UAS for compensation or hire. They will have to create a certification process for UAS operators who want to carry/deliver property for compensation or hire.

Counter-UAS Systems

In SEC. 364 of the bill, the FAA is asked to review agencies currently authorized to operate Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-UAS). The review should include the process of interagency coordination of C-UAS activity and standards for operation of C-UAS. Congress has asked to examine progress on this review within four months of the passage of the bill.

Unmanned Traffic Management and Remote ID

SEC. 376 of the bill requests the FAA to compose a plan for full operational capability of UAS traffic management with NASA and UAS industry stakeholders. They shall develop a plan to allow the implementation of UTM services that expand operations beyond visual line of sight while maintaining the FAA Extension, Safety, and Security Act of 2016. This section also outlines requirements for the completion of the UTM System Pilot Program.

What do you think of the changes in the new Reauthorization Act? Do you think the 336 repeal is a good thing or a bad thing? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.

The post New FAA Reauthorization Act Has Big Implications for Hobbyist Drone Pilots appeared first on UAV Coach.

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