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Inside the FAA’s Pathfinder Program

If you google “FAA Pathfinder Program” or variations of these keywords the search results will include links to the “Focus Area initiative Pathfinder Program,” speeches about the launch of Pathfinder initiatives, and a link to a page on the FAA website for “Programs, Partnerships and Opportunities.”

But you won’t find a link to an FAA page about the Pathfinder Program itself, because no such page exists (to the best of our sleuthing—if you manage to track one down, please let us know.)

FAA Exemption 333 Guide

The lack of a page devoted to the Pathfinder Program, or any language at all on the FAA website that defines the program (and not just one of its initiatives) makes it tricky to figure out what the program is. (We did find this dead link to a page that looks like it was supposed to be devoted to defining the Pathfinder Program and the legislation that birthed it; the link came from a blog post on the Redbird website.)

But if you read up on the available links, you can deduce that the program is, in essence, a series of initiatives launched by the FAA in collaboration with private companies to test various uses of drones toward creating better regulations and enabling the growth of the drone industry.

The great thing about the Pathfinder Program, from everything we’ve read, is that its objective is not simply to regulate for the sake of regulating, but to gather actionable data on real drone applications and safety scenarios to inform smarter legislation.

We’ll dive into the Focus Area initiative (the first initiative launched by the Pathfinder Program) in just a moment, but it’s important to note that it seems clear from the different applications it was created to explore—flights over people and BVLOS—that the FAA wants to gather data from private companies in order to understand how existing Part 107 restrictions could be made more nuanced in order to allow for reasonable, useful UAS applications that are currently prohibited.

The Two Initiatives of the FAA Pathfinder Program

To date, only two initiatives have been launched by the Pathfinder Program.

These initiatives are listed on the FAA website, on that same “Programs, Partnerships and Opportunities” page mentioned above, but they’re mixed in with a number of other non-Pathfinder items so you wouldn’t necessarily understand they were Pathfinder-related unless you’d already done some research elsewhere.

The two initiatives that comprise the Pathfinder Program are the Focus Area Initiative, which launched in May of 2015, and the UAS Detection Initiative, which launched a year later in May of 2016.

The Focus Area Initiative

The Focus Area Initiative was the first effort of the Pathfinder Program. This initiative is a collaboration with three partners (CNN, PrecisionHawk and BNSF Railway) to investigate flight over people and Beyond Visual Line of Sight UAS as two possible commercial UAS applications.

The original goal of the initiative was to explore “incremental expansion of UAS operations in the National Air Space (NAS).” As noted above, some eventual outcomes from the Focus Area Initiative could be more nuanced rules regarding flights over people and BVLOS flying, as opposed to the current rules which simply forbid both of these items altogether.

The three focus area for this first initiative are:

  • Visual line-of-sight operations over people
    CNN is exploring how UAS might be safely used for newsgathering in populated areas. This project was an expansion of a pre-existing collaboration between CNN and the FAA. Even though it’s been active for over a year and a half, there doesn’t seem to be much information out there about how the project is going thus far.
  • Extended visual line-of-sight operations in rural areas
    PrecisionHawk is exploring how UAS flights outside the pilot’s direct vision might allow greater UAS use for crop monitoring in precision agriculture operations.

  • Beyond visual line-of-sight operations in rural/isolated areas
    BNSF Railway is exploring command-and-control challenges of using UAS to inspect rail system infrastructure. Back in June of 2016 BNSF announced its first BVLOS flight for railway inspections in New Mexico. The flight was done by an Insitu ScanEagle. By providing hardware and related support, Insitu has become another collaborator in the Focus Area Initiative.

The UAS Detection Initiative

The UAS/Drone Detection Initiative is the second initiative of the Pathfinder Program, and was first announced in May of 2016.

In an effort to keep airports safer and anticipate possible future threats to safety, the FAA announced its Drone Detection Pathfinder Program. The focus of the program is to detect and identify UAS systems flying too close to airports.

“Sometimes people fly drones in an unsafe manner. Government and industry share responsibility for keeping the skies safe, and we’re pleased these three companies have taken on this important challenge.”

– Marke “Hoot” Gibson, FAA Senior Advisor on UAS Integration.

Drone detection at airports and how to deal with rogue drones in controlled airspaces has been in the news a lot lately, and we can anticipate hearing even more about it as the creation and use of drones continues to grow.

FAA Drone Detection Partnerships

Central to the Drone Detection Initiative are three industry partnerships the FAA has made with Gryphon Sensors, Liteye Systems Inc. and Sensofusion.

Every one of these companies has a long track record working in the anti-drone space, which makes it clear that the FAA is aggressively pursuing both technology and strategic planning around how to identify and control rogue drones, whether they be accidentally or intentionally present in controlled airspace.

As part of this initiative, the FAA signed individual Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRDAs) with each of these companies. Details about the CRDAs are included in the partnership details listed below.

  • Gryphon Sensors provides drone detection systems and safe UAS integration. Gryphon is a trusted partner of NASA, FAA, and U-Safe, and has worked with the Department of Defense for several decades. Regarding their CRDA, Gryphon’s website reads:

“Gryphon Sensors will deploy its Skylight system in the spring of 2017 as an operational proof of concept, showcasing it’s capabilities as a drone security system in an airport environment. In cooperation with the FAA, Gryphon Sensors will demonstrate Skylight’s detection, identification and classification system in multiple scenarios in which normal airport operations are commencing. Radar and sensor data will be provided to the FAA from all testing and live scenarios for development of minimum performance requirements and lessons learned.”

  • Liteye Systems Inc. creates AUDS, a system designed to disrupt and neutralize Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) engaged in Hostile Airborne Surveillance and potentially Malicious Activity. The AUDS system combines electronic scanning radar target detection & classification, Electro Optic (EO) tracking and directional RF inhibition capability over three independent RF bands. Their CRDA was issued on May 10, 2016. Regarding their CRDA, Liteye issued a press release in May of 2016 that reads:

“The AUDS system will be evaluated at airports selected by the FAA. The agency and its federal government partners – particularly the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – will work with Liteye to study how effective their technologies are, while ensuring they do not interfere with the safety and security of normal airport operations…The CRDA with Liteye expands upon collaborative efforts with industry to develop system standards to identify unauthorized UAS flights near airports, which could pose a hazard to manned aircraft.”

  • Sensofusion is the creator of AIRFENCE, which can automatically detect, locate, track, and take over UAV controls all on full auto. In addition, AIRFENCE can locate the operator with pin point accuracy in real time. Regarding their CRDA, the CEO of Sensofusion said:

    “We first developed the technology to detect, locate, track, and gain control over UAS three years ago as a military project and operated it with three European armies under NATO. Fast forward to the present time, and AIRFENCE is now protecting various customer sites in Europe, including prisons, high profile government buildings, police, and military sites. Since the technology is software based, it improves with over-the-air updates, ensuring that we are always ahead of the commercial UAS market.”

The FAA certainly seems open to other new initiatives, and generally expanding the Pathfinder Program. You can find links on their website to explore experimental aircraft certification, and also to contact a UAS test site.

 

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Soft Relaunch for GoPro’s Karma Drone amid Lawsuit, Terrible Quarterly Earnings Report

Without much fanfare (or really much promotion at all) GoPro has quietly added the Karma back to its website.

If you remember the recall of the Karma that happened a few months back due to in-flight battery issues that caused it to crash suddenly, you might understand why GoPro wouldn’t want to do a lot of shouting about this relaunch. Why open themselves up for sniping?

What Difference Does a Few Months Make?

At the time of the recall, we wrote about how GoPro was doing the right thing by those who had purchased the Karma, and not only providing refunds but also giving a free Hero5 Black camera to those who bought the defective drones. Which certainly was great for demonstrating their values, and appeasing frustrated customers.

Nonetheless, it may be a stretch for those same people to want to buy (or rebuy?) the new Karma after the experience they had.

And the price point doesn’t help.

The Karma is being relaunched in a very different drone market from that of a few months back.

We’re thinking here of the recent sweeping layoffs at both Parrot and Autel Robotics, but also of DJI’s simultaneous launch of the Inspire 2 and Phantom 4 Pro back in November. The layoffs signify a volatile market, and DJI’s launches signify stability in the midst of that volatility.

While the Inspire 2 and Phantom 4 Pro are priced far outside of the Karma, and don’t go head-to-head with it, their successful launches have helped further secure DJI’s position in the mind space of drone consumers in general.

Think about it. If you’re going to spend $1,000 on a drone, you want to make sure you’re getting a reliable machine. The Karma costs $799 without a camera. After you add a Hero5 Black Camera (or camera of comparable quality), you’re looking at $1,099.

But for $999 you can buy a DJI Mavic with a camera included.

$1,000 is a lot of money, and most drone consumers at that price point may not want to take the risk on an unvetted product, which is what the Karma still is.

Lingering Legal and Financial Troubles for GoPro

Add to the PR nightmare of Karma’s recall the fact that a class action lawsuit was filed against GoPro related to the Karma recall back in November, when the recall was first announced.

The suit seeks to recover damages against GoPro for alleged violations of the federal securities laws under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (the “Exchange Act”).

The lawsuit claims that GoPro made “materially false and misleading statements regarding the Company’s business, operational and compliance policies,” by failing to inform people that the drone would fail. Yikes!

The lawsuit is still being fought out in court, and certainly won’t help GoPro’s uphill climb with establishing the Karma as a viable alternative to drones manufactured by big industry players like DJI and Parrot.

And add to this the fact that GoPro released its quarterly earning yesterday and they are not good. In fact, they are terrible.

In yesterday’s report, revenue was down about $40 million of what had been projected by analysts.

Back in November GoPro had to layoff 15% of its workforce, and yesterday’s earnings report led to their stock being 10% down by the end of the day. This is not good, to say the least.

Despite all this doom and gloom, we do want to say that we’re excited to see another player trying to elbow its way into the crowded consumer camera drone space. DJI makes great drones, but what a dull world it would be if we only had one option when it came to choosing which drone we could fly for aerial videography.

So here’s to diversity, and the hope that the Karma may have a great rebirth. We’ll be curious to see what unfolds from this relaunch in the coming months, and we’ll be certain to keep you posted with updates.

 

The post Soft Relaunch for GoPro’s Karma Drone amid Lawsuit, Terrible Quarterly Earnings Report appeared first on UAV Coach.

Lily Robotics Raided by Police, May Substantiate Rumors of Fraud

Recently we wrote about Lily Robotics closing the day before the San Francisco District Attorney filed a lawsuit against them. Now there is news that Lily Robotics has been raided for a possible criminal investigation.

The original lawsuit filed by the San Francisco DA alleges Lily Robotics committed fraud by promoting a video that was actually shot with DJI and GoPro products, but claimed to be shot using Lily’s semi-autonomous drone. The video helped drum up $34 million in pre-sales, and generated huge buzz in the drone industry (also leading us to add Lily to our list of 70 Drone Companies to Watch last year), so the claim is a big one if in fact people were misled into pre-purchasing something that didn’t exist.

Here is the video (which has over 12 million views on YouTube):

Now the allegations made in the DA’s lawsuit seem like they may be further substantiated, with breaking news that Lily Robotics has been raided by the police to gather evidence for a potential criminal investigation.

The San Francisco police have not issued any details about the raid, and will not even confirm that it took place. We can only speculate that, if fraud was intentionally committed, there may be further evidence stored on computers and elsewhere at Lily Robotics that the police would like to investigate.

One point on which a criminal investigation could hinge is whether there were funds used inappropriately, or embezzled—it’s important to note that in addition to the $34 million of pre-sales, Lily had also raised over $14 million in startup funds, so if any of those funds are missing that could be another piece of this puzzle.

The San Francisco DA’s case against Lily was a consumer-protection civil suit, which could go after Lily’s assets but would not end up with anyone facing jail time. If a criminal investigation is launched as a result of evidence found in this raid, Lily personnel may in fact be facing charges that could put them behind bars.

Some Background

Lily Robotics, which had managed to collect $34 million in pre-sales, sent out an email on Wednesday, January 11 announcing that they were closing shop and issuing refunds due to a cashflow problem. Basically, according to their email, they didn’t have the funds to actually build the drones that had been ordered by about 60,000 people.

The very next day, Thursday, January 12, the San Francisco DA filed his lawsuit. As we’ve written, the timing was incredibly suspicious, and led us to believe that Lily might actually be closing because they were being sued.

Part of the story was that an email had been discovered in which Lily’s CEO, Antoine Balaresque, wrote to the filmmaker who made the contentious promotional video:

“I am worried that a lens geek could study our images up close and detect the unique Gopro lens footprint. But I am just speculating here: I don’t know much about lenses but I think we should be extremely careful if we decide to lie publicly.”

According to an unnamed source for Forbes, the company who made the promotional video, CMI Productions, still has not been paid in full for its work.

Regarding refunds and whether they have actually started to be issued, the news is that users from North America, Europe, Asia and elsewhere have said they have received their reimbursements (this is according to a survey of 2,000 Lily customers conducted by Forbes on Facebook)

We’ll keep you posted as this story continues to unfold. We can only imagine that, if the raid surfaced anything, criminal charges will be the next step for San Francisco authorities.

 

The post Lily Robotics Raided by Police, May Substantiate Rumors of Fraud appeared first on UAV Coach.

11 Aerial Videos of Places We’d Like to Visit

We’ve seen so many incredible videos shot via sUAS in far flung locations lately that we decided to collect some of our favorites into a post, so we could share them with everyone in our community.

These are places we’d love to visit. We feel lucky that we’ve gotten to know them a little bit through these videos, and we’re grateful to all the pilots and videographers out there who send us their impressive work.

We spend a lot of time thinking about cameras and drones, and sometimes it’s nice to stop thinking, and just enjoy the pretty pictures. So without further ado, here are the videos.

1. South Africa

This video was shot using the tilt-shift effect, which makes everything appear miniature. Love how we get to experience Cape Town and other parts of South Africa through this unique perspective. There is just so much LIFE in this video!

Details

This video was shot by Hloniphizwe Coleman and Luke Maximo Bell using a DJI Phantom.

About the video Luke wrote us:

“We have admired tilt shift videos for a while, but given only 24 hours to capture our video, we were daunted by the proposition of finding and gaining access to the buildings and looks-outs tilt shift videos are normally captured from. To solve this we turned to probably the greatest filmic problem solver to come out in my short career as a videographer: the drone.”

2. Africa

This video was shot over three years in dozens of locations in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia. It provides a great introductory tour to all the diverse landscapes and ecosystems on the massive continent of Africa.

Details

Though we couldn’t track down details about the technical side of things, there is a long list of locations available on YouTube to show you all of the different spots where filming was done. Very impressive work.

3. Namibia

This video has it all: landscape, wildlife, and the people themselves from the country of Namibia.

Something we love about this video is that you can tell the videographer is in love with this landscape. Though arid and harsh, there’s great beauty here, and the camera work really brings it out.

Fun fact—the location at 2:47 was used in a surrealistic image that appears on our TV’s screensaver, and we always wondered where it had been taken. Now we know!

Details

This video was shot by Paganel Andreev Andrew with a DJI Phantom 2, using a GoPro Hero 4 (for the drone shots).

Other cameras and lenses used to shoot the video were: the Canon 5D mark 3; the Canon 1Dx; the Canon EF 100-400; the Canon EF 16-35; the Canon EF 24-70; the Canon EF 135 f 2.0; the Canon EF 24 f 1.4; and the Canon EF 28-300.

4. The United Kingdom

This video goes from snow to beaches, covering different terrain throughout the United Kingdom. Love the diversity of seasons and landscapes presented here—one more place we need to visit!

Details

The video was shot by Mark Pateman, owner of Firefly Imaging, using a DJI Inspire 1 with the standard Zenmuse X3 camera. The video was edited with Final Cut Pro X. Mark is a former student from our Aerial Post-Production Course, as evidenced by his skillful editing abilities.

Regarding locations, all of the shots in the video come from the UK. The majority of the footage was shot in the Lake District in the north of England, and some of the beach clips were shot on the south coast of Wales.

5. Switzerland, Scotland, and Ireland

We’ll admit, we used to think of Scotland and Ireland as drizzly, grey places, but this video resoundingly proves that idea wrong. Some of the shots here have a real epic feel to them, and the shots over the villages in Switzerland are just stunning. Can you imagine living there? 

Details

This video was shot by Britton Kowalk in several locations:

  • First section – Jungfrau Region, Switzerland (the canyon above Interlaken).
  • Second section – The Quiraing & The Old Man of Storr, Isle of Skye, Scotland
  • Last Section – Dunloe Gap, Ireland

6. Flying with Dolphins in Scotland

When you think of Scotland, the first thing that pops into your head probably isn’t dolphins. 

But this beautiful video shot throughout Scotland may make you think again. Aside from the shots of dolphins (which are great, and start around 2:26) the landscape shots here are incredible. 

Details

The video was shot by Matt Heal with a DJI Phantom 4.

7. Iceland

Photographer Edgar Granados combined thousands of photos to create this time-lapse video showcasing Iceland’s natural beauty. No wonder Game of Thrones was filmed here—every location is epic, stunning, and surprisingly varied.

Details

This video was shot by Edgar Granados with the DJI Phantom 3 Professional, using the Canon 6D.

8.  Indonesia

The videography in this video is excellent—from the first shot, you can see that the videographer has a real eye for symmetry.

And so much territory gets covered here, from old and new architecture, to landscapes, to scenes of people in both rural and urban settings. Hope you enjoy this video as much as we do.

Details

This video was shot by Nicolas Ragot with the DJI Phantom 2, using the GoPro HERO4 Black Edition.

9. Bali

More Indonesia! This video was shot on the island of Bali, in Indonesia, and really showcases the natural beauty and diversity of the place. Love how much drama there is in the landscape, with the mountains sweeping up high into the sky over stunning beaches. The terraced farms are beautiful, and give you a glimpse into a different way of life. So much diversity of life and landscape!

Details

This video was shot by Bali Drone Production with a DJI Phantom 3 Professional edition.

10. Rawai, Phuket Island, Thailand

Rawai is located on the southeast corner of Phuket island, in Thailand.

You know all those mind blowing images of green rocks rising dramatically out of the ocean you see, with people swimming in the foreground, and it looks like some crazy set from the movie The Beach?

Well, this is where those are taken. (Actually, The Beach was shot in Thailand, so that makes sense, doesn’t it?)

Details

This video was shot by Bilel Ben Fayala using a GoPro4.

11. Hawaii

Of course, no list like this would be complete without a video from Hawaii.

With its pristine beaches and majestic volcanoes, the Hawaiian islands make it pretty easy for any videographer to come up with gold, but this video goes above and beyond with its diversity of locations.

We love seeing how GREEN everything is. Wish we were surfing a wave into the sunset over there right now. 🙂

Details

This video was filmed entirely on the DJI Phantom 4.

 

 

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Are Drones Allowed in National Parks? Great Sand Dunes National Parks’ Recent Project, and the Controversial History Surrounding Drones and the NPS

The Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado announced the completion of a research project earlier this week that used drones to collect data within the park.

This is a big news, primarily because drones are generally banned from all national parks.

[Skip down for some analysis of drones in national parks and related legal questions, or continue reading to learn more about the Great Sand Dunes project.]

The research project used drones to create accurate geospatial maps of the sand dunes, and provide researchers with high quality data sets about the dunes.

Image Source

Star Dune seen from 400 feet above its surface. The image was compiled using high-resolution photos taken from a Black Swift Technologies drone on Oct. 19, 2016.

About the Great Sand Dunes Project

Monitoring the changing heights of the dunes, and how they shift over time, is part of the work required of the staff at Great Sand Dunes National Park. Historically they have done this work on foot, since vehicles aren’t allowed to drive on the dunes. But with the highest dune reaching to 755 feet tall, and the vast area of land to be covered in the park, doing regular full ground surveys is almost impossible.

Drones provide a possible solution, and this project’s goal was to do an initial test run.

 

Great Sand Dunes Drone Flight

Image Source

The Great Sand Dunes flyover happened on a single day, October 19, 2016. The drone took high-resolution images of 1 square mile of the park centered around the Star Dune (pictured above), which is the tallest dune in North America, at 750 feet tall.

The project was a collaboration between the NPS, Black Swift Technologies, and Wohnrade Civil Engineers, with permission from the FAA. Wohnrade Civil Engineers was the FAA-licensed service provider for the flight, using a SwiftTrainer fixed-wing drone that had been developed by Black Swift Technologies.

“The park monitors the dunes to see how much they shift. How high are the dunes? Is it higher in elevation than last year? It’s generally for in-house research…The milestone project will give research staff at the park meaningful data for monitoring change detection within the dune field, and to quantify, visualize and interpret resources it is charged with protecting.”

– Mary Wohnrade, President of Wohnrade Civil Engineers

Said Steve Sorenson, aviation manager for the intermontane region of the National Parks Service:

“The early flights were more of a test than anything else, and any future flights will likely result in us gaining the appropriate NPS approvals to launch from within.”

The final deliverables from the project were:

  • High-resolution georeferenced orthomosic image;
  • Topographic mapping at a 1-foot contour interval;
  • 3D model of the 1-square mile area of interest;
  • Georeferenced point cloud.

Some History about Commercial Drone Pilots, the FAA, and the National Park Service

Back in June of 2014, the National Park Service banned the use of drones in all of its 401 parks. This ban came on a wave of one-off bans that had been made at various national parks throughout the U.S. (You can find the ban itself on the NPS website.)

In 2013, the year before the national ban was announced, drone pilot and videographer Raphael Pirker got into a public skirmish with officials at Grand Canyon National Park, a fight that ended up in court and thrust the entire debate about commercial drones into the spotlight.

Pirker’s story is a fascinating piece of the evolution of the FAA’s attitude about drones, in part because he was the first person to have been fined by the FAA for piloting a drone.

At the time, Pirker was told he had violated an FAA regulation created for commercial airplanes. According to a Wired article:

“The $10,000 levy [against Pirker] invokes the same code section that governs the conduct of actual airline-passenger pilots, charging modeler Raphael Pirker with illegally operating a drone for commercial purposes and flying it ‘in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.'”

But Pirker was eventually acquitted, which was a huge victory for commercial drone pilots. The presiding judge on his case publicly declared not only that Pirker wasn’t in violation of the FAA regulation in question, but went even further, saying that “there are no laws against flying a drone commercially.”

This ruling made big problems for the FAA. They were now faced with the reality that there were no regulations on the books to help them regulate the burgeoning industry of commercial drone pilots, which, up until this point, they had simply declared illegal. Now commercial drone operations in fact appeared legal, and legislation needed to be created to deal with that fact.

Fast forward from June of 2014, when NPS issued their ban, to June of 2016 when the FAA issued Part 107, and you can see how the FAA’s regulatory ability has evolved and grown more nuanced over time.

So Is It Illegal to Fly a Drone in a National Park?

We will admit, the law still seems to be grey. Although the NPS has clearly issued a ban on drone flights, it’s unclear whether they actually have the right to do so.

Technically, the FAA has jurisdiction over all airspace, including the airspace over National Park Services land. However, NPS can certainly ban people launching, landing, or operating a drone on their land (this distinction comes into play in a recent Orlando ordinance requiring drone pilots to be permitted, and we can only imagine we’re going to be hearing a lot more about it).

The loophole this wording leaves open is for pilots to fly drones over NPS land while standing outside NPS demarcations—but then you almost certainly will run into BVLS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) scenarios, which are clearly not allowed by Part 107.

Although you could argue the point and weigh the technicalities even further, ultimately we feel like this is a situation where pilots should honor the wishes of the NPS.

There are a host of reasons why the NPS doesn’t want drones flying over federally protected lands.

Some of these reasons have to do with avoiding harm to the animals that live there, and others have to do with generally preventing a scenario where the skies are so full of drones that one of the main reasons for having protected areas (that is, to provide quiet, serene spaces removed from the advances of technology) becomes lost.

We’ll admit that this latter scenario seems unlikely right now, but we can understand why the NPS might want to be proactive in eliminating that possibility. And as bullish as we are about drones, we’re OK with the idea that there are some spaces that still remain untouched.

 

The post Are Drones Allowed in National Parks? Great Sand Dunes National Parks’ Recent Project, and the Controversial History Surrounding Drones and the NPS appeared first on UAV Coach.

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