DRONE YEAR 2016 RETROSPECTIVE, UNCERTAIN KARMA


December 22, 2016: The August effective date of the FAA’s Part 107 regulation for the commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems capped a consequential year for both the commercial and consumer drone markets. Summarized below are some noteworthy developments, ironies and observations.

Action camera company GoPro was officially “stoked” when it unveiled its new Karma foldable quadcopter on September 19, but the enthusiasm proved to be premature. Just over two weeks after Karma hit the market on October 23, GoPro recalled some 2,500 units, explaining that “a very small number” of customers had reported incidents of Karmas losing battery power while flying.

With its share price on the Nasdaq exchange already in freefall over poor third-quarter earnings blamed on production problems with the Karma and its new Hero 5 camera, GoPro in November restructured its operations. The San Mateo, Calif., technology company cut 200 jobs—about 15 percent of its workforce—and closed its entertainment division.

In April 2015, 3D Robotics of Berkeley, Calif., unveiled its first consumer drone offering—the Solo quadcopter. Late to the market, occasionally unreliable and initially deprived of its camera gimbal because of production delays, the Solo stumbled in dethroning the dominant DJI Phantom and dragged down its maker in the process. “In 12 months, the company has gone from an industry leading U.S. drone start-up to an organization struggling to survive—the result of mismanagement, ill-advised projections and a failed strategy that relied on a doomed flagship drone,” Forbes reported in October. “As a result, 3D Robotics has laid off more than 150 people, burned through almost $100 million in venture capital funding and completely changed its business strategy.”

The company co-founded by Wired magazine editor and drone evangelist Chris Anderson now focuses on selling an “aerial analytics” software platform for the construction industry called “Site Scan,” which uses the Solo fitted with a professional-grade Sony UMC-R10C camera to collect imagery over building sites.

When considered in the context of the evolving commercial drone industry, the GoPro and 3DR examples belie the proposition that it’s all now about sensors and big data, and that drone design, manufacture, distribution and airworthiness are second nature. Even Shenzhen, China-based DJI, the heavyweight of the small drone industry, experienced delays in ramping-up production of its new Mavic Pro foldable quadcopter, which was poised against the GoPro Karma and released to market at roughly the same time. In early November, DJI issued an apology to customers who had pre-ordered the $1,000 drone and promised to do better.

 Social media and networking site Facebook hit a speed bump at an early stage with a different kind of flying machine—the solar-powered Aquila airplane that will someday close gaps in global Internet coverage by channeling lasers in the stratosphere, or so the theory goes. On its first flight as a full-scale aircraft on June 28, the Aquila was substantially damaged when its right outboard wing failed on final approach to Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. At 20 feet above the ground, the autopilot corrected for a wind gust, leading to downward loading of the wing that exceeded its structural limit, according to a National Transportation Safety Board finding released on December 16.

The past year saw a number of drone-delivery demonstrations. In September, the Alphabet Inc., subsidiary formerly known as Google X—now just X—rolled out its Project Wing vertical takeoff and landing, fixed-wing prototype to deliver burritos from Chipotle Mexican Grill to students at Virginia Tech university in Blacksburg, Va. The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, one of six FAA-designated unmanned aircraft test sites, coordinated the effort.

That month, Project Wing leader Dave Vos represented X at the first meeting of the FAA’s blue-ribbon Drone Advisory Committee. But by October, Vos, who brought aviation-industry acumen to the endeavor, was gone—reportedly forced out over “conflict between the group’s engineers and its commercial team,” the Wall Street Journal reported. According to Bloomberg Technology, the shake-up was “part of a broader Alphabet effort to rein in spending and try to turn more experimental projects from loss-making risky bets into real businesses.”

On-line retail giant Amazon announced on December 14 that it had completed its first drone delivery in a “private trial for customers” one week earlier; the on-line retailer flew a package containing an Amazon Fire TV streaming media player and a bag of Proper Corn sweet and salty popcorn to a homeowner in Cambridgeshire, UK. “We will use the data gathered during this beta test and the feedback provided by customers to expand the private trial to more customers over time,” Amazon promised in a video. “We’re starting with two customers now, and in the coming months will offer participation to dozens of customers living within several miles of our UK facility and then growing to hundreds more. After that, well it would be easy to say, ‘the sky’s the limit.’ But that’s not exactly true anymore, is it?”

Maybe not; but there are limits to the sky. At least in the U.S., package delivery by drone remains a distant dream until operators crack the challenges of airborne collision-avoidance, flights over people and beyond visual line-of-sight operations to the FAA’s satisfaction.

MarketWatch writer Sally French, blogging as The Drone Girl, derided what she called the “hype machine” behind Amazon’s and other such announcements. “There are many roadblocks to drone delivery, from improving battery life and weight capacity, to sorting out sense-and-avoid, to combating the public’s idea that we can just shoot drones down,” French wrote. “[T]he issue here is that despite loads of press celebrating every ‘first drone delivery milestone,’ drone delivery hasn’t come much farther than the first documented drone delivery—TacoCopter in 2011.” My own two cents is that Amazon and Google notwithstanding, drone package delivery will become reality only upon implementation of a low-altitude air traffic management system à la the UTM concept NASA is developing, plus an airspace and spectrum licensing regime involving the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission.

As 2016 expired, some revisionist thinking was taking hold in the commercial drone space. Memorably, at the Interdrone conference in Las Vegas in September, Lux Capital partner Bilal Zuberi dismissed as “complete BS” the findings of a 2013 economic impact study the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International commissioned—though that study continues to be cited at industry events. It found that drone applications in farming would represent the lion’s share of $82 billion in revenue through 2025, but it is apparent now “agriculture is nowhere near as dominant” as originally thought, Zuberi said.

A comprehensive study of drone sales by Skylogic Research of Redwood City, Calif., found that both hobbyists and professionals acquire drones primarily to take film, photos and video. The second leading commercial driver was infrastructure inspection, followed by surveying and mapping. Farming applications represented a single-digit percentage of the demand.

The “Drones in the Channel” report, which was based on interviews with major manufacturers and distributors, plus an online survey of 780 drone users, determined that DJI commands about 50 percent of North American market for drones—not the 70 percent commonly thought. Where the Chinese manufacturer dominates is in the sale of machines costing from $3,000 to $7,500, with 67 percent of market share.  

In a recent Drone Radio Show podcast, Skylogic CEO Colin Snow said he was more disappointed than surprised by the latest research findings. “The industry visionaries continue to over-hype some of the future capabilities of drones,” he said. “We think the number-one misconception in the drone industry is how fast it will grow and which sectors will grow and which ones will lag. Widespread adoption isn’t going to go gangbusters over night.”

 The long-awaited release of the FAA’s Part 107 regulation, which became effective on August 29, lends much needed “certainty” to the commercial drone industry, Snow asserted. As this writer chronicled in “Enter the Drones: The FAA and UAVs in America,” also released this summer, Part 107 was the result of multiple drafts dating back more than a decade. Three months after the rule’s effective date, the FAA said it had processed more than 12,000 applications for remote-pilot certificates. At the first-year anniversary of the FAA’s national drone registry on December 21, some 616,000 people had registered to fly drones for fun.

“For the past 10 years, businesses operated with uncertainty about the regulations around the commercial use of drones. We now have with Part 107 a real clear set of rules and a roadmap for further regulations,” Snow said. “When companies are uncertain about the future, about things like pending regulation and taxes and customer demand, etc., they tend to hold off on investment and markets languish. But that’s completely changed this year.”.

March 4, 2017: Chalk up another inroad for drones in the world of mainstream aviation. On March 2, a DJI Inspire 2 operated by Measure, the “drone as a service” company, deftly delivered the winning raffle envelope at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Aviation Summit in Washington, D.C.


Hundreds of attendees were delighted as Ronney Miller, Measure’s director of flight operations, piloted the buzzing quadcopter over a path that had been cleared from the rear to the front of the ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel. Measure media specialist Grant Lowenfeld worked the camera gimbal. An insert mounted in the SSD slot in the aft of the drone carried the envelope, which held two round-trip United Airlines tickets. Chamber master of ceremonies Carol Hallett, who formerly headed the Air Transport Association of America (now Airlines for America) and United CEO Oscar Munoz watched gleefully as the $5,000-plus Inspire 2 and camera ensemble settled to the stage.

This was no Las Vegas technology bazaar—the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the button-down lobbying arm of corporate America; its headquarters are a stone’s throw from the White House. Each year, the aviation summit features CEOs from major airlines and aerospace companies, including this year Alain Bellemare of Bombardier and Dennis Muilenburg of Boeing. Not merely the entertainment, Measure was there as an exhibitor. The 2014 start-up company provides drones and pilots as a turnkey data-gathering solution for energy, construction, telecommunications, farming and other companies. “We don’t make drones,” Measure says. “We make drones work.” In January, it raised $15 million in Series B financing to take the concept beyond the development stage.

There are other examples of drone mainstreaming—some might even call it gentrification. The FAA’s blue-ribbon Drone Advisory Committee, headed by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, comes to mind.


Even the staid FAA is coming around to the cowboy industry. “During the past three years, the FAA has been undergoing a noticeable cultural change as it has embraced what has truly been a fundamental redefinition of the term ‘aviation,’” Administrator Michael Huerta told the Chamber crowd. “For decades, aviation was defined as conventional aircraft doing what they’ve always done: Flying from Point A to Point B as seamlessly as possible. Today, a host of new users want to do the same thing, but with small unmanned aircraft or commercial rocket launches. All of our constituents are looking to the FAA to allow them to fly when and where they want, and to do so safely and efficiently.”


Though it didn’t require agency approval for an indoor operation, Measure’s flight over a ballroom floor was a milestone of sorts in that direction.

AERIX BLACK TALON LIVES UP TO 'BEGINNER FRIENDLY' BILLING 

August 2016: I’ve been writing about unmanned aircraft systems for about a decade now, but apart from a toy quadcopter, I can’t say that I’m a drone owner-operator. I blame that at least in part on living in Washington, D.C., within a 15-mile radius of Reagan Washington National Airport, which the FAA has designated a “No Drone Zone.”

Oh sure, I’ve flown other people’s small drones—the DJI Phantom, the Parrot Bebop, CyPhy Works developmental LVL1—but always with their owners or inventors nearby. For the life of me, though, I’ve never mastered my own half-ounce-plus Blade Nano QX quadcopter, despite its Sensor Assisted Flight Envelope (SAFE) system and the letters “RTF” printed on the box, as in “ready-to-fly.” Never mind that my grade-school-age nephews were able to raise it from the ground; every time I’ve tried it either flips over or careens wildly toward the nearest unyielding obstacle.

When I was their age, I assembled many a Revell plastic airplane model, but I have no tradition of flying model airplanes. And I’ve never been a gamer with mastery of a video game console; when I was a kid we went to “the Arcade,” which had somewhat of a bad reputation. Model aviation and gaming are two skillsets that would help with flying a small drone.

So I was amenable when a public relations firm representing Aerix Drones, of Rochester, N.Y, offered to send me a sample of the company’s new Black Talon quadcopter, which it describes as “the ultimate, beginner-friendly micro FPV racing drone.” Equipped with a 5.8 GHz video transmission module, the Black Talon streams video from an integrated 720p high-definition camera to a small, wireless LCD screen and also records imagery to an on-board micro SD card. The system is compatible with aftermarket FPV goggles, but let’s take things one step at a time.

At this point, I’m no aspiring drone racer, but at 2.4 ounces, the Black Talon can be flown within the confines of one’s apartment, where I first put mine to the test. (It also falls well below the FAA’s 250-gram, or roughly half-pound, trigger weight for drone registration.) Though small (measuring 6.7 inches from blade guard to blade guard) the hard plastic Black Talon has a much more solid feel than the wispy Blade Nano (measuring about 5 inches between blade guards.) Happily, I was able to immediately raise it to a hover with the hand controller’s left thumbstick and move it to and fro using the right thumbstick. As promised, the camera streams somewhat flat video to the LCD monitor, which clips to the back of the controller. As a low-time operator, though, I mostly followed the Black Talon with my eyes to better understand how it responded to the control inputs.

When I used it outside, I found the Black Talon to be both stable and agile in flight. A built-in barometer and altitude-hold function means you don’t have to manually maintain altitude. The quadcopter drifted in a light breeze, however, challenging my ability to counteract the drift. The Black Talon’s advertised range for both control and video is 50-to-60 meters, with a fleeting five minutes of flight time on its rechargeable LiPo battery. (Aerix offers an optional Extended Flight package with four batteries, increasing flight time to 25 minutes.) The battery can be recharged using the USB port of one’s computer, which is also the way the monitor recharges. The controller requires four AAA batteries.

Helpfully, the sample kit came with several extra rotor blades. Inevitably, I crashed the quadcopter into various objects, throwing and sometimes breaking individual rotor blades. The replacement blades snapped easily into place and the sturdy Black Talon returned to flight status.

The Black Talon also features a preprogrammed “trick mode” that induces the quadcopter to do 360-degree flips and rolls—but as a novice I’m still focused on mastering conventional flight. For that purpose, the Black Talon, which was priced at $139 for pre-orders, is a safe bet. Drone racing? That will require more practice.

A COMPELLING HISTORY THAT DESERVES TELLING


(Originally published Nov. 1, 2016 by sUAS News, www.suasnews.com)  


New arrivals to the world of commercial drones may trace its start to the August 2016 effective date of the FAA’s Part 107 regulation for commercial small unmanned aircraft systems or perhaps to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which expedited their entry into the national airspace system. The industry’s old salts know, however, that Part 107 has a history dating back a decade or more to the early 2000s.

Even the FAA, in a preamble to Part 107, stated that its effort to introduce drones into the airspace began in 2008—the year that acting FAA Administrator Robert Sturgell signed an order to create a small Unmanned Aircraft Systems aviation rulemaking committee. But former agency executives I interviewed for my book, Enter the Drones: The FAA and UAVs in America, remember it differently; they say there were multiple attempts to draft a regulation dating to around 2003. A variety of factors—indifferent leadership, bureaucracy, interagency differences, outside pressure, the inherent complexity of the regulation—delayed its release for more than a decade.

Explaining the outwardly inexplicable lateness of the “small UAS rule” speaks to my mission in writing the book—to describe the emergence of drones as a civil and commercial phenomenon in the United States. Until Enter the Drones, much of the popular literature on unmanned aircraft focused on their military legacy, their deployment in foreign conflicts, the ethics of using them to perform targeted killings. Below the radar and missed by the often overheated mainstream media coverage, the FAA had been authorizing drone flights by other federal agencies and public universities since the early 1990s. Major aerospace manufacturers developed pilotless aircraft that served for climate research, wildlife monitoring and other peaceable purposes, demonstrating their utility beyond war zones. Then, only in the past few years, came the quadcopter and other multi-rotor drones, dramatically changing the industry’s trajectory.

As an aviation trade press reporter who covers both military and commercial aviation, I was positioned to witness the evolution of drones in both realms (which are still inextricable when it comes to unmanned aircraft). Much of the book I wrote during the fast-moving events of 2014, when the FAA granted the first exemptions to operate drones commercially to six Hollywood-affiliated aerial video companies, and established that a drone is an aircraft through its enforcement action against Raphael Pirker.

With the rapid advance of the commercial drone industry, fueled by the long-awaited release of Part 107, it all seems like old news now. Many, although not all, people who played important roles in the industry’s ascent have either retired or moved on to other jobs and other pursuits. But there is a compelling history to the emergence of drones that deserves telling, something I’ve endeavored to do with Enter the Drones.

Enter the Drones: The FAA and UAVs in America, was released by Schiffer Publishing Ltd., in July 2016. It is available in print or electronic formats from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other booksellers.

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