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Cover Story

Eyes in the sky

3/18/2015

As the use of private, military and commercial drones increase, the debate over privacy, policy and ethics heats up as well.

Ready or not, the future has arrived. Maybe not the full-blown starships, flying cars and hoverboards future just yet, but with the advent of publicly available personal drones, we’re definitely standing on the doorstep of tomorrow.

For the first time in history, anyone can take to the skies. No flying lessons. No hundreds of hours of flight time. No need to understand the delicate balance of lift, drag and rotation. All you need is a few hundred dollars, and you’re clear for takeoff. Now all the necessary skill and required piloting intuition have been reduced to software inside helicopters the size of a push lawn mower.

Such is the case with Scott Dearinger, a local drone enthusiast who became attracted to aviation at the age of 5.

“I just love flying,” says Dearinger. “I think I’ve got out to the Ankeny Airport and taken the first flying lesson four times now. It’s something that’s always fascinated me. I go to all the air shows in Iowa.”

Before most children learn how to read, write or tell time, Dearinger knew he wanted to be a pilot. However, as time passed, it became apparent his eyes wouldn’t make the grade to be a commercial pilot. Not to be defeated, Dearinger became an avid simulator pilot, then a radio control plane flyer, and now a passionate drone pilot.

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But don’t call it a drone around him.

Hobbyists such as Scott Dearinger are caught in the middle of a debate over the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones.

Hobbyists such as Scott Dearinger are caught in the middle of a debate over the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones.

 

“I hate the term ‘drone,’ ” Dearinger said emphatically.

To hobbyists like him, the preferred terms are “UAV,” (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) or R.C. copter (radio-control copter). The differences between a drone and an R.C. copter, however, are night and day.

“People hear the word ‘drone’ and they think of military drones flying around Pakistan and Afghanistan, shooting people with missiles and spying on people with cameras from 10,000 feet, not realizing they’re there,” Dearinger said. “That’s nowhere near what my capabilities are.”
Caught in the middle

Still, the debate rages, and hobbyists such as Dearinger are caught in the middle. Privacy concerns, surveillance and military warfare ethics are all issues at hand. While Dearinger and his hobbyist friends are simply enjoying the chance to see the world from a different vantage point, the United States military employs radio piloting technology for a much more lethal purpose.

Two years ago, Pentagon figures showed one of every three aircraft flown by the U.S. military was piloted remotely. Today, that number has undoubtedly climbed, as during that timeframe military outposts such the Des Moines Air National Guard have transitioned from manned aircraft stations to drone piloting enterprises. Whereas 21 F-16s were housed and flown out of the Des Moines Air National Guard base, today they’ve all been replaced with MQ-9 Reapers, which seldom land in Des Moines. That’s right, Des Moines drone pilots remotely navigate aircraft sometimes halfway across the world, attacking and surveilling U.S. threats from the comfort of central Iowa.

Military drones such as the Reaper, Raven and Predator are a hot-button issue in the ethics of modern war, but they have little connection to the toys readily available to the U.S. gadget enthusiast. The most popular commercially available drone is the DJI Phantom. Weighing less than 3 pounds and propelled by four motorized propellers, the Phantom barely outclasses a toy, but its ability to carry a small action camera and self-stabilization makes it extremely popular. Dearinger was immediately taken with it.

“Actually, I started out flying the gliders and fixed wing model aircraft, but when the DJI Phantom came out, it just seemed fascinating to me,” recounts Dearinger. “We had already started putting cameras on our fixed wing aircraft and putting YouTube videos up, so it was a simple step to go to a more stable platform.”

While radio control copters similar to the DJI Phantom didn’t hit the market until the late 2000s, radio control planes have been around for decades.

Proponents contend that revenue from the usage of UAVs in the commercial sector could exceed $13 billion.

Proponents contend that revenue from the usage of UAVs in the commercial sector could exceed $13 billion.

“I’ve been flying remote control planes off and on for about 10 years,” Dearinger said. “I used to fly my model airplanes to watch them go around, but after going around in circles a few times, you have to do something different.”

According to Dearinger, that’s where UAVs shine.

“With a quadcopter, you get a point of view and vantage point you just can’t get by putting a GoPro on a stick,” he said. “I mean, let’s face it, you can get to places without a boom truck or a helicopter.”

The problem is that vantage point is where commercial and hobby drones begin to veer into turbulent public opinions. Major concern pertains to invasion of privacy, trespassing over private property and safety of bystanders when drones careen out of control.

“There is a lot of concern by a lot of people,” said Sen. Rich Taylor of Mount Vernon. “My thoughts are, as long as we’re consistent and well regulated, then that’s fine with me.

“As far as having a personal agenda, I really don’t. I just want to make sure everyone’s privacy is protected. But it might also limit some businesses and what they might be able to use these drones for.”

 

Lawmakers voice concerns

One year ago, Taylor, then the head of the Iowa Senate Judiciary subcommittee, led discussions of two bill proposals that would have limited law enforcement use of drones for surveillance with warrants as well as search and rescue operations. The bills would also have required a drone piloting license for private citizens to fly drones in public.

Dearinger admits he hasn’t always been the most careful with his UAV flying.

“I have done what some might consider irresponsible flying,” said Dearinger. “When I first got my Phantom, I parked on top of a parking structure downtown and sent my copter to climbing to the top of Principal Tower and down. But even then the camera was directly over me the entire time. But I’ve learned my lesson and stay away from that type of thing.”

Ultimately, both of the bills under debate in Taylor’s judiciary subcommittee failed to reach the Senate floor for a vote. Still, legislative concern over drones has continued. Last fall a Senate subcommittee hearing was opened to public debate, and, according to Dearinger, the legislature’s ideas were laughed out of the room.

“The legislature was considering all kinds of stringent rules — basically laws that would have destroyed the entire radio control hobby, not allowing cameras being attached to anything that is flying and only allowing commercial pilots to fly,” Dearinger said. “But the agriculture lobby, insurance lobby, the real estate, the hobbyists all showed up to protest. It was something like 30 witnesses to one speaking up for UAV pilot rights.”

Even if Dearinger flies his copter down the straight and narrow, Taylor still sees the need for regulation to keep the unprincipled in line.

“I’ve heard from a few companies that are worried about what kind of regulations we might put in place, even companies that aren’t even considering the use of drones yet,” said Taylor. “So last year we passed limited measures until the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) passed its rules. Initially we covered anything that might impact other people’s privacy and how people used drones on their own property, but we cut it down. Now, drones can’t be used for traffic enforcement, mainly only safety. Because, depending what the FAA does, there are laws already in place to protect privacy.”

Dearinger understands the need for reasonable oversight but doesn’t fully buy into the privacy concerns.

“I don’t believe the restrictions should be as strict as flying a helicopter or as loose as riding a bicycle,” he said. “I believe if you’re going to fly in an open area away from crowds, go ahead and play with your quadcopters. But if you are in populated areas, filming things, I wouldn’t be against a simple test for competence.”

Even in those guarded situations, Dearinger doesn’t believe drones are the best tool for surreptitious filming.

“The concern is always, ‘Well what if you hover over someone’s yard and photograph their little girl in a bikini?’ The thing sounds like an angry swarm of bees,” he said. “It’s not even close to silent; you’re going know it’s there. If I had some nefarious intent, and I wanted to spy on you, I would be much better off with a nice DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera and a 1000mm lens, sitting in a van with a tinted window. I mean, come on, most of us are using these things responsibly and safely, and there’s got to be enough laws on the books to cover those who don’t.”

 

Proposed guidelines

Outside of Iowa, the FAA has also chimed in with proposed regulations for private citizen drone pilots. Labeled as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), the FAA’s latest proposal opens the door to public drone use — but a with a few mandatory guidelines.

While the new rules don’t cover hobbyist pilots and lightweight drones such as the DJI Phantom, commercial pilots will see rigorous oversight. They’ll be required to pass a written test, the drone must weigh less than 55 pounds, cannot be flown above 500 feet, can never be flown at night, never flown over people not actively participating in their flight and remain within eyesight of the pilot. Under further consideration is the idea of expanding no fly zones to more than the current federal buildings, airports, military bases and designated private property to public spaces and populated areas.

While the proposed regulations only cover commercial pilots at the moment, if the FAA’s recommendations become law, hobbyists could ultimately find themselves under the new code.

“I was optimistic, and I think the FAA is looking in the right direction, but I think some need to be tweaked. None seem to apply to the hobbyist who just wants to fly his drone up the river and photograph some foliage,” said Dearinger.

Thankfully for hobbyists and commercial pilots alike, the FAA won’t make its final ruling until 2017.

 

Drones and business

Lawmakers may still be uneasy with drones, but it hasn’t kept business-minded innovators from embracing the unique perspective UAVs provide.

“Hollywood’s already using them like crazy, and it’s a great avenue for them. It’s cheaper than a helicopter, and safer. A lot less damage can be done with a 2-pound drone falling out of the sky than a helicopter,” said Dearinger. “However, some of the biggest ways that people are starting to fly UAVs for commercial use are in real estate market. If you’re going to show a house online, what’s a better way to showcase a house than a 360-degree view from the sky? Also, agricultural has shown a lot of interest.”

“In order to be good stewards to the environment and continue to feed a growing population, as growers, we need to continue to do more with less,” said Matt Barnard, owner of Chief Agronomics in Gibson City, Illinois and developer of the agriculture-specific UAV “Crop Copter.”

“One of the immediate uses UAVs are being used for in farming — and is actually a hot topic in farming right now — is monitoring spring-applied nitrogen and side dressing. So we’re using sensors strapped to UAVs to get pictures of crop health and use that data with algorithms to better understand what that crop needs. We’re also using them to simply physically scout crops, see how it’s progressing throughout the growing season and better monitor water management.”

Barnard has been producing UAVs for two years specifically for agriculture use. Whereas a hobbyist can pick up a pick up a DJI Phantom for roughly $500, Chief Agronomics’ Crop Copter costs closer to $40,000 and is designed for serious farming.

“It’s another tool farmers can use to become better at what they do, and in a lot of cases better means efficiency,” says Barnard. “We just partnered with Viafeld Coop in northern Iowa, who is actually one of five FAA-approved companies that can charge for UAV use. So this spring they’ll be charging farmers for commercial UAV use, and we’re excited to be a part of that.”

To an outsider, the agriculture industry may seem like ground zero for luddites, but nothing could be further from the truth. Putting aside the billions of dollars pumped annually into seed research, farmers across the state and nation are fully embracing what technology can do for them. Everything from GPS-guided tractors to grain elevators running extremely sophisticated database processing software to make the most of corn and soy deposits. Barnard, whose company sells Crop Copters primarily in the Midwest, was in Des Moines in February showcasing the company’s UAV to interested farmers at the Iowa Power Farming Show.

“There’s a great amount of interest and a great amount of misinformation with these things,” said Dearinger. “So there’s a group of growers who understand what they can do, and then you have another group you have to educate.”

Economic impact

Besides the application of drones to everyday farming, the big picture speculation of drone impact is jaw dropping.

Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit advocacy group that works to further the acceptance of drone use across the planet, commissioned an economic study in 2012 on drone inclusion into the overall national airspace system. The study found drone integration into the nation’s commercial workspace would result in a $13.6 billion economic impact and continual growth thereafter. The study also found more than 100,000 jobs could initially be created from the FAA acceptance of UAVs, with one-third of those jobs coming from stateside manufacturing.

“As long as these things are used in a respectable way, the good they can do is amazing,” said Barnard. “A year ago, here in Illinois, we actually got called in by the state police for a search for a little girl missing in a cornfield. So what did that mean to that family who had a little 3-year-old girl missing in a cornfield, and we found her?”

Farmers, filmmakers, retailers, realtors, civil servants and reporters may be itching for the FAA to approve commercial drone use, but with the industry still trying to take off, glaring setbacks are keeping the technology grounded. Possibly the most misfortunate impediment came this past January when a DJI Phantom crashed on the White House lawn. An off-duty employee of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency lost control of his Phantom in the early morning hours of Jan. 26, and while the episode was deemed to be harmless and incidental, a bigger red flag could not have been waved in the government’s face.

DJI’s Phantom is practically harmless. It’s bright white, makes a loud buzzing sound when flying, can carry a small action camera such as a GoPro and has bright flashing lights. Still, Phantoms don’t have to hold cameras, and nothing outside of bad judgment will keep someone from affixing an explosive to it. In fact, the U.S. military has already encountered foreign threats such as Syrian rebels and ISIS using drones strapped with semi-automatic weapons to take out armed convoys. So, even if drone enthusiasts such as Dearinger are simply out for a few hours of harmless fun, the government body deciding their hobby’s ultimate fate may be too scared of the potential villainous uses to keep them legal.

“There’s nothing to be scared of from people like me,” said Dearinger. “We’re just out enjoying the day, catching some cool shots. And I wouldn’t be scared of companies using drones for package delivery. People should be more worried about the government and military use. That’s where it gets scary.” CV

 

It came from above!no fly zone
Not quite on board with the drone revolution? Want to protect your personal privacy as well as trespass over your private property? Not a problem. While the FAA and military mandate certain no fly zones (airports, federal buildings, military bases, etc.), you can submit your personal property to a voluntarily followed no fly list.

Designating the airspace of any land mass you personally own is as simple as visiting NoFlyZone.org and submitting the pertinent information. No, NoFlyZone.org is not owned, operated or maintained by the FAA or a body of the federal government, but the site’s database of submitted properties is appropriated by many major drone manufacturers as UAV guidance software. So even though the airspace over your house isn’t policed by the FAA, manufacturers play along because they don’t want to anger the bodies that might hurt their business.

One major downside is, unlike government-sanctioned no fly zones, NoFlyZone.org does not afford the property owner the right to shoot down a trespassing drone. A drone encroaching on Des Moines International Airport’s airspace is open season for the authorities. Shoot down a drone flying over your hamlet in Ankeny, Johnston or any private property, and you could be facing charges for destroying personal property and/or discharging a weapon in an unlawful area.

Still, NoFlyZone.org is a great first step to protect your privacy at home. If you feel that isn’t enough protection, the only recourse is to purchase blackout window treatments. Because, under the first amendment, anything that can be seen or filmed from public property or public airspace is protected by the constitution. CV

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