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Discussing “The D Word”

BN-EX554_1008do_G_201410081717451-300x200.jpgThat which we call a drone…

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal ran a story called “Why Some Drone Makers Hate the Word ‘Drone.'” It’s a well-written piece that outlines why opponents of the term don’t like it and ends with an appropriate assessment fromPopular Science‘s Kelsey Atherton: “The battle is over and ‘drone’ won.”

Mr. Atherton is right. The battle is over. But, like most battles, it’s part of a larger conflict – getting the general public to understand and accept UAV technology.

As freelance journalist Zach Rosenburg told the Journal, “You try to explain what you do to your families on Thanksgiving…and no one knows what the hell a UAV is.”

I sympathize, Mr. Rosenburg.

So, instead of using Congressional hearings (and Twitter arguments) to debate what term to use, let’s see if we can’t focus that energy to address the real issue: educating the public.

…By any other name…

One of the best attitudes toward the issue of “the D word” I have ever heard came from a conversation I had with Paola Santana, co-founder of Matternet:

“The drone PR problem has to do with the use of drones, not the name of the thing. As soon as you change what you’re using them for, perception changes. That change doesn’t happen just by changing the name. A knife is a knife, right? You can use a knife to cut an apple or you can use it to kill someone. But the word is ‘knife.’ It’s a weapon but people use it in their kitchens every day.”

In the next few weeks, children all over the country will be using knives to saw grotesque patterns into the flesh of dying organisms to create symbols of reverence for souls stuck in limbo in preparation for a pagan holiday.

Or, you know, kids are carving pumpkins because it’s almost Halloween.

Perception is everything.

Any negative connotation of the word ‘drone’ has been artificially constructed by people who were searching for a term to describe a technology that was not fully understood (more on this in a bit).

As the commercial drone industry grows and the understanding of the technology becomes clearer, it comes down to the players in the space to change public perception by demonstrating all the practical applications drones have.

For example, Matternet is trying to change the perception of the word drone by using them to deliver medicine to remote villages in third world countries.

…Would fly so straight.

What a drone truly is, is a tool built to complete a specific job that requires no human interaction.

The concept of autonomy is the crux of this entire technology.

Matternet, Amazon and Google are designing drones to be flown by humans.

Like the self-driving car, these drones of tomorrow are meant to take humans (and, by extension, human error) out of the equation.

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8334969506_c799262fa6_zThe drones are coming. If you don't already know someone who owns one, you soon will. Drones are an extremely accessible technology that can be as practical as they are fun.

But, with few exceptions, they are more tool than toy. As such, they should be treated with respect and pilots should exercise caution when flying. Crashing a drone is much easier than flying one.

A certain Dronelife employee, who shall remain nameless (it wasn't me), learned this lesson the hard way when he took his DJI Phantom Vision 2+ out for its maiden voyage.

So you don't make the same mistakes he and so many other first time flyers made, we asked a bunch of experts for some wisdom to impart on the drone virgins of the world. Here is what they said:

Have an intimate knowledge of your system.

"One of the most important things for a beginning droner to learn is the value of understanding the physical limitations of your gear.

Of all the things that threaten a successful flight and constrain drone work, the biggest one at the moment is battery life. It’s limited. It can change depending on how it’s charged, how the drone is used and in what conditions it’s flown. Not building in a safety cushion on your projected flight time will end up with disappointing results, damaged craft, and depleted funds!

Learn your battery’s current capabilities and factor in a 20% cushion for your own good.” - Terry Holland, professional aerial photographer, Operations Advisory Group Inc.

Along with understanding the physical capabilities and limitations of your drone, it is also crucial to learn its technological capabilities and limitations, especially when you are trying to capture images or record data.

"Let the UAV do what it does best. One things I have seen first hand is that a lot of UAV users are afraid of the automated intelligence and so they want to be hands on. The more human input there is in the process the less accurate the data is going to be." - PrecisoinHawk Senior Operations Engineer, Brandon Eickhoff.
"It is most important to make sure your UAV marks its home point (with GPS) before flying far away.  This will save a lot of people money and frustration." - Taylor Chien, CEO of

Respect Thy Neighbor.

"I wish I had been completely aware of every single regulation out there and how exactly it could affect me, the public, full-sized aircraft flying in the area, and how it all related to local laws. I had an idea of all of the regs but have to admit I was a little bit fuzzy on some of them. It is essential to know these things as it helps you to operate in a safe manner which is the single most important thing.

Also, be aware of all the airports in your operation area - especially the small ones. We must operate defensively in the sky and respect those who came before us who are now forced to share (in most cases, whether they like it or not) it with very tiny aircraft that can be difficult to see from the cockpit."  - Ian Smith, UAV Manager at Delair-Tech.

Location, location, location.

"I always recommend people go into a very large want to minimize the chances of hitting something. Most people are so excited they just want to go fly it right away. Don't cut corners!" - Eric Cheng, Director of Aerial Imaging at DJI.
"Start in a safe location like an empty park or AMA club field and get a lot of experience with your drone equipment before doing anything more challenging." - Brendan Schulman, head of the civilian drone practice group at Kramer Levin.
"Take it slow and make sure your surroundings are tailored to be crash-proof. The more vast and open the field you practice in the better. Lots of trees and buildings? Not so good.

Oh, and don't fly anywhere remotely close to water. Not near a lake, not near the ocean and DEFINITELY not your backyard pool." - Sally French, Market Watch editor and creator of

Dronelife's own Alan Phillips could not stress this point enough:

"Don't do your first flight in your backyard. That's what everyone told me and, if I had listened, I would be flying right now instead of waiting for a backordered piece to fix my Phantom."
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How NASA is Building a Highway in the Sky

3689606894?profile=originalWhen Jeff Bezos appeared on 60 Minutes and showed the world the Amazon Prime Air drone delivery system, a lot of skeptics called it a publicity stunt and said such technology was a very long way off, if it ever materialized at all. It seemed like science fiction.

But when it became clear Bezos was serious, the first questions most people had were "what is going to stop a drone from crashing into me? Or my house? Or another drone?"

How could this science fiction technology ever work without killing us all?

To solve science fiction problems, we need science fiction solutions.

Dr. Parimal Kopardekar is literally a rocket scientist: he has worked on numerous Airspace and Air Transportation Technology projects at NASA, was the recipient of the NASA Ames Honor Award for Engineer of the Year  in 2003 and he is currently the Principal Investigator of the NASA’s NextGen Airspace Project.

One of his current projects is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Traffic Management System (UTM), or what we mortals would call a "highway in the sky."

[caption id="attachment_5615" align="aligncenter" width="664"]This is not a drill This is not a drill[/caption]

As daunting as such a project sounds, Dr. Kopardekar's team is not starting from scratch. He explains:

The UTM construct is based on our research on the operator airspace; Class A,B,C and D. UTM is focused on Class G airspace because all of these operations will be in low altitudes. But the components of air space design - separation management, scheduling, demand capacity imbalance, contingency management [i.e. a 24-esqu hostile takeover], trajectory definition and prediction, wind and weather integration- that we have been working with for commercial carriers and upper airspace will be similar.

We need to make adjustments, for example, to the trajectory definition and prediction because UAS will fly slower and at lower altitude, with different susceptibility to wind etc. We are going to use the lessons learned from the work we have been doing for nearly 20 years and adapt it to UTM.

Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 3.47.13 PMHowever, despite these lessons learned, Class G airspace (generally defined as under 1,200 feet above ground level) is roughly uncharted territory. Plus, human beings live in that airspace. As such, the aerial network will need to be incredibly precise.

So how do we safely accommodate these flying lawnmowers into the airspace above playgrounds and hospitals? By tapping into the so-called internet of things.

In order to accommodate low executed airspace operations we need a system. Right now there is no system. You can imagine how that could be chaos when everybody just starts to fly in the airspace.

It's just like cars and roads; someone has to make sure that the cars have safety standards, that they won't stop or turn in the middle of the road on their own. Once you do that, you say "how do I accommodate all the industries and folks who will be driving the cars? You need roads, stop signs; you need lanes -one lane that goes one way and another lane that is coming back the other way. And that's what we are after.

We are basically creating this UAS traffic management system that allows you to accommodate the number of vehicles that will operate in the low altitude airspace. The analogy is 'just because we have a car, whether it's an autonomous car or someone is driving, does not negate the need for a road or stop signs or rules of the road.' The same thing happens in the airspace. We need to have a structure.

This is where Dr. Kopardekar's UTM base comes in. The UTM system allows UAS operators to create a geo-fenced area (an area defined by GPS coordinates) to pilot their aircraft. By staying in the geo-fenced area, all movements and behaviors of the vehicle can be monitored and operators can program flights based on GPS location.

Here's the fun part though: when you throw another UAS into the area (and/or a virtual skyscraper or playground full of children) the UAS then knows where everything is and operators can specify how close the drones are allowed to get to various obstacles or locations. Plus, because the trajectory of both aircraft are part of the "world's first cloud-based aerial architecture" that is UTM, they both know where the other is and will be, even if a gust of wind were to interfere.

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