Time: "Here's why so many drone pilots are getting in trouble" (they're not RC folks)

Time Magazine makes a good point about why the new generation of drone pilots are getting in trouble in a way the previous RC hobbyists didn't:

Learning to build and fly R/C aircraft was once a time-consuming, arduous process, factors that kept the hobby from spreading. Now, new technology like user-friendly quadcopter designs, equipped with smaller, high-powered motors and batteries, means that pilots can have their aircraft ready to go in minutes instead of days, greatly enhancing the appeal of the hobby. And while the old-school pilots often met in clubs, which enforced flight rules as a social norm, the newbies are buying their gear off Amazon and heading out solo.

But the real issue here is that many of the new designs come with cameras attached, a feature that has fundamentally changed why people fly model aircraft. Though some old-school R/C aircraft hobbyists experimented with DIY digital camera hookups, they mostly viewed building and flying their aircraft as the endgame of their project. They generally avoided risky flying, as that could cost their club permission to use the local park, or could damage their expensive, intricate model aircraft that took hours to build.

The new wave of hobbyists see their GoPro-equipped drones less as remote-controlled aircraft and more as flying cameras, set to embark on a cinematic adventure. Flying for the sake of flying is no longer the point — the point is getting awesome YouTube footage, which leads to riskier behavior.

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Comment by Jonathan Hair on July 21, 2014 at 11:43am


When I was 13 I built up a conventional balsa and covering Pipercub. It took me 8 months of working on during the weekends to complete it. I flew it with extreme care and never took any chances. Today, 13 years later, it sits displayed in my basement. I am too scared to fly it. I will never have the time to build, or rebuild, something like that again! In contrast, many of the models I buy now, regardless of price, I do not care as much about. They come built and ready to go.

There is a lot to be said for laboring over a model like that. Makes you appreciate it when its done. I love that many get involved in the hobby today because things are ready to fly and easy, but I also recognize it encourages the problems we are now seeing on a regular basis.

Comment by John on July 21, 2014 at 12:04pm

Also, flying RC ariplanes was a skill acquired through buddy box training and progressing from a high wng trainer to a low wing trainer, etc. Multirotos  require a lot less skill to fly, takeof, and land. If set up correctly all you need to do to fly is plug in the battery, arm, move your throttle stick up and you're in the air... No need to controll roll, pitch, yaw to ge in the air as it's all done for you. Then to land you flip a switch and no matter where your copter is it'll land by itself in the same place it took off. This ease has removed the flying skill barrierir entry into the hobby and has made the multirotor pilots operators very lax. Taking an airplane or helicopter off the ground requires much much more skill. I remember the butterflies in my stomach the first time I did a a solo rc airplane takeoff and landing. Helicopter too. Consantly correcting for engine torque so you don't roll on takeoff and mastering your controlls at all speeds in the flight envelope. Flying a multiroor is like playinga video game

Comment by Gary McCray on July 21, 2014 at 12:18pm

RC airplanes are flown a considerable distances from people and the challenge is usually just flying them.

And many of the smaller ones that are flown in more public places don't represent a serious safety threat even if they hit you directly.

And of course some not inconsiderable experience is required before you can even fly them successfully, along the way you generally learn some concept of reasonable and safe behavior.

Quadcopters have changed all that, they have built in stabilization and more so flying them is a no brainer.

And they seem like they might even have a use - really nifty photos or better video.

The result is huge numbers of them are being sold an piloted by people who have no previous experience at all and no idea what constitutes reasonable and safe behavior.

What Can Possibly Go Wrong?

Right - everything, unfortunately many of the quadcopters being sold are intrinsically dangerous, if it lands on your head or flies into you blades spinning your going to get hurt.

And the bigger ones truly are "flying lawnmowers" with no blade guard.

The solution is really in several parts.

Education of prospective pilots is really important, they must be clearly exposed to the information as to what is safe, reasonable and non invasive behaviors and techniques.

Start with a small intrinsically safe quadcopter like a Hubsan X4, Parrot, UDI818A or one of the sub 4 ounce Blade or Helimax copters (and learn how to fly well).

Only fly any potentially dangerous copters (Phantom very much on that list) with rigorous safety protocol in place.

You have to understand your own and your quadcopters limitations and idiosyncrasies and fly well inside of them.

Fly following all laws, rules and safe procedures (especially maintaining a safe and respectful distance from all people).

Don't fly where you shouldn't or where you know you may cause trouble or dissent.

I actually think there should be a considerable effort to design very small - intrinsically safe quadcopters that can operate to professional standards including photography and videography.

If we can remove the real danger, the rest of the problems are tractable.

And we have the technology - linear brushless gimbal stabilized Ambarella 9 camera.

In fact on tiny brushless motors, the biggest problem is bearing longevity.

Comment by Stuart Brookes on July 21, 2014 at 1:04pm

soon they won't even need a pilot apparently....just someone willing to strap some wrist band doohicky on and hope the thing just follows them never having a gps glitch or scenery getting the way or some such.

Comment by Daniel Lukonis on July 21, 2014 at 1:40pm

Very interesting! I have flown model aircraft before for the sake of flying. It is true though, I fly multirotors to "DO" things: Search and rescue, film, chop down weeds and small trees (joke). The one big difference is I've always spent money on model aircraft as a hobby. I make money with mulitrotors and a business.

Comment by Alex Kuehn on July 21, 2014 at 1:47pm

I work in unmanned aircraft research at a university in Arizona and have been an avid RC enthusiast for 14+ years now and I find myself feeling physically unsafe a lot these days when there is a "drone" in the near vicinity. I love unmanned aircraft and I think they are an untapped potential source for a lot of good to come, but the way the general public perceives them and the way a vast majority of "amateur" UAV operators use them is unnerving. They have no respect for the inherent safety concerns you need to take into consideration every time you fly one of these systems.

An example. I was recently at a 4th of July event in the town where I live. As evening fell and the fire works show began I noticed three lights off to the side of the crowd and a very apparent buzzing sound. It took me a little bit, but I located the pilots and talked to them after they landed. They were hired to take aerial video of the fire work display and I would say they did their job both professionally and safely. They operated off to the side and away from the people and there was always three of them, so someone was watching for people that might have wandered up to them and presented a potential safety concern. 

Later that same night however as I walked back to my car I saw another multi-rotor. This one was obviously not a professional setup, and it took me a really long time to find the person flying it. This person was not operating it safely. He was running it up and down the crowd at a high rate of speed. I don't know if he was taking video or what he was doing, but just being near this situation made me feel unsafe. I got in my car and left. Looking back on it, I wish I had confronted the pilot and told him to be more safe, however I have observed through my work at the university that you can tell these people how to operate them safely and they still will not because they don't believe you about the safety risks. They are so convinced that it is just a harmless toy. 

It is not simply amateurs either though that have this attitude. In the past year, at the university I work at in the unmanned aircraft department we have had a number of injuries as well close calls with technical failures and inexperienced pilots. Back in the spring of this year I was supervising a class of unmanned aircraft system minors and I was struck in the back of the legs by a small 3DR quad copter. I had to go to the emergency room and received 7 stitches in my knee. This happened in a "safe" environment. There were two instructors, myself and the professor and while I was keeping a student from crashing their quad another hit me. Before this incident I had pleaded with the university to buy me buddy boxes and only allow one to fly at a time so that I could monitor their flying. They said that was unnecessary and I was over ruled. Look what happened. As if that wasn't enough, following that incident we recently had it happen again, however this time it was a high school student at a summer camp. Once again they ignored my advice to fly one at a time and or get buddy boxes as a safety precaution, saying it was unnecessary and would waste too much time and it results in a high schooler going to the ER with severe cuts on his hand. It amazes me really. The people making these calls are engineers and have PhD's and the way they talk about ethics in engineering you would think they should know better than to run up a large mutl-rotor inside a class room(yes, they do that to even after I refuse saying that's reckless). I was even at an RC event recently(club fun fly) and someone was flying a DJI Phatom right next to peoples faces trying to get video of everyone at the event and I cringed every time it came by, just waiting for there to be an electronics failure. And that was a pilot I knew knew what he was doing and would never try that with an RC plane, but he had abandoned his safe flying practices as soon as there was a camera on it and it was called drone. 

While these are just a few examples from my personal experience, I know the problem is universal. It needs to be addressed, but unfortunately it is a very delicate subject and needs to approached correctly. I think the public needs to know more about this, but all they ever hear about is the invasion of privacy(I was manning a stand at a STEM festival in my local town and every other person I talked to was accusing me of spying on them) which I personally think is ridiculous. If your neighbor is spying on you with one of these that is a problem and you should deal with that as that is not okay. As for the rest of us(hopefully), I know I for sure have better things to do with unmanned aircraft than check up on my neighbors with a GoPro. 

Comment by Gary McCray on July 21, 2014 at 1:58pm

+1 Alex

Comment by Rob_Lefebvre on July 21, 2014 at 2:11pm

Yep, I've been saying this for years already.

Comment by Muhammad Al-Rawi on July 21, 2014 at 3:34pm

I've recently had a number of kids from my high school (graduated in '12, but I visit the electronics lab often) ask me about getting into mulitrotors. None of them have flight experience. Some want to jump to the top and get fancy carbon frames and gimbals because they see these smooth YouTube videos with sleek rigs. I almost always get a disappointed reaction when I tell them to start with a micro quad and graduate to a KK2 to learn to fly rate/acro. Most end up getting an AR Drone or something because they don't want to take the time to figure things out. 

One kid went and got a Phantom a few months ago and had it taken by the cops not too long after. His neighbor reported him for "spying." He was hovering in his back yard.

Only two kids did what I suggested. They grabbed a micro quad and worked on getting the hang of things. I recently helped one of them build a tricopter and we've been going to the field every evening for the past week working tuning and  flying rate/acro. I can see he has a better understanding of his rig's capabilities and limitations than the kids with RTF multirotors. He isn't concerned with how high and far out he can go like the other kids. 

+1 Alex. Indeed it isn't only the amateurs. I see EE/CE/AE students flying multirotors around the engineering building on campus quite often now, presumably for research. Flying in a space this constricted with cars and people is reckless in my opinion. 

Comment by ausdroid on July 21, 2014 at 3:51pm

Ha Ha...The old Chestnut. Tell me I'm wrong, but the following categories would capture the overwhelming majority of UAS mishaps;

1) Not programming the UAS correctly (failsafes, home position, mag calibration, channel assignment/reverse, trim, not tuning, incorrect parameters) i.e., fly aways / loss of control.

2) Flying too close to people / things / windows/ other peoples back yards - i.e. not following safe practices - "He's spying on me"

3) No Checklists

None of the above can be fixed by having 14 years of RC experience. None of the above can be fixed by having built 200 RC aircraft from papier mache, fairy wings and beeswax. Until people are trained (and understand how) to fly robots, this will continue to happen. I object to the RC community (who took years to work out that 2.4gig would not end the world) attempting to take ownership of who should and who should not fly drones and how they should be trained.

The DJI phantom has opened up a new world. Provided that;

1) It is setup properly (home position / failsafe) 

2) It is competently inspected prior to flight (checklists) 

3) The user accepts that the thing does not have a military grade autopilot in it and flies in an appropriate area (away from things / people)

Nothing can go wrong!


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