Drones at NAB and the Promise of (Illegal?) Footage That Keeps Viewers Engaged

By Michael Silbergleid, Contributing Editor

The shots? Fantastic. The cost? Extremely reasonable. The legaliy? That’s the big question when it comes to a new generation of avionic photography. Whether you call them drones, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) as the FAA does, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), aerial video platform or atmospheric satellites (you can thank Google for that—more later), we all know what they are: remote-controlled airborne camera platforms.

In fact, depending on what industry you’re in, you might call them quadcopters, hexacopters or octacopters, depending on the number of rotors. And you might also hate “drone” since that has some negative military use connotations (like carrying munitions).

But to make life easy we’ll just call them drones.

We’ve all seen the footage—and it is spectacular. Here’s a DJI demo from NAB that is featured on Engadget.

There are three things to keep in mind about drones, each with three elements:

First, a drone consists of three parts: camera, gimbal and flight system (with controller).

Second, you can buy a drone from manufacturers, dealers (that offer packages and training) and parts manufacturers specializing in specific elements like the gimbal, flight control system and modules.

Third, consider payload capacity, flight time, and features (such as 3-axis, roll/pitch/yaw stabilization and GPS).

And if you are interested in using drones and you also know a radio controlled aircraft model pilot, make that person your friend. That will make things a lot easier when it comes to getting the shots you want.

But the thing you must consider first, above all others is: Can I legally fly these things? That’s what your lawyer is for.

First, there are both federal and state regulations to deal with and laws change quickly. All it takes is one yahoo spying through a neighbor’s bedroom window for legislative action to take hold. And should someone weaponize a drone, well, that pretty much will mean game over for their use in any other application.

In fact, this may be harsh, but think of drone manufacturers and dealers as the same way you would gun dealers—selling the item is legal but what you do with it may not be legal.

So let’s start out with the FAA. Commercial use of drones is banned by the FAA. That should tell you all you need to know but even when it comes to the FAA things may change. PBS’s Newshour recently reported that a federal judge ruled on March 6 that “the Federal Aviation Administration does not have jurisdiction over small, commercial drones. However, drone lawyers caution commercial enthusiasts from interpreting this ruling as a free-for-all license to fly.”

Patrick Geraghty, a National Transportation Safety Board administrative law judge, said in his order dismissing the $10,000 fine for commercial video use of a drone in October 2011 that the FAA has no regulations governing model aircraft flights or even for classifying model aircraft as an unmanned aircraft.

In theory, that means an unmanned Boeing 787 could legally fly in US airspace. Expect that large loophole to be examined by the FAA fairly quickly as the agency believes that “anyone who wants to fly an aircraft —manned or unmanned —in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval,” according to the FAA’s website.

The agency has issued guidelines for model aircraft operators, but they are voluntary and therefore cannot be enforced, Geraghty said.

You might have noticed a great deal of commercial video and stills coming off of drones. That doesn’t make it right or legal or illegal. It just means it was done.

We Highly Suggest…

Consumer use of drones is allowed when flying below 400 feet. That’s the same limit as radio controlled model aircraft. RC aircraft use must also be away from populated areas, and if they fly within three miles of an airport, they’re supposed to notify the airport operator or tower. But these are voluntary guidelines that cannot be enforced.

So here is one rule for commercial use and another for consumer use and, you got it, the rules are not clear.

So what about the demo video that Engadget shows that was taken in the parking lot at the Las Vegas Convention Center during the NAB Show? Odds are that would be found to be illegal but that depends on whether you look at it as commercial use. And was it safe? The LVCC is within three miles (2.5 miles to be exact from parking lot to runway) of McCarran International Airport. Should the airport have been notified just from a safety perspective?

Other sources say it’s illegal to use drone-produced images for commercial purposes, though the authority for that ban is unclear. Others say that for commercial use, you need an FAA Certificate of Authorization.

Confused yet? Maybe it is better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission. Or better yet, wait for the legal issues to shake out.

Just how popular are drones? On April 14, Google acquired solar-powered drone maker Titan Aerospace as it plans to deliver wireless Internet access to remote parts of the world, via atmospheric satellites. Facebook has similar plans.

Titan’s drones are a bit different: These drones, which fly at an altitude of 65,000 feet, can remain aloft for up to five years and have a 165-foot wingspan, slightly shorter than that of a Boeing 777.

States’ Rights—And Your Right Not To Use A Drone

State legislatures are weighing benefits, privacy concerns, economic impact, and what exactly these things should be called and how defined. So far, according to the National Conference of State Legislators, 16 states have enacted 20 laws addressing drones and their use.

According to the National Conference of State Legislators, in 2013 43 states introduced 130 bills and resolutions addressing drone issues. At the end of the year, 13 states had enacted 16 new laws and 11 states had adopted 16 resolutions. Most legislation deals with law enforcement use of drones, privacy, injury, and their definition.

The easiest thing to do before dropping hundreds or thousands of dollars on a drone is to check its legality in your jurisdiction. That might not be easy with laws and state versus federal jurisdiction in flux. Again, waiting might be the best option.

I Want One Anyway

Fair enough. Caveat Emptor…and have a good lawyer, just in case.

Here’s a roundup of drone manufacturers and suppliers that were at NAB. Keep in mind what you want to use it for when looking at payload, flight time, and other features.

And remember, “We didn’t hurt anyone” and “we didn’t know it was illegal” (if it turns out to be illegal) is not a defense in a court of law.

Aerial Media Pros: aerialmediapros.com

AMIMOM Pro: amimon.com

Brushlessgimbals: brushlessgimbals.com

DJI: dji.com

Freefly: freeflysystems.com

IntelligentUAS: intelligentuas.com

Paralinx: paralinx.net

PMG Multi-Rotors: pmgmultirotors.com

Quadcopter: quadcopter.com

Yuneec Technology: yuneec.com






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