Students Study UAS Air Traffic

The Purdue University UAS Program has recently purchased and deployed a POLARIS system – Simlat’s simulation for UAS Traffic Management (UTM) along with Simlat’s C-Star UAS Simulator.
“We are excited to partner with Simlat and incorporate this innovative technology into our UAS program,” said Dr. Damon Lercel.
Simlat’s POLARIS provides simulated UAS traffic at scale, simulating the behavior of “rogue” or malfunctioning UAS while also generating the clutter made by thousands of automated flights. POLARIS includes technology from Agentfly Technologies. The UAS flight simulation is based on C-STAR, which provides the training environment for building the skill set required for modern UAS operation. It supports basic to advanced training from routine operations such as takeoff and landing, through advanced piloting skills like safe recovery in emergency, and up to mission training in various applications like first responders, Wind farm inspections and more. “This technology will provide students a safe environment to learn and explore UAS air traffic operations, develop and test various emergency scenarios, and experience future UAS applications through virtual reality,” added Lercel.

The post Students Study UAS Air Traffic appeared first on RotorDrone.

SOURCE: RotorDrone – Read entire story here.

Skydio 2 Flight-Tested

An honest review of the Skydio 2 must actually be two reviews: one that compares the aircraft with its own potential, and the other that compares it with other aircraft that can be had for a similar price to perform general aerial imaging missions. Whether the Skydio 2 is an astonishing success or a quirky outlier actually depends more on the goals of the end user than it does the characteristics of the aircraft itself.

Regardless, the basic facts are the same, so here they are: the main camera—the one that actually captures video and still images—incorporates a Sony IMX577, capable of shooting 4K video at 30 frames per second (FPS) or HD video at up to 120 FPS in addition to 12 megapixel stills. On paper, that is a fairly typical set of specifications for a drone at this size and price point. However, Skydio wrings the most out of every pixel. The images are vibrant, and even without activating the camera’s high dynamic range (HDR) capability, it does a remarkable job of balancing the lighting across a scene. For example, if you put the horizon line across the center of the frame, you will immediately notice that both the sky and the ground are still visible, without being over- or under-exposed.

The Basics

The Skydio 2 has six 4K cameras, each with a 200-degree field of view. Together, they create a complete picture of the operating environment in every direction, generating 45 megabytes of data 30 times per second to drive its remarkable collision avoidance system. In short, it literally sees everything, and yet the Skydio 2 is so narrowly focused on the single goal of being a perfect flying action camera that comparisons with other small, civil UAS are problematic.

At a Glance

Name: Skydio 2
Manufacturer: Skydio (skydio.com)
Type: Autonomous Aerial Imaging Platform
Size: 223 x 273mm
Weight: 775g
Flight time: 15 min.
Camera: Sony IMX577 12.3MP CMOS, 4K/30 FPS Video
Price: $999.00 (basic package)

The camera is slung on a front-mounted gimbal—like the Parrot Anafi—so that no part of the aircraft hangs over it. However, it does the Anafi one better by providing three-axis stabilization. With this configuration, the Skydio 2’s camera could, in theory, pitch all the way from zenith to nadir. However, it stops at 45 degrees above the horizon, limiting its use inspecting the underside of a bridge deck, for example. That isn’t a problem if what you want is a flying action camera, not a general purpose small, civil uncrewed aircraft system (UAS).

The airframe feels very sturdy, no doubt because of the magnesium skeleton beneath its distinctive blue and black plastic skin. It gives the aircraft a refined feel in the hand, like a high-end laptop, but the real reason for this choice is to support the collision avoidance system. In order to function, the system must know the precise distance between each of the cameras. The flex in a plastic airframe, for example, would be enough to degrade its performance.

That’s why the Skydio 2 does not fold down for travel or storage, like virtually every other UAS in its size category: an airframe movable limbs, for example, would not provide sufficient rigidity and precision to make the system reliable.

The controller, sold as a separate accessory by Skydio for $149, is actually a re-branded SkyController 3 developed by Parrot, which originally shipped with its Anafi drone.

Hot! Hot! Hot!

The technical specifications for the Skydio 2 read like a gaming laptop, with a main processor, 256-core GPU and a CPU, as well as four gigabytes of 128-bit RAM. That much computational firepower is required to push through one million data points in three-dimensional space every second and, like a gaming laptop, it builds up a lot of heat in the process.

After each flight, the body of the Skydio 2 is very nearly too hot to handle comfortably. That’s enough to make me worry about losing the aircraft to overheating. However, the company claims a maximum operating temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit—comparable to other drones in its class. So, I suppose we’ll have to take them at their word on this point.

Power is supplied by a rechargeable, three-cell, 4280mAH LiPo battery which in real-world testing delivered about 15 minutes of flight time. That isn’t bad, but it is a little below average for an aircraft of its size and performance. The battery bears further consideration for several other reasons, as well.

First among these is the magnetic retention system, which is extremely cool. Position the battery near the cavity on the belly of the aircraft and it snaps into place with a satisfying click and reassuring certainty. Why other manufacturers have not embraced this approach is a mystery, because it’s awesome.

That said, there are some drawbacks to the Skydio 2’s battery system. First, the battery serves as the aircraft undercarriage—the sole point of contact between the airframe and the ground. This makes it prone to leaning in one direction or another if not placed on a flat surface, unlike other aircraft with a wider base of support. Also, given the fact that a LiPo battery can burst into flame and emit toxic smoke if damaged, making it the first point of contact during a rough landing or a crash seems like a bad idea.

Second, the battery can only be charged using the drone itself as the charger. That means taking it out of its protective case and clearing space on your desk for the whole aircraft just to charge the battery. This has operational implications, as well, because you can’t recharge one battery while you’re flying with another.

Also, and this is downright peculiar, when a battery is finished charging you can’t simply put on the next one. You have to disconnect and reconnect the power, as well, or the battery won’t take a charge.

For an extra $129—a non-negligible percentage of the base aircraft price—Skydio will relieve you of this burden with a separate two-battery charger.

The Skydio 2 incorporates a magnesium alloy chassis that provides the airframe with strength and rigidity, but it still weighs 775 grams—less than the Mavic 2 from DJI.

Designed by GoProfessional Cases, Skydio sells a rugged, waterproof case to protect the aircraft and its optional accessories—either as part of its pro kit or as a separate item.

Ground Control

It is worth noting that the Skydio 2 base package does not include a hand-held controller, but instead relies on your smart phone and a pair of virtual joysticks for direct input—not my favorite control interface. For $149, Skydio is happy to sell you a controller, which will look very familiar to Parrot Anafi pilots: the SkyController 3.

Personally, I’m a fan of the SkyController 3: it’s simple and sturdy, and it uses a lever instead of a dial to control camera pitch. On the downside, the smart device clamp isn’t quite large enough to accommodate my Galaxy Note 10+ in its protective case—although it fits with the case removed.

One change you will notice from the Parrot version of the controller is that the standard USB port has been removed. Indeed, you won’t find a single standard USB port in the entire Skydio 2 ecosystem. Instead, it relies completely on USB-C connections. Personally, I’m a big fan of USB-C, but even I’m not sure that the company’s universal implementation of the standard is a good choice.

As a drone pilot, a smart phone user and a human being living in the early decades of the 21st century, I’ve got tangled piles of USB cables strewn about my home: all of them standard USB to micro-, mini- or C-type connectors. The one thing I didn’t have before the Skydio 2 arrived is a USB-C to USB-C cable.

One is included with the kit, but it’s too long and heavy to use comfortably with the controller and my smart phone, so I purchased an extra one online. It wasn’t a huge expense, but the point is you aren’t as likely to have a lot of spare USB-C to USB-C cables lying around if you suddenly find you need a backup—and that can be a problem with a mission critical item.

And while we’re on the subject of mission critical items, make sure you add a MicroSD card to the list. One is not included with the basic kit, which is ironic because the app will not let you take off unless one is installed. I appreciate my aircraft giving me a reminder that I don’t have a memory card installed, but prohibiting me from flying without one is another matter entirely. It’s not hard to imagine this requirement tripping up first responders who might urgently need an aerial perspective but don’t necessarily need to capture video or still images.

The Skydio 2 makes good use of augmented reality, as seen here in cable-cam mode, to illustrate its autonomous flight maneuvers.

The Skydio 2 offers a library of pre-programmed flight maneuvers, divided into two categories: skills and one-shots. Skills include its extraordinary follow-me capabilities, while one-shots include classics like the dronie.

The Skydio 2 app provides a bare minimum of telemetry from the aircraft—speed, distance and altitude—and even these can be disabled within the settings menu. It can be a jarring change for experienced drone pilots who are accustomed to having a wealth of flight parameters at their disposal.

A controller does not come standard with the base Skydio 2 kit, meaning that pilots will need to rely on virtual joysticks in the smartphone app to maneuver the aircraft.

Up in the Air

Of course, the ultimate test of any aircraft is how it flies and, setting aside the collision avoidance system, it’s a middling performer and can be a little bit fussy. You cannot directly control the aircraft on take-off or landing. Instead, you push a button and wait while the Skydio 2 does its thing without any input from you.

Also, it requires a clear patch of ground to launch, or the flight control decision will overrule your command. I found this a bit annoying when I couldn’t get it to lift off in circumstances where I would be completely comfortable launching a DJI Mavic, Autel EVO or Parrot Anafi under my own control.

Finally, I would characterize the Skydio 2’s handling as sluggish. It is stable and it goes where you tell it, but it’s in no hurry to get there. While flying just a few feet off the ground, I found this bordered on being a safety hazard because I couldn’t move the drone out of danger quickly enough for my own comfort.

The app allows you to adjust the flight parameters, but this doesn’t seem to affect maneuverability all that much. Instead, the primary effect seems to be to raise the maximum speed from a pokey 10 miles per hour to a rather more brisk 30mph—although it takes its time getting there. Based on my experience, this is not an aircraft that you will ever fly strictly for the fun of it.

All that said, my declaration above about “setting aside the collision avoidance system” is not a fair criteria for judging the Skydio 2. It isn’t so much a drone with an integrated collision avoidance system as it is a collision avoidance system with an integrated drone. Dodging obstacles is what this aircraft was built to do—and seeing it in action borders on magic. Everything you have seen in the company’s promotional videos, and more, is completely true.

I would argue that the Skydio 2 is more capable than a human pilot in many of the applications for which it was designed. An example: flying through a stand of trees while the drone not only follows, but orbits, a moving subject. To pull off this maneuver, which the Skydio 2 manages with seeming ease, a human pilot would need to keep one eye trained on the video downlink, to keep the subject in frame, while the other eye tracked the drone itself and plotted a safe course while moving laterally through the forest. Unless you are a chameleon with a savant-level ability to do complex geometric calculations in your head, do not try this at home.

Less is Less

The Skydio 2 app is perhaps my greatest single source of frustration with the platform, mainly because it seems intent on denying you information that, in some cases, I believe a responsible remote pilot really ought to know. Furthermore, the company seems to actually pride itself on this lack of information.

Its website describes the app with the phrase: “More camera. Less cockpit.” Indeed, it puts the video downlink and camera controls front and center while only providing a minimal amount of telemetry: airspeed, altitude, distance to home, and battery life remaining—that’s it. The aircraft has a dual-band GNSS receiver (GPS/GLONASS) on board, but you would never know from the app. It does not tell you how many satellites it has in view or when a position lock has been achieved. Furthermore, the app does not give you any insight into what the collision avoidance system is perceiving, which can make it difficult to trust in some circumstances. Every other drone with a collision avoidance system gives you an on-screen indication as to what it is “seeing,” which you can correlate with your own observations of the environment.

The Skydio 2’s system is amazing, but even the company admits it isn’t completely foolproof. For example, it can’t detect objects that are less than half an inch in diameter, such as power lines or bare tree limbs. It would be great—verging on necessary, I would argue—to superimpose the collision avoidance system’s rendering of the environment on the main camera’s view. That would make it much, much easier to evaluate your surroundings and exercise good judgment before committing to fully autonomous flight.
The app’s quirks don’t end there, either. The default setting is for the camera to start recording video every time you lift off. Not an unreasonable choice for a flying action camera, I suppose, when you want to make sure you never miss a shot. However, it is deeply frustrating that it returns to this default setting every time you go flying. In order to stop it, you need to remember to disable auto-record every single time you spin up the propellers.

The good news, I suppose, is that it is much easier to revise software than it is to revise hardware. Building a separate app for enterprise users or even allowing pilots to enable different functions and telemetry options in the existing app would go a long way toward helping the Skydio 2 achieve its full potential.

The Skydio 2 incorporates three full-color cameras on the top and bottom of the aircraft, each with a 200-degree field of view—providing the aircraft with a complete picture of its operating environment in three-dimensional space.

The Real World

When I first saw the Skydio 2 at the 2019 Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas, my first thought was not that I should take up luge to capture amazing action shots of myself sliding down the side of a mountain, but rather that this aircraft has tremendous potential in real-world, commercial applications.

While I was impressed with its collision avoidance capabilities, the biggest factor driving that perception was the fact it is built in the United States. There has been increasing concern over the past couple of years that drone manufacturers based in China—which account for virtually the entire small, civil UAS market in the US—may pose a threat to national security by sharing information gathered from their drones with the Chinese intelligence services.

It occurred to me that a small, civil UAS that is manufactured in the US and could be sold at a reasonable price would potentially be a game changer—both for the company that built it and for the domestic industry as a whole. Now, news has emerging that Skydio is benefiting from that potential.

In total, federal government entities including the Army, the Air Force and the Drug Enforcement Administration have placed orders totaling nearly $5 million with the company.

Whether or not it can meet the demand remains to be proven, however. The company, which is headquartered and has its manufacturing facility in the Bay Area, was already struggling to keep up with demand from consumers before its assembly line was shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic. Still, of all the problems a business can have, too many customers is not generally counted among the worst.

The Skydio 2’s distinctive over-under propeller design allows its six collision avoidance cameras an unobstructed view of the environment, while the three-axis gimbal keeps the main camera steady during aircraft maneuvers.

What We Like

+ Extraordinary autonomous collision avoidance capabilities
+ Camera captures vivid imagery with wide dynamic range
+ App uses augmented reality to define maneuvers
+ Low price for robust capabilities; made in the USA

Bottom Line

The Skydio 2 incorporates ground-breaking technology to achieve an extraordinary degree of autonomous capability—actively tracking a subject through an environment crowded with obstacles while completing maneuvers that would overwhelm human pilots. Add to that robust construction, a gorgeous camera gimbal and a surprisingly reasonable price point and it looks like a winner. However, it is constrained from achieving its full potential by a few hardware and software quirks, some of which follow from its singular focus on becoming the ultimate flying action camera, even at the expense of being a better general purpose drone.


Is This Even Legal?
It’s a fair question: is the type of operation implicit in the Skydio 2’s marquee application—capturing action sports while flying autonomously—legal under 14 CFR Part 107 or the recreational rules described in Section 44809? If the subject is also the pilot, I don’t see how the answer can be anything but “No.”

Both commercial and recreational rules require the pilot to maintain visual line of sight with the aircraft throughout the flight. However, if you’re bombing down a foot path on a mountain bike, that isn’t going to be possible: your attention will be focused entirely on the boulder coming up fast and whether or not hitting it will cause you to flip over and snap your neck.

This problem could be solved by having someone else actually serve as the remote pilot, supervising the drone while it autonomously follows the subject. While this approach would, in theory, satisfy the line-of-sight requirements, there are still two issues: this doesn’t appear to be what most people are actually doing; and, if the drone is following a mountain biker or a person running through the woods, the remote pilot is going to lose line of sight pretty quickly, anyway.

Presumably to mitigate the risks involved in this type of autonomous flight operation, Skydio puts tight altitude restrictions on the aircraft while it’s following people or vehicles on the ground—minimizing the hazard to other air traffic. Good on them for that, but no technological system is completely reliable and it doesn’t change the fact that these sorts of operations almost inevitably will run afoul of the visual-line-of-sight rule.

Both commercial operators and recreational pilots should beware. If something does go wrong, nobody from Skydio will be standing beside you during your hearing at the Federal Aviation Administration. You alone will be held to account for your choices.


Text & photos by Patrick Sherman

The post Skydio 2 Flight-Tested appeared first on RotorDrone.

SOURCE: RotorDrone – Read entire story here.

Free-Fall Delivery Mechanism

A2Z Drone Delivery, LLC, developer of a patented tethered freefall drone delivery mechanism, is launching its flagship product, the RDS1 (Rapid Delivery System) which maintains a safe hover of up to 150 feet (45.71 meters) while its delivery mechanism controls the payload’s freefall for a safe and accurate touchdown. Offered as a modular add-on system or as a ready-to-fly platform based on the DJI Matrice 600 Pro, the RDS1 is designed for payloads up to 2 kg (4.4 lbs.). With a range of up to 3.5 km (2.17 miles), the RDS1 is ideal for rapid deployment of time-sensitive first aid and life-saving medical supplies, or to deliver material to destinations where landing the drone is problematic such as a tossing ship or dense forest.

The RDS1 addresses some of the consumer-protection concerns with drone delivery. By delivering payloads from a safe hover altitude, the RDS1 protects recipients from spinning UAV propellers, while mitigating privacy concerns of low-flying drones and abating intrusive rotor noise. The RDS1’s unique patented freefall delivery mechanism reduces time-on-station to ensure onboard power can be put to use in other ways. Built on the familiar DJI flight control interface, the A2Z Drone Delivery app combines manual control system operations with an onboard sensor array to manage the package’s freefall and gently stop its descent just above the ground. Rated at 100 lbs. tensile strength, the RDS1’s Kevlar® tether and elastic fabric pouch can be reeled back up for reuse or to retrieve materials from personnel on the ground.

“Our rapid delivery system is ideal for situations where a drone cannot safely approach close proximity to its delivery location such as delivering radios or medical supplies to a search and rescue team in a forest or as a more efficient option to deliver and retrieve port documents from awaiting cargo ships,” said Aaron Zhang, founder of A2Z Drone Delivery, LLC. “While other drone delivery platforms are designed to hover close to the ground, our tethered free-fall delivery technique enables efficient and accurate placement without the UAV approaching people, structures or other obstructions like trees and wires.”

RDS1 Features

The company’s proprietary delivery mechanism incorporates a LiDAR sensing system streaming continuous data to the onboard firmware which controls the payload’s rapid descent. Additional integrated features include:

  • Payload status detection – Monitors payload throughout flight and delivery, enabling eventual beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) missions
  • Pre-flight weight check – Ensures the flight platform is not overloaded and controls payload deceleration
  • Rapid descent calculation – Automatically determines when to slow the payload freefall at the proper distance from the ground
  • Manual delivery control – Intelligent onboard systems provide safeguards while allowing pilots to manually control tethered payload delivery and retrieval
  • Emergency payload abandonment – Allows the pilot to quickly detach the drone from its payload amid flight emergencies
  • Transverse tether winding – Ensures the tether is tightly woven on the reel to maximize capacity and prevent knotting
  • Passive payload lock – Safeguards against payload loss or tether slippage in case of unforeseen power fluctuations, and eliminates the need for additional payload housing

RDS1 Configurations

The A2Z Drone Delivery RDS1 is sold as a modular add-on that can be easily installed on the DJI Matrice 600 or DJI Matrice 600 Pro, or purchased as a ready-to-fly system mounted on the DJI Matrice 600 Pro. In either configuration, the RDS1 includes:

  • A2Z Drone Delivery App – The A2Z app incorporates intuitive overlays on the familiar DJI flight control interface allowing pilots to monitor payload status while manually controlling delivery and retrieval
  • Kevlar tether – Rated for 100 lbs. tensile strength, far more weight than the airframe is designed to carry, the tether and delivery system are able to sustain additional forces which may be realized during delivery or retrieval missions
  • Reusable fabric pouches – Elastic pouches secure payloads of varying form factors and can be left with the recipient, or reeled up to retrieve payloads and be reused
  • Installation guidance – Detailed step-by-step installation guide and direct customer support

“As we bring this first iteration of our unique rapid delivery system to market, we’re eager to work with our customers to adapt the system to meet their unique mission demands and set our product roadmap to suit their needs,” said Zhang. “We have already initiated development of a ‘tap-and-go’ payload auto-release mechanism to remotely deposit the payload without an awaiting recipient; and while our flexible payload pouches can already accommodate diverse demands, our design team is nimble enough to adapt the delivery system to just about any payload the flight platform can support.”

The post Free-Fall Delivery Mechanism appeared first on RotorDrone.

SOURCE: RotorDrone – Read entire story here.

High-Risk Operations: Embry-Riddle bridge-inspection challenges

Pilot Report

To any person who has ever uttered the phrase, “Those who can’t do, teach,” I’d like to extend an invitation: spend a day on the flight line with Dr. Scott Burgess of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide Campus Department of Flight. For myself, I’ve always had the utmost respect for the teaching profession, so I was delighted to be recruited for this mission—although my enthusiasm ebbed somewhat when I learned the details.

Pictured above: Essential for demonstrating proper techniques for infrastructure inspection using drones is a close-up view of the maneuvers that are required — a subject best understood from the prospective of another drone flying nearby.

I would be operating a drone a few feet from a highway bridge while another drone, piloted by Dr. Burgess, flew a few feet from mine. I’ve done proximity flying on several occasions in my career, and more than once I’ve seen it end badly: that sickening crunch when a propeller strikes an external object, followed by the inevitable fall to the ground below. Except, in this case, we’d be flying over the Deschutes River, so at least I wouldn’t have to gather up the broken pieces if something went wrong.
Needless to say, I was curious to learn what specific circumstances required us to undertake such a hazardous mission. Scott told me: “We’re developing a course for the Office of Professional Education, SUAS 1400, which focuses on infrastructure inspection. My goal is to show the students how to perform these maneuvers in a real-world setting, but that’s a significant challenge in an online course.

“If you take video from the ground, the distance, the perspective and the problem of depth perception make it hard to appreciate what is happening and how close to the subject you actually need to get. By capturing video of the drone doing the inspection from another drone, the students get a much more realistic perspective on what is required.”

Large structures with sides at right angles to each other have the potential to create vortexes when air moves past them, causing small drones to behave in dangerous and unexpected ways.

Radio Silence

This mission was made modestly more complex by the fact it took place in controlled airspace: a cylinder of Class D surrounding Redmond Municipal Airport, which extends from the surface to 2,500 feet above ground level (AGL). The UAS Facility Map for the area showed a ceiling of 400 feet AGL—so no different from an operation occurring in uncontrolled airspace, and clearance was available through the Low-Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system.

Typically when I’m operating in controlled airspace or near an airport, I use a hand-held aviation radio to listen in on local air traffic, to provide increased situational awareness regarding crewed aircraft in the vicinity. In this instance, there was an obvious choice: 124.5 MHz, the Redmond tower frequency. However, in this case, I decided against using my radio. First of all, our operations would be occurring almost exclusively below the level of the surrounding terrain, in the channel of the Deschutes River, which the bridge was built to span. This is not exactly a conducive flying environment for the small commercial jetliners that shuttle people to and from central Oregon.

Furthermore, with two drones operating in close proximity to each other and a fixed structure, communication between Scott and me was going to be critical. The crackle of radio traffic announcing that a pilot was setting up for final approach 2,000 feet above our heads would be totally irrelevant and might prove a distraction at a crucial moment.

Another consideration surrounding the planning for this mission was the aircraft selection. Scott specifically requested I bring out the Parrot Anafi for its unique look-up capability, which makes it ideally suited to inspecting the underside of structures. In itself this was not a problem: I enjoy flying the Anafi and find it to be a capable aircraft for its small size and modest price. And, on the plus side, if I was going to lose an aircraft on this mission, it’s among the cheapest in my fleet.

This did pose a problem, however: I make it a habit on all my professional operations to bring two aircraft with me—so that I am able to keep flying in the event of a system failure or a crash. However, no other aircraft that I possess has the same capabilities as the Anafi. So, beyond conducting a careful pre-flight inspection and making sure that I had a full set of spare propellers on hand, along with the specialized tool required to replace them, there wasn’t much I could do to protect the success of this mission from a single point of failure: the aircraft itself.

This operation was conducted just southeast of Cline Falls Air Park, at the intersection of Oregon Highway 126 and the Descutes River—making the location easy to identify on the Klamath Falls sectional chart.

Imagery captured by drones has the potential to identify damage to infrastructure, like bridges, that could indicate the need for repairs: such as cracked concrete and rust stains that might indicate rebar reinforcements are exposed to the elements.

The Edge of Space

A retired military helicopter pilot qualified to fly the AH-1 Cobra, the UH-1 Iroquois, the OH-58 Kiowa along with several other rotorcraft, Scott introduced me to a concept I had not heard of previously: the edge of space.

“The ‘space’ we’re talking about here is the open air we have available to maneuver the aircraft,” he said. “The edge of space is defined by objects that would prevent the rotors from turning, and then—boom. If you’re inspecting a 200KV power line in a manned helicopter, we need to get close enough so that we can see it, but not too close. In that case, the power line defines the edge of space.”

In this environment, the edge of space was the highway bridge, and our aircraft would be coming within feet of it to conduct this “inspection,” so that Scott’s future students could get a realistic idea of what it takes to do this type of work.

Conducting an inspection like this, even without the added complication of recording the process from a second aircraft, is not a project suitable for novice pilots. In addition to all of the knowledge required to earn a Remote Pilot In Command (RPIC) certificate under 14 CFR Part 107, you must possess proven, hands-on flying skills. Establishing a benchmark for those practical skills is the goal of the Trusted Operator Program (TOP), developed by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI).

There are three levels of TOP certification. Level 1 builds on the knowledge required to become an RPIC, with expanded knowledge on a range of subjects including aeronautics, risk management and pre-flight site surveys. To earn a TOP Level 2 certification requires additional training and a hands-on professional flight assessment (PFA), where candidates must demonstrate their skills on a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)-type course. Level 3 also requires a PFA, as well as proven specialization in one particular aspect of drone operations.

Scott and I both hold TOP Level 3 certificates as Remote Pilot Instructors (RPIs) so, on paper, we were the right people for the job. I had every confidence in Scott’s abilities, but given my own previous close encounters with the edge of space, I still found the challenge daunting.

A set of power lines running along Oregon Highway 126 created an additional hazard to flight operations while using drones to inspect a bridge across the Deschutes River.

On Site

Arriving at the bridge, we had to hike down a foot path carrying our aircraft and other gear with us. Examining the site as we walked, a few additional hazards emerged. First, there was a set of power lines running alongside the bridge. They were perhaps 50 feet above the deck and set back about 100 feet. While they did not pose an immediate hazard to flight operations, their presence meant that blindly pulling up and away from the bridge if things started to go wrong was not going to be an option. In this environment, even our escape maneuvers would have to be careful and controlled. Also, there was a steady stream of traffic across the bridge, and we both recognized that a drone popping up over the guardrail could startle a passing driver so we set a ceiling for ourselves that would keep us safely below their eye line.

The final challenge posed by the environment was a strong wind blowing upstream through the river channel. Although the METAR from Redmond Municipal Airport was reporting a manageable five-knot wind out of the west, what we encountered was a good deal stronger and blowing south. While I’m certainly not a meteorologist, I assumed that this had something to do with the desert topography: a result of the moving air being channeled along the riverbed and under the bridge.

This development was a particular concern given our planned mission. Objects with large, flat surfaces and 90-degree angles—in other words, most structures engineered and built by human hands—tend to create turbulence and vortexes as air moves past them. The result can be eddies that, paradoxically, draw lightweight aircraft toward them, even against the prevailing winds. At 320 grams, the Anafi is a very lightweight aircraft indeed.

Located just inside the Class D airspace surrounding Redmond Municipal Airport, the ceiling for drone operations at the mission site established on the UAS facility map is 400 feet above ground level (AGL), with approval through the Low-Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC).

A set of power lines running along Oregon Highway 126 created an additional hazard to flight operations while using drones to inspect a bridge across the Deschutes River.

Up and Away

With Scott at the controls of a DJI Mavic and me guiding the Anafi, we set up our first maneuver demonstration: my aircraft moving parallel to the side of the bridge, its camera facing a row of metal anchors securing its deck to the foundation. It was immediately clear that the only way for me to maintain the correct distance and elevation was to rely entirely on the drone’s video downlink, displayed on my smartphone.

This made me blind to the rest of the flying environment, like I was looking at the world through a soda straw—an exquisitely uncomfortable perspective for any pilot. Furthermore, as with all digital video links used by modern drones, there was about a half-second delay between what I was seeing on my screen and what was happening in the real world. Put another way: by the time I could recognize I was getting too close to the bridge, I could have already hit it.

Although the limits of human depth perception made using the video downlink the only practical means of maintaining my position, I still caught myself glancing up at the aircraft, which only served to disorient me further. With the Anafi in motion and the Mavic hovering nearby, I had to put my absolute trust in Scott to keep his machine clear of mine, because I would never see it before hearing the awful crunch.

Clear, timely communication is absolutely essential to complete a mission like this safely. Scott and I were constantly checking in with each other, repeating back what the other person had said to ensure there was no misunderstanding. Each movement was confirmed before it was made, but still I found it hard to commit the aircraft based solely on Scott’s disembodied voice and the video on my screen. Especially at the beginning, progress was grudging, but we made it nonetheless.

The Parrot Anafi is unique among inexpensive multirotor drones for the ability of its camera gimbal to look straight up, making it ideally suited for inspecting the underside of suspended infrastructure, like bridges.

Text & photos by Patrick Sherman

Patrick Sherman is adjunct faculty in the Department of Flight at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide Campus.

The post High-Risk Operations: Embry-Riddle bridge-inspection challenges appeared first on RotorDrone.

SOURCE: RotorDrone – Read entire story here.

Starting a Drone Service Business – Ten steps to success

There are few events in your professional life more rewarding than starting your own business. The ability to take an idea and grow it into a thriving entity is a dream many people share. Unlike some business endeavors that require large amounts of capital or extensive training, drones offer a chance for anyone to become their own boss.

I have been fortunate enough to start several businesses. Some were great successes, while others burned up in a blaze of glory. Each was a priceless learning experience that led me to my career in the UAV industry. In 2017, I started my drone service business, Vigilante Drones, and in 2018 I started a nonprofit, Vigilante Cares, that uses drones to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Over the years, people have asked me how they can start their own drone service companies.

After the last such conversation, I wrote out the ten steps I believe are crucial to starting a drone-based business. I hope they can help you find the same financial freedom and satisfaction that Vigilante Drones and Vigilante Cares have brought me.

But First …
Allow me to start by saying I am not a lawyer or a certified public accountant (CPA). There are risks involved in starting any business, and I highly recommend that you speak with legal and financial professionals for expert guidance. Meeting with these experienced and trained individuals is best done before telling your current boss that you quit, or before taking out a second mortgage to buy the $100K quadcopter you have your heart set on.

Although I would need to write a book to go into great detail, in this article I will mention the big-ticket items for starting a drone service business. I encourage all readers to explore the free resources I mention for more extensive advice. With those caveats out of the way, here are my ten steps to starting your own drone service operation.

1. Get Certified (Part 107)
As commercial drone pilots, the law requires us to have a Remote Pilot Certification from the FAA (Part 107). If you plan to make money with a drone, this is Step One. While learning the material for the Aeronautical Knowledge Test (AKT), you will get an idea of whether or not you have sufficient interest in drones. For some, the material can seem highly technical, and therefore a tad bit dry at times. Responsible pilots will always follow the rules and regulations set forth by the FAA and other government agencies. Studying for the exam will help you to decide if you have what it takes to fly the friendly skies and make money at the same time.

2. Market Research
Drones are beneficial tools in a wide range of industries. Your task during this step is to determine what drone services your business will provide. To do this, you must first understand your potential customers and your local market.

It might seem as if offering photography, thermal imagery, agricultural services, utility inspections, LiDAR, mapping, and more is the best answer to this question, but don’t bite off more than you can chew. Ask yourself what equipment you can actually afford and become proficient with. Then, consider what kind of services your local market could use.

What is the demand for drone services in your area? What types of drone services are needed? How many potential customers are there? Where are your customers located? What does the competitive landscape look like? What rates can you charge for your services?

The answers to these questions will form the foundation of your drone business. They will be the building blocks for the plan you will put together in the next step.

3. Develop a Plan
Your business plan is like a blueprint for success. It can be a long, formal document, or it can take up less than a page. (Sometimes short and sweet is better.) Amazon founder Jeff Bezos wrote the rough idea for Amazon.com on a paper napkin. Use the knowledge gained from your research to lay out what your business is going to do and how it is going to do it.

Use your market research to decide which services you will offer. This will also identify what drones, equipment, and software you will need. Decide on what you will charge for each service. For Vigilante Drones, I started simply with real estate photography using a DJI Phantom 4 Pro. I offered additional services later when I could afford more gear and specialized training.

The Small Business Administration (sba.gov) is a great free resource for developing a plan. I highly recommend checking them out. You will find some useful tools and templates that will help guide you through the entire process of starting your business.

Another organization worth looking into when building your plan is the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE.org). SCORE is a free resource that offers mentors to assist you in your small business journey. The advice of these seasoned professionals has helped me many times.

4. Decide on a Business Structure
There are many different structures for your drone business to operate under. Some options to choose from are: sole proprietorship, partnership, limited liability company (LLC), C corporation, and S corporation. To me, the structure that made the most sense for Vigilante Drones was an LLC.

The business structure you choose will have a significant impact on the legal protections you have and how the money you earn will be taxed. For this reason, I recommend that in this phase you have a lawyer and a CPA involved in the discussion.

5. Make a Financial Plan
The financial portion of your plan is your best chance at predicting the future. Here, you will consider the expenses involved in starting and operating your business. What equipment will you need and how much will it cost? Will you pay for monthly insurance? Do you need an office to work out of? What will the government charge you to run your business? Do you have employees?

With a clear idea of the total cost, you must then confirm that the amount you earn will cover expenses and generate a profit. Be honest with yourself when projecting revenue. It is unlikely you will open for business and immediately see tens of thousands of dollars per month coming in. Use your research to make cautious and well-thought-out projections.

This is the time to decide how you will fund your enterprise. Are you using your savings, or will you need a loan? Can you borrow from family or friends? You have many options and must weigh them carefully.

Take some time to consider where your business will do its banking. Are you a sole proprietor, using your personal bank accounts, or do you need to set up separate accounts just for your company?

6. Decide on an Accounting System
Nothing tells the actual state of a business more than a look at the accounting books. If you plan to keep everything written on sticky notes, you are likely to face an uphill battle. Whether you decide to record financial data on your own with spreadsheets or use off-the-shelf accounting software, such as Wave or TurboTax, decide on a system and stick with it. You’ll be thankful you did, especially during tax season.

7. Decide on a Name and Register It
I started Vigilante Drones while living in Montana. Montana’s history is tied to accounts of vigilante justice. While it is rarely the case in practice, the romanticized version of the vigilante is that it’s someone who takes matters into his own hands to ensure that outcomes are just and fair.

The area I lived in had almost no drone services. I wanted my company to be a just and fair provider of drone services and an ambassador for UAV technology in the region, hence vigilante became part of the company’s name.

Once you decide on a name that feels right, make sure you register it. You can do this with your Secretary of State and the federal government. While registering your business name, you can also get any necessary permits and licenses your business requires.

It is important to check that the name you chose is not already being used. You can find out easily by doing a search to see if your name appears as a website. Suppose your initials are DJI, and you think that would be a great name for your business. In a search, you would find that the web address and several related emails is already taken.

8. Choose a Business Location
For most of us, the location we live in is where our business will be established. However, it might turn out that your market research directs you to a neighboring city. In some cases, you might even decide that relocating far away is best. Let the market tell you where your operation has the best chance to thrive, and then go for it!

Remember, each state has its own laws and taxes. When I started my companies in Montana, I benefitted from operating in a very tax-friendly state. When we moved our operation to California, we had to factor in much higher taxes. The move was the right step, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss Montana’s much lower fees and tax rates.

9. Get Yourself and Your Team Ready
Once everything is set up, make sure you and your employees are ready to open the doors. Has all training been completed? Does everyone know what their roles and responsibilities are? Are your policies and procedures in place to make sure your aerial operations are safe?

At this point in your endeavor, SCORE is an excellent resource to help double-check that you haven’t forgotten anything.

10. Promote Your Business
Finally, once everything else has been taken care of, you need to let your customers know you are open for business. Business cards, flyers, phone calls, email campaigns, or just pounding the pavement and going door to door will let people know the services you are providing.

When I started Vigilante Drones, I made some business cards and went door to door, offering my services to businesses and farmers. I have gained valuable contacts and landed more gigs using this method than any other. Your market may be different. Experiment with different techniques to see what works best. Remember that marketing is continuous. Unless you have more work than you can handle, you need to continually be looking for new customers, or cultivating relationships with your existing customers.

Final Thoughts
I hope this brief overview of starting your own drone service business will help you begin your entrepreneurial journey. The UAV industry is just now taking off (pun intended), and we are only beginning to tap into the potential of drones. For all those brave people willing to start their own businesses, I hope that the sun always shines on you and your endeavors.

By David Daly

The post Starting a Drone Service Business – Ten steps to success appeared first on RotorDrone.

SOURCE: RotorDrone – Read entire story here.