Eyes in the Sky (Cityview Cover Story)

This article was first published by dmcityview.com

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, just a few hundred dollars and you’re clear for takeoff. Now all the necessary skill and required piloting intuition have been reduced to software onboard helicopters the size of a push lawn mower, and anyone who’s ever dreamt of being a pilot can.

Such is the case with Scott Dearinger, a local drone enthusiast who first fell in love with aviation at five years-old.

“I just love flying. 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,” says Dearinger.

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, but not to be defeated Dearinger became an avid simulator pilot, then a radio control plane flyer, and now a passionate drone pilot. Just don't use that word around him.

“I hate the term drone,” emphatically states Dearinger. To hobbyists like Scott, the preferred terms are UAV, short for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, or radio control copter, and the differences between a drone and R.C. copter 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. That’s no where near what my capabilities are.”

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

Two years ago Pentagon figures showed one-in-three aircraft flown by the U.S. military were pilot 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 entirely 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 never 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 all while from the comfort of Central Iowa.

Military drones such as the Reaper, Raven, and Predator are an extremely hot-button issue in the ethics of modern war, but they have little connection to the toys readily available to the US gadget enthusiast. The most popular commercially available drone is the DJI Phantom. Weighing less than three pounds and propelled by four motorized propellers the Phantom barely out classes 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.

“I’ve been flying remote control planes off and on for about ten years. 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,” and according to Dearinger, that’s where UAVs shine. “With a quadcopter you get a point of view and vantage point you just cannot by putting a GoPro on a stick. 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 start 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, my thoughts are as long as we’re consistent and well regulated, than that’s fine with me,” says State Senator Rich Taylor, Mount Vernon. “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.”

One year ago Senator Taylor, then head of the state 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,” says 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 have continued. Last fall a Senate subcommittee hearing was opened public debate and according to Dearinger, the legislatures 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. 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 flys his copter down the straight and narrow, Senator Taylor still sees the need for regulation that keep the unprincipled inline.

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

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

“I don’t believe the restrictions should be as strict as flying a helicopter or as loose as riding a bicycle. 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 populated areas, filming things, I wouldn’t be against a simple test for competence.”

But 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. It’s not even close to silent, you’re gonna know its there. If I had some nefarious intent and I wanted to spy on you, I would be much better off a nice DSLR camera and a 1000mm lens, sitting in a van with a tinted window,” states Dearinger. “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.”

Outside of Iowa the Federal Aviation Authority has also chimed in with proposed regulations for private citizen drone pilots. Labeled as Unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, the FAA latest proposal opens the door 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. First they’ll be required to pass a written test, must weigh less than 55 pounds, cannot be flown above 500 feet, 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,” says Dearinger. Thankfully for hobbyists and commercial pilots alike, the FAA won’t make their final ruling until 2017.

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

“Hollywood’s already using them like crazy, and it’s a great avenue for em. It’s cheaper than a helicopter and safer. A lot less damage can be done with a two pound drone falling out of the sky than a helicopter,” states 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 show 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,” believes Matt Barnard, developer of the agriculture specific UAV ‘Crop Copter.’ “One of the immediate uses UAVs are being used for in farming -and is actually a farming 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 its progressing throughout the growing season, and better monitor water management.”

Matt Barnard owner of Chief Agronomics in Gibson City, Illinois has been producing UAVs for two years specifically for agriculture use. Whereas a hobbyist can pick up a pick up a DJI Phantom roughly $500, Chief Agronomics Crop Copter cost closer to $40,000 are designed for serious farming.

“Really 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 actually partnered with Viafeld Coop in northern Iowa, who is actually one of five FAA approved companies who can actually charge for UAV use. So this spring they’ll actually 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 its 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. So there’s a group of growers who understand what they can do, and then you have another group you have to educate,” says Dearinger. “We’re changing the way we look at a crop so often for a farmer, and by using some of the sensor technology by something up in the air we have the opportunity to change outcomes.”

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 which found drone integration into the Unite States commercial workspace would result in $13.6 billion economic impact and continual grow thereafter. The study also found over 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,” states 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 three-year-old girl missing in a corn field and we found her?”

Farmers, filmmakers, retailers, realtors, civil servants, and reporters may be itching for the FAA to okay commercial drone use, but with the industry still trying to take off glaring setbacks seem to keep the technology grounded. Maybe the worst 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 Monday, January 26, and while the episode was deemed to be harmless and incidental a bigger red flag could not have been thrown in the governments 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 Phantom’s don’t have to hold cameras, nothing outside of bad judgement will keep you affixing an explosion to it. In fact the US Military has already encountered foreign threats such as Syrian rebels and ISIS using drones strapped with semi-automatic weapons taking out armed convoys. So even if drone enthusiast such as Dearinger are simply out for a few hours of harmless fun, the government body deciding their hobbies ultimate fate may be too scared of their villainous uses to keep them legal.

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

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. For more tech insights, follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb


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