Racing, from a drone’s point of a view: a day with UAV advocate Raphael Pirker

There is a zen moment when you are flying a drone in the first-person perspective when the ground drops away and the camera stabilizes. There is a horizon in every direction, and the only question left is, “Which way do you want to fly?”

“It’s the ability to be in the pilot’s seat without the danger of actually being in the pilot’s seat,” said Raphael “Trappy” Pirker, the entrepreneur and enthusiast behind the Team BlackSheep drone shop and community. “You can travel places, you can see stuff from a different perspective. It’s kind of a mix of outdoor adventure and technology.”

Pirker, who develops and sells drones from Hong Kong, travels the world shooting familiar sites from new perspectives. You may have come across his closeup view of a fireworks display or flight around the Statue of Liberty. Team BlackSheep’s videos are daring — close passes over the highest point of the Golden Gate Bridge, long shots of dense city streets and breathtaking vertical pans of skyscrapers.

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It’s one part activism and one part obsession. Team BlackSheep has flown over mountains in Pirker’s native Switzerland and Austria. They have flown in cities where crashing a drone will land you in jail. The team’s first video of New York carries both a warning and a challenge: Don’t try this at home, but ‘Hey, look we safely shot this video and didn’t get arrested.’

In the end, it wasn’t a daredevil flight that landed Pirker in trouble. A promotional video he shot for the University of Virginia in 2011 earned him a $10,000 fine from the Federal Aviation Administration asserting he flew recklessly and without a license.

Raphael "Trappy" Pirker races a first person view, or FPV, drone on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California. The drone transmits its camera feed to Pirker's goggles so he can see what the drone sees and can control it.

Raphael “Trappy” Pirker races a first person view, or FPV, drone on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California. The drone transmits its camera feed to Pirker’s goggles so he can see what the drone sees and can control it.

Pirker fought the fine. The four years the case dragged on coincided with both an explosion in drone popularity and meddling from the FAA. Courts have gone back and forth on whether or not the FAA has any say at all in small aircraft, but that hasn’t stopped the it from bestowing fines or cease and desist letters on individuals like Pirker for widely-varying reasons. Pirker finally settled with the FAA for $1,100 last month.

Last week was Pirker’s first time in the U.S. since the case closed. He was nervous to cross the border at all, let alone with suitcases full of drone equipment. He missed his first flight to San Francisco after he was held at customs. Agents asked him to clarify his reason for visiting the U.S. and then let him go. Hours later, he was flying a drone.

Olivier Ancely, Raphael Pirker and Jeff Colhoun race FPV drones on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

Olivier Ancely, Raphael Pirker and Jeff Colhoun race FPV drones on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

You only have to meet Pirker and the other members of the Team BlackSheep community once to realize they are adrenaline junkies. Twenty years ago, they might have chosen to pursue a pilot’s license (which some of them have), but unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have opened up an easier, more versatile way to take to the air.

When Pirker flew his first drone 12 years ago, it was a model aircraft not much different than the radio controlled planes hobbyists had been flying for decades. But looking up at a flying plane wasn’t enough for Pirker. He added radios and transmitters and integrated faster, more agile drone bodies with goggles that display the drone camera’s view in real time.

The Gemini drone flies in a FPV race on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

The Gemini drone flies in a FPV race on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

“This changed everything. You’re no longer looking at the plane. You’re flying inside it. You don’t have the limitation of flying just around you,” Pirker said. “It felt a little bit like Superman.”

Last week, atop a grassy hill a half hour east of San Francisco, I slipped on a pair of Fat Shark-brand goggles and flew Team BlackSheep’s Gemini drone. It has six rotors — two more than a quadcopter — which gives it greater stability and the ability to keep flying even if one of its motors goes down. It doesn’t use GPS to lock its position, leaving the pilot in total control.

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“The focus is not on producing pretty videos. The focus is on performance and high speed,” Pirker said. “The motors are tilted forward. That reduces the drag of the whole thing. It’s much smaller and it’s more compact so it can turn faster.”

For the casual drone user, that’s intimidating. But when I lifted into the air, the Fat Shark’s low-resolution screen displaying green grass spreading out in all directions below me, I felt calm. With a first-person point of view, the dynamic of you-drone-ground disappears. Being in the pilot seat made me more confident of my movements. I stopped worrying about crashing a whirring hunk of plastic at 20 MPH because I couldn’t actually see it.

An adrenaline junkie does not stop at simply exploring with a drone. Team BlackSheep is actually a team — they are drone racers. It was a natural progression, Pirker said. You learn a skill and then want to turn it into a competition.

Jeff Colhoun, of Oakland, California; Olivier Ancely, of Miami, Florida; and Raphael "Trappy" Pirker of Hong Kong pose for a picture as on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

Jeff Colhoun, of Oakland, California; Olivier Ancely, of Miami, Florida; and Raphael “Trappy” Pirker of Hong Kong pose for a picture as on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

Below me on that grassy hill was a race course. Four flags and a bush designated a track that Pirker, Jeff Colhoun of Oakland, California, and Olivier Ancely of Miami, Florida, whizzed around with speed and precision that I didn’t dare attempt. Drones crashed into trees, the ground and each other. Parts broke and overheated.

That day’s race was more of a casual competition among friends, but drone racing is a serious sport. There are regular local and international races. A few days prior to my meeting with Pirker, more than 80 pilots participated in a race in Oakland.

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“It’s just really exciting to fly fast, to fly close to the ground, and to compete against your friends,” Pirker said. “Any movement that the drone makes you can actually feel. Your brain cannot really properly distinguish between being in the pilot seat or being on the ground. That’s why our heads are always moving or our bodies are always moving while we’re in the goggles.”

Pirker said it’s mostly drone hobbyists who find their way into the sport, but anyone who enjoys video games can appreciate it.

“It doesn’t really feel like you’re racing in the real world. It feels like a virtual reality game, more or less,” Pirker said.

Olivier Ancely waves at the drone's camera as it comes in for landing on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

Olivier Ancely waves at the drone’s camera as it comes in for landing on February 19, 2015 in Moraga, California.

Racing may become a more important outlet for U.S. drone hobbyists under new rules proposed by the FAA this month. The requirements said drones must be within sight of their pilot and a spotter needs to be close by if goggles are worn. The line of sight rule would put an end to the long range flights and many of the dramatic shots favored by Team BlackSheep. But Pirker said he is glad the U.S. government is proposing regulations, as black and white rules are better than gray.

“I guess in a perfect world there would be no rules,” Pirker said. “But we’ve all got to live with some rules.”

Check out this drone video of a frozen Niagara Falls

How cold is it? So cold that most of Niagara Falls has frozen over – and NBC News has the footage to prove it, thanks to a drone flight from the Canadian side of the border.

As the network explains, temperatures stayed below freezing for all of February, and now the three waterfalls that make up the landmark site are frozen almost entirely:

Frozen Niagara Falls

According to a Snopes account of “frozen Niagara Falls” stories, the only time the falls have frozen entirely was in 1848 where an upstream ice blockage caused the flow of water to slow to a trickle.

Here’s another shot, which shows how drones, which some are maligning as a menace, can also offer unprecedented forms of photography:

Niagara Fall frozen

Other recent examples of the news gathering power of drones took place during an explosion over Harlem last year, and after the Napa Valley earthquake. In both those cases, though, the footage was taken by amateurs.

Currently, professional news gathering organizations are challenging FAA rules that forbid using drones for commercial use (which may explain, along with the better views, why NBC did its reporting from the Canadian side of the border.) The FAA announced proposed rule changes last weekend to loosen the policy, but those changes are not expected to go into force until at least 2016 at the earliest.

Here’s the full video, courtesy of NBC. (If you’re having trouble seeing the video in Chrome, you’ll have to click the little shield at the far right of the URL bar to “load unsafe scripts.” This one is safe. If it still doesn’t appear, you can find it here) It provides more footage, an impressive ice-climbing display and fine Niagara Valley regional accents:

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FAA plan would bar delivery by drone, “micro drone” rule possible

The troubled skies over the U.S. drone industry cleared a bit on Sunday, as the Federal Aviation Administration proposed a new plan to speed up the integration of unmanned aircraft into the American economy — though the likes of Amazon and Google, which are planning delivery services, could be left in the cold.

In a news release and related press conference, the FAA proposed rules that would let companies operate drones under certain certain conditions that include:

  • Drones can only be flown in daylight hours and within the direct line of site of the operator
  • Operators must be at least 17 years old, pass an aeronautical knowledge test and obtain an FAA UAS operator certificate
  • Drones must be under 55 pounds, can’t fly higher than 500 feet or faster than 100 mph, and can’t fly over people
  • Drones can’t allow “any object to be dropped” — which would seem to kibosh Amazon’s plans for an airborne delivery service

It’s important to note that these rules are just a proposal, and are subject to a 60-day public comment process, which means the rules wouldn’t go into effect until 2016 at the earliest.

Drone experts are pleased that the long-overdue rules are moving forward. Many in the industry, however, are likely to be frustrated by the proposed line-of-sight rule, which could preclude long distance flights, and restrict the use of the drone’s remote cameras for search-and-rescue and other operations.

One bright spot in the rules, though, is the FAA’s nod to so-called “micro drone” regulations of the sort proposed last summer by lawyer Brendan Schulman:

“The proposed rule also includes extensive discussion of the possibility of an additional, more flexible framework for “micro” UAS under 4.4 pounds,” said the news release, which also alluded to the creation of special drone “innovation zones.”

If the “micro drone” plan goes forward, it could open a window for the likes of Amazon and Google to use devices under 4.4 pounds to go forward with their drone delivery ambitions.

Meanwhile, the new announcement does not affect current policy on drone use by hobbyists, whose antics — including crashing their machines on the White House lawn and into a Yellowstone geyser — have made unmanned aircraft a high-profile issue.

As for commercial use, companies will for now continue to have to seek waivers from the FAA. Currently, only a handful of such waivers, which come with onerous restrictions, have been granted — even as other countries, like France (where the post office is testing delivery drones) and Canada, are supporting wave of new drone-based industries.

An FAA spokesperson said by phone that the odd timing of the release (on a Sunday morning of a long weekend) was related to a leak on Friday of an internal agency study that suggested drones could offer significant benefits to the U.S. economy.

Meanwhile, the White House also put out an executive order today to promote responsible drone use.

Super Bowl will have 30-mile “no drone zone”

Buzzing quarterback Tom Brady with an unmanned aircraft might sound like fun, but anyone who flies a drone remotely near the University of Phoenix stadium, where Super Bowl XLIX is taking place this Sunday, could face big, big trouble from the FAA.

On Wednesday, the country’s aviation regulator singled out drones in a fact sheet about Super Bowl–related aircraft activity, saying the popular consumer devices can’t be flown within a 30-mile radius of the stadium (my emphasis):

A second outer ring will encompass the airspace between 10 and 30 miles from the stadium. [..] All unmanned aircraft operations – also known as drones—are prohibited within the restricted areas. These include model aircraft operations, model rocketry and Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). Anyone who operates an unmanned aircraft in the restricted area could face civil penalties or criminal charges.

The FAA rules feel a tad excessive given that a variety of conventional aircraft will be permitted to fly within that outer ring, and that devices like a 6-pound quadcopter can’t do much harm from 20 miles away.

Still, the agency is understandably feeling skittish after a drunk person crashed a drone on President Obama’s doorstep this week, and after drones in the last year have made unexpected and unwanted appearances at other football games and at the U.S. Open. The White House incident led the Administration to call on agencies to take increased action this week.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports this morning that drug dealers and would-be terrorists are turning to drones as potential delivery vehicles.

So, in this context, it’s hardly a surprise that the FAA is coming down hard on drones at the Super Bowl. In case anyone missed the point, the agency also put out this “No Drone Zone” video on YouTube.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jwPaFp8nMg?rel=0]

Drone on White House lawn leads to lockdown

A small drone landed on White House grounds late Sunday night, leading to emergency vehicles swarming the area, and the perimeter being placed on lockdown until 5:00 a.m., according to the AP. A White House spokesperson told the New York Times he did not have details about the size or make of the drone, but that the Secret Service is investigating.

The White House episode is the latest mishap involving drones, which are becoming ever more popular with average consumers. Other such mishaps include an arrest at the U.S. Open, and a ban on the devices at National Parks where tourists have harassed wildlife and crashed a device into a famous hot spring.

While Sunday’s incident posed no danger to the president, who is in India, it will provide more grist for the debate over how to regulate the ongoing proliferation of small camera-equipped unmanned aircraft.

As it stands, the FAA has been coming down hard on anyone who uses a drone for commercial purposes, such as real estate photography, but has largely left it up to local authorities to police amateur drone enthusiasts.

The result, according to Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz, is that “We now have the worst of both worlds: Hobbyists are not effectively regulated, creating potential safety issues, while commercial development is criminalized.”

While the federal agency was supposed to have new rules for drones in place by last year, it has repeatedly missed deadlines, and now reports suggest the rules may not be ready until 2017.

As I’ve argued in the past, the U.S. should take a page from countries like France and Canada, which have developed permitting systems to encourage commercial uses, and which are considering certification processes to ensure hobbyists use the devices safely.

Drone pilot and FAA settle for $1,100 in key commercial use case

Raphael Pirker, who is probably the world’s most famous drone pilot, has reached a deal with the Federal Aviation Agency, which had sought to impose a $10,000 fine on Pirker for using an unmanned aircraft to take pictures for the University of Virginia in 2011.

Pirker issued a statement through his company, Team BlackSheep, that described the settlement, which will require Pirker to pay $1,100 but does not admit any regulatory violation, as “favorable”:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”We are pleased that the case ignited an important international conversation about the civilian use of drones, the appropriate level of governmental regulation concerning this new technology, and even spurred the regulators to open new paths to the approval of certain commercial drone operations.”[/blockquote]

The case, which began in 2013, quickly took on national significance as a test of the FAA’s power to regulate unmanned aircraft at a time when consumer drones are exploding in popularity among hobbyists and when a wide variety of industries are clamoring to use them.

The FAA chose to fine Pirker because he was using his drone for a commercial purpose (photography), which the agency claims is forbidden without a special waiver.

Pirker, however, argued that the FAA’s rules on commercial use are beyond the agency’s legal authority since the agency had failed to pass formal rules. A number of high profile media outlets, including the New York Times, filed legal briefs supporting Pirker before the National Transport Safety Board, claiming the ban violated their first amendment right for news gathering.

Pirker initially won a key ruling last year before an administrative law judge who agreed with his legal position, but the Board later overturned the ruling in a way that side-stepped the question of whether the FAA overstepped its authority.

Pirker’s lawyer Brendan Schulman, who specializes in drone law, has argued that the most appropriate way to regulate drones is through “micro-regulations” that would ensure safety, but not impose burdens like those required for plane or helicopter pilots.

Meanwhile, the FAA’s foot-dragging on drone rules, which some attribute to pressure from pilots, is a source of frustration to U.S. companies, which fear they will lose out to competitors in places like Canada and France, where commercial drone use is flourishing.

Here’s a copy of the settlement:

Pirker settlement

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Pilot pressure explains FAA’s indecisiveness on drones

Drone policy in the U.S. is a mess: the Federal Aviation Administration is currently grounding commercial use of unmanned aircraft while letting any amateur imbecile — like this guy — fly freely. Meanwhile, the agency keeps missing deadlines to propose a plan for integrating drones into civilian skies.

The situation is a source of frustration to researchers, photographers and companies, which have been stuck twiddling their thumbs even as other countries leap ahead in developing new industries tied to unmanned aircraft. But if it’s any consolation, there’s now an explanation for the FAA’s arbitrary approach.

Wall Street Journal report suggests that the FAA is dragging its feet on drone rules large part due to pressure from commercial pilots whose job could be at risk from commercial competition:

Aerial surveyors, photographers and moviemaking pilots are increasingly losing business to robots that often can do their jobs faster, cheaper and better. That competition, paired with concerns about midair collisions with drones, has made commercial pilots some of the fiercest opponents to unmanned aircraft.

The Journal account also points to why, in the handful of cases where the FAA has granted an exemption to the ban on commercial drone use, it has imposed onerous conditions:

In many of those exemptions, the Air Line Pilots Association, the biggest U.S. pilots union, and the National Agricultural Aviation Association, a trade group for crop dusters, helped persuade the FAA to place tight restrictions on the drone flights, including requiring operators to have pilot licenses and to keep the devices within eyeshot.

To be fair, there are legitimate safety concerns associated with unmanned aircraft. But the FAA’s current approach, which gives free reign to hobbyists while stifling commercial opportunities, does nothing to address these.

The smarter way to go about this, according to experts I’ve cited before, is for the agency to create buffer zones in which drones can operate at low-altitudes and away from airports. This could involve designating new zone fly-zones to go with the existing ones shown on this FAA map (I’ve added the arrows that point to Class G space which is unregulated):

FAA Airspace

Meanwhile, the FAA could also follow the lead of drone-friendly France or that of Canada, where the federal aviation agency has been issuing thousands of permits to businesses that are incorporating drones into everything from real estate to farm surveillance to TV filming.

Instead, the U.S. appears stuck in the worst of all worlds when it comes to drones:

Delivery by drone: French postal video shows it can be done

Amazon and Google may have some catching up to do. It turns out the mail service of France, La Poste, has already successfully field-tested a service that can fly a package to a remote area, drop it off and return home.

As the video below shows, the service dubbed Géodrone involves a small drone with six rotors that can deliver a 9-pound (4 kg) package up to 12 miles (20 km) away. A postal worker loads the package onto the drone, which then unloads it automatically at the recipient’s address and flies off:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jX6YCbn2xcM?rel=0]

News reports say from France say the test took place near the town of Pourrières, which is in the southern region of Provence. La Poste has not specified when the service will be in full swing, but suggested that it anticipates using Géodrone to provide service to residents in remote mountainous and maritime regions.

The Géodrone project represents another impressive achievement for France’s emerging unmanned aircraft industry. Earlier this year, drone enthusiasts in the Alps conducted a Star Wars-style pod race in a French forest with the permission of the local government. Meanwhile, a researcher in Holland has showed how an ambulance drone can deliver a defibrillator to a heart attack victim in under two minutes.

Such experiments stand in marked contrast to what is occurring in the United States, where a dysfunctional rule-making process at the Federal Aviation Administration has brought drone deployment to a virtual stand-still, even as American companies are clamoring to use them for business purposes. The U.S. approach also differs markedly from Canada, where authorities have issued hundreds of permits to use drones in everything from farming to real estate to TV production.

The FAA has claimed that go-slow approach is essential to ensure the safety of civilian airspace. Critics, however, have suggested the agency has been needlessly reactionary. One alternative proposed by drone lawyer Brendan Schulman is for the FAA to issue special “micro drone” regulations that would let qualified people use drones below 400 feet and away from airports.

Mistletoe-bearing restaurant drone draws blood

Last month we wondered about what could possibly go wrong with TGI Friday’s plan to fly mistletoe-bearing drones over customers in some  restaurants. Now we know.

A photographer for a Brooklyn newspaper is apparently an early casualty, saying the drone blade clipped her nose during a photo shoot at TGIF’s Sheepshead Bay location, according to this report.

A TGIF spokeswoman downplayed safety concerns, telling the paper that the drones will remain beyond the reach of diners. In this case, the drone operator said he was maneuvering the craft to land on the photographer’s arm with her permission but she flinched as it got close.

The restaurant chain tried out the drones in some of its UK locations before bringing them stateside for this holiday promotion.

FAA regulations govern the use of drones in the outdoors, but I would assume their operation inside a business establishment would be subject to workplace safety rules and regulations. Or, private lawsuits.

Mistletoe Drone at TGI Fridays.