America already lost the drone race to a Japanese farm in the 1980s

The following is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for MarketWatch.com. Read the whole story here.

Photo/Sally French
Photo/Sally French

Whenever someone approaches me as I’m flying a drone, the first thing they ask is, “so, are you trying to spy on someone?”

Every time.

And every time, my answer is no. Unlike your surprisingly stealthy iPhone camera, drones are too large to not see. They’re also too loud to not hear. Have you heard one? They sound like a pack of bees.

“New innovation is often feared, because innovation challenges the status quo,” said Lisa Ellman, who formerly led the Justice Department’s working group on domestic use of drones and who is counsel at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP.

2014 is the year America was struck by ‘Drone Fever’: we have a rapidly growing group of creative engineers, artists, scientists and businesspeople who want to use drones to make their work smarter and more efficient. Then we have a vocal group of people who protest drones over privacy concerns. And we have policy makers, who are trying, and failing, to sort it all out.

The responsibility of responding to privacy concerns has, by default, fallen on the Federal Aviation Administration, the group tasked with issuing regulations as to how commercial drones could operate in the U.S.

But the already bureaucratic FAA doesn’t have the expertise to solve privacy concerns, and has historically only been involved in the safety side of aviation.

”The FAA has no jurisdiction or inclination to worry about privacy,” Ellman said.

Because of so much outcry over privacy, the FAA has implemented legislation that has been flawed and outdated. Commercial use of drones is completely banned, unless you file for a Section 333 petition with the Federal Aviation Administration, which usually takes a neither speedy, nor efficient, 120-days to process from the time you file to when it’s approved.

Translation: the government makes it really hard to legally make money off flying your drone.

That’s a problem for people like me and the thousands of other Americans who own a drone (or will get one for Christmas this year) and want to use it to take pictures, or for real estate agents who want to show off large parcels of land, or for farmers who want to survey their crops. Japan has been using drones for crop-dusting since 1987.

For a country that places so much value on innovation, why does the U.S. allow policy that clearly impedes it?

Drones certainly bring privacy issues. One real estate agent used pictures taken by a drone to market a property without realizing they included images of a neighbor sunbathing, topless, in her backyard.

And celebrities worry that paparazzi will use drones to sneak photographs.

“Drone Pap wtf,” Miley Cyrus once posted on her Instagram.

Drone Pap wtf

A video posted by Miley Cyrus (@mileycyrus) on Jul 7, 2014 at 8:17pm PDT

But those privacy concerns apply just as much to someone with a telephoto lens, satellite views such as Google Earth, or a camera on a helicopter.

“There’s enough framework that already exists in government, enough of a framework to legally protect yourself,” said Gretchen West, former executive vice president of drone lobby group AUVSI. “‘Peeping Tom’ laws exist already.

Instead of solving the safety concerns that come with drones, such as addressing technical failures or sorting out flight patterns when multiple drones are flying in the same region, the FAA is wrapped in a box of trying to fix all the world’s drone worries.

In doing that, the FAA keeps messing up.

In the latest ruling in the Huerta v. Pirker case, the National Transportation Safety Board reversed a judge’s ruling against the FAA that drone operator Raphael Pirker shouldn’t have to pay a fine for reckless flying.

It seems to be an issue of word choice. Ellman says there is an unclear differentiation between what’s “prohibited” vs what’s “unregulated.”

The FAA has wanted to require drone operators to have a pilot’s license, a time-consuming and expensive process.

“There is a general community concern that requiring a pilot’s license to fly a drone is a bit excessive,” said Helen Greiner, chief executive of CyPhy Works Inc. and co-founder of iRobot. “Requiring a pilot’s license for drone operators does not make sense. Flying a plane is not like flying a drone.”

She said that drone operators would benefit from the ground-school classes that teaches about airspace.

“But we can now program this knowledge into the drones…which is better than depending on a pilot to look it up for each flight.”

She also said that the FAA’s requirement that drones operate only during the day is also a bit short-sighted.

READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE ON MARKETWATCH.COM.

Inaugural LA Drone Expo celebrates the technology’s use for good

LOS ANGELES – Their backgrounds in the drone field ranged from marine conservation to robotics research and development to film and TV production, but the speakers and panelists at the LA Drone Expo overwhelming used their spotlight to discuss the possibilities the new technology can bring to the world.

Of course, that was not without a short disruption by protesters.

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Photo: Tim Worden

Drones, or unmanned aerial systems, are emerging as the next decade’s multibillion dollar industry with applications in anything from making family vacation videos to helping business run more efficiently, experts said at the convention.

“What I’ve seen is that this has now became a product for everyone,” economist Tom Marchesello said in the expo’s opening keynote address.

Presented by the Unmanned Autonomous Vehicle Systems Association, the expo, believed to be the largest of its kind in the world, was staged to unite the fledgling drone community, which has so far been largely spread across small groups of filmmakers, hobbyists and researchers with little organization to banner under.

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Photo: Tim Worden

Vendors and speakers comprised of a wide range of pioneers in the field, from DJI and 3D Robotics to Drone Dudes and law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge, which works with aerial production companies seeking to get an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration’s drone regulations, which essentially bars commercial drone use and has been a high point of contention in the industry. Continue reading Inaugural LA Drone Expo celebrates the technology’s use for good

2014 was a bad year for drone journalism. Will 2015 be better?

This post was submitted by Tim Worden, an aerial cinematographer with VerticalPrime, a Southern California-based aerial cinematography group. See his work here. Got a post to submit to Drone Girl? Contact me here.

Journalists have so far been unable to tap into the wildly successful drone industry. How that may change

-by Tim Worden

vp_004_web
DJI S1000 octcopter. Photo by Tim Worden for Vertical Prime.

Drones have been virtually stranded at the gates of the struggling journalism industry.

It is being called tomorrow’s multi-billion dollar industry, the mechanized perfection of Da Vinci’s dreams of humans rising to the skies with applications in the lucrative agriculture, real estate and business markets.

Already, hobbyists and creative professionals have pioneered their place into this new industry of drones, those remotely-controlled civilian aircraft equipped with GoPros or other small cameras.

But while the technology is increasingly being adopted far and wide, drones, officially called unmanned aerial systems, have been virtually stranded at the gates of the struggling U.S. journalism industry.

There may be two primary parties responsible for this:

1) The journalism industry itself, for hardly attempting to adopt the cutting-edge technology and equipment, which may be seen as a lack of interest in innovating but may also be the result of slashed budgets.

2) The Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. agency responsible for regulating aircraft, for so far failing to create unified, or coherent, regulations on UAV/drone usage in the U.S. (Note that this post is referring only to the U.S.; I am unfamiliar to the state of global drone journalism.)

2014 a snooze year for drone journalism

Currently, two institutions are leading the way in drone journalism: the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Drone Journalism Lab and the University of Missouri’s Drone Journalism Program.

But they have been stifled.

Last year, the FAA sent them letters asking they essentially cease flying until they obtain a Certificate of Authentication, which places restrictions on the flight process. (Source: here and here.)

And this spring, the FAA grounded a University of Missouri journalism class for flying drones outside — although they were still allowed to fly indoors, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.

The FAA is prohibiting news organizations from using drones because the agency seems to have put them in the category of for-profit, commercial operations, according to a Poynter report released in January.

Because of this, only a handful of news agencies have dabbled with the technology.

Examples include a British filmmaker using a drone to document what Chernobyl looks like nearly 30 years after the nuclear disaster for a CBS News “60 Minutes” piece and a Curbed San Francisco photographer using a drone to capture the shabby state of a neglected former football field, but it seems no news media organization that was consistently or even semi-consistently using drones as of fall 2014.

Even the San Francisco Gate, which acquired a DJI Phantom quadcopter christened Herb in the fall of 2013 to be used for reporting, seems to be no longer using it. Continue reading 2014 was a bad year for drone journalism. Will 2015 be better?

THAT DRONE IS SPYING ON ME: Drones and Society

I had the pleasure of speaking with Nicolas Goller, a computer science student at the University of Utah, about drones for the school’s site, Drones and Society. Below is an excerpt of that interview. Read the whole thing here.

Nicolas Goller: Hello, please introduce yourself!

Sally French: I work professionally full-time for a newspaper. Actually before I got that job, I had my own drone blog. I had this interest of being a photojournalist and using drones to take photos. So I sort of started thinking that since the regulations are really unclear, I could establish myself as a thought leader in drones and journalism. This is why I started the blog The Drone Girl.

Goller: So you started it primarily because of the ambiguity with the current regulations?

French: Yeah, a lot is still unknown. So much is ambiguous, so I figured that by having this drone blog, I could explore these things and show on one hand how drones can be used for good. Often, people think of drones as something that is strictly used for war. I think a lot of people ignore the consumer side of drones. They fail to distinguish that on one side of the world drones are killing people and on the other side drones are helping find lost hikers! It should not have a negative connotation one hundred percent of the time. I wanted to explore the privacy and safety issues as well.

Goller: What of surveillance and privacy?

French: Just as large telephoto lenses challenged the privacy and surveillance regulations when they were becoming more widespread, so do drones challenge the current regulations. I think it needs to be approached the same way that people have always approached handling the same photojournalism laws. Yes you can stand on a sidewalk, but there is that ethical concern. People have the implied right to privacy. I really think that people need to take a step back and view a drone as another tool and address the laws the same way they would with any other tool – this one just happens to be in the air.

Goller: So drones are basically just heightening the current issues by approaching from a different angle?

French: Yeah, exactly. People were so scared when telephoto lenses came out. Now your mom probably has one and she probably bought it at Target. A lot of people get really scared that drones might be spying on them. Going back to what this blog is for, the drones that people have are the size of a small child. You can’t miss them!

Goller: What do you think of the FAA and the current situation with regulation in the national airspace?

French: With the Parker case, the FAA said they would fine him $10,000. So he fought them in the court and won, but just recently the ruling was overturned. So it’s very unclear. He doesn’t have to pay. Then he does have to pay. What of my blog? Is it commercial? I do think there has to be some amount of regulation. There has to be a happy medium between the people who want to ban drones completely and those on the other end who don’t want any regulations.

Goller: Do the benefits of domestic drones outweigh their potential problems?

French: Yeah, but at the same time I don’t want to say we should be carefree. There definitely are problems. I think a drone crashed into a geyser in Yellowstone. There are lots of details still to be worked out. But there are many benefits to using drones. I spoke to this one man who is trying to track whale DNA. This is a big challenge; you can’t simply walk up to a whale and pull off some hair. The way they do this is by gathering snot. They use drones to fly over the blowhole and collect snot! The possibilities are endless. Continue reading THAT DRONE IS SPYING ON ME: Drones and Society

Want to write for Drone Girl? I want your submissions!

Surely you have feelings about drones, and we want you to share them here!

Drone Girl is now accepting article submissions so you can get your voice heard! Maybe you’ve talked your families’ ears off about the wondrous things a drone can do, or perhaps you’ve found some awesome drone video that must be shared.

Here's a selfie of Drone Girl! If you join our team, we'll share your drone selfies too!
Here’s a selfie of Drone Girl! If you join our team, we’ll share your drone selfies too!

Maybe you just want to post once, or maybe you’d like to post once a week. Either way, I want more voices on Drone Girl (you don’t have to own a drone, and you don’t have to be a girl…you just have to write riveting content about drones)! Send me a message with the subject line DG Reader Submission and let’s chat about posting it here!

Here are some ideas of posts I would love to see:

  • Product Reviews
  • Top Photos
  • Flying Tips
  • How-To’s
  • Drone News Commentary

They can be serious or silly, filled with GIFs or packed with powerful prose. Either way, if you are interested in joining the Drone Girl team, then I’m interested in hearing from you!

5 unlikely celebrities who have a drone

Photo: Jefferson Graham/USA Today
Photo: Jefferson Graham/USA Today

1. Martha Stewart

Not only does she cook and decorate, Martha Stewart also has said that she flies drones. She has said in various media interviews that she flies a Parrot AR Drone 2.0, which she uses to photograph her property.

Talk about a must-have accessory.

“I like to see aerial views of my properties, at different different times of the year. Right now, with the autumnal colors, it’s really pretty,” she told USA Today.

Read an editorial she wrote for Time Magazine on her drone.

2. Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and C.E.O. of News Corporation, tweeted out that he was trying out a DJI Phantom drone. The tweet was sent Oct. 27, 2014 from Laguna Beach, California, where Murdoch was attending a Wall Street Journal tech conference.

3.  Jorja Fox Actress Jorja Fox, who played Dr. Maggie Doyle on ER and now plays Sara Sidle in CSI: Crime Scene Investigtion, wrote on her Facebook page that she bought a drone with the intent of putting them to good use.

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 8.03.24 PM
4. Katie Linendoll
ESPN host Katie Linendoll also has a drone. She’s blogged about her use here. Talk about the best Valentine’s gift EVER.
Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 8.05.04 PM

5. Jamie Hyneman and Adam Salvage

The Mythbusters stars have said they have used drones in the production of the show, including in opening shots and for a recent episode shot at Pebble Beach.

DJI Evolution Inspire Launch November 12th, 2014

 

Related posts:

Enter your footage in the NYC Drone Film Festival

Think your drone footage is better than this? Then enter it in the New York City Drone Film Festival, accepting submissions now through December 28, 2014. The sites website states:

New York City Drone Film Festival is the world’s first event exclusively dedicated to celebrating the art of drone cinematography.  The festival provides a platform for aerial filmmakers to showcase their work, emphasizing innovative flight technique, aesthetic beauty, and even epic crashes.  Director, landscape photographer, and aerial cinematographer Randy Scott Slavin founded the festival in 2014 with a desire to change the perceptions of drones. “I’m tired of drones being synonymous with questionable legality and FAA regulation. I want to celebrate the art of aerial cinematography.”

Entries must be under 5 minutes in length and will be judged based on categories including technical difficulty and innovation.

For more information and to enter, visit NYC Drone Film Festival.

Drone Girl

Reporting on drones, sometimes with drones