Drones, the FAA, and Bluebonnets

Drones, the FAA, and Bluebonnets

Of all the new technologies we have been seeing lately, drones appear to be the most useful, versatile, and successful. Virtual reality (VR), something else we’re hearing more about these days, is more limited in its scope of applications. VR targets mainly games and other entertainment, and perhaps some esoteric training uses.

On the other hand, drones have already proved themselves both in the military and as hobby toys. Now that the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) has taken action to set some rules, commercial drone applications are ready to take off. Next to the Internet of Things (IoT) and 3D printing, drones are the hot topic of the day.

I suppose we should call drones by their proper name: unmanned aircraft systems (UASs). Very fussy, formal, and pure government-ese. Not to mention, incorrect: The UAS is not unmanned. There is no pilot on board, but an operator controlling it via an RF link. So what’s with the unmanned nomenclature? Probably some government definition. Let’s just stick with the name we all love: drone.

I keep hearing time and time again about how hard drones are to fly—more difficult than a conventional radio controlled (R/C) model airplane, with lots of crashes occurring while you’re learning to fly. But I have also heard that the larger drones are much easier to control. The key lesson is to start learning on a small, cheap drone until you get the hang of it, then upgrade to something you won’t crash and lose big bucks over.

DroneThe attraction of traditional R/C model airplanes is the joy of flying them and learning all the skills of take-offs and landings, turns, and tricks. This does not seem to be the case with drones; the rationale for buying one is the video it can provide. What’s a drone without the video camera?

Today’s drones are basically observation platforms, surveillance aircraft, or (as they say) an “eye in the sky.” This capability makes drones massively useful in fields as varied as farming, surveying, real estate, search and rescue, and police work. This capability also makes drones a privacy nuisance as people try to spy on their neighbors.

But even worse are the safety issues. What could possibly go wrong? How about crashing the drone into a crowd at a stadium or crashing into an airliner on take-off or landing? Although we all hate more regulations, some formal Federal rules are clearly necessary.

The FAA is working on a set of regulations for both personal and commercial drones. The basic guidelines for personal drones are to keep the altitude below 500 feet and to not fly within five miles of an airport. Furthermore, you should always be within visual line of sight of your drone and the speed must be less than 100 mph.

Also, the FAA requires that you formally register your drone if it weighs in the 0.55-55 lb. range. That includes most drones, save for the smaller toys. You can register online at the FAA website. It costs $5 and you must be at least 13 years old. You are then issued an N-prefix aircraft number that you must display on your drone. Later on this year, the FAA is expected to announce a complete set of regulations.

As for the commercial use of drones, it basically is not permitted. You can, however, get an exemption for certain applications, a process detailed on the FAA website. Incidentally, the site is well worth a look, as it’s very well organized and contains lots of useful information.

As for the bluebonnets, I could not resist mentioning how knockout beautiful they are this time of year. April is the peak wildflower month in Texas, and the state flower (you guessed it, the bluebonnet) is blooming everywhere. And thanks to all the rain this year, they are larger and more prolific than ever.

When mixed with the orange Indian paintbrush and pink buttercups, the bluebonnets are a grand sight to see. I am sad for those who have never seen are large patch or field of them at their peak. Eye-popping. Gorgeous. And a drone flyover does not do them justice: You have to see them in person to believe it.

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