Archive for May, 2014

Flying under the radar: Avoiding FAA Persecution

Posted in Photography on May 11th, 2014 at 20:19:39

The FAA is aggressively pursuing those that are flying small unmanned aerial systems counter to the guidelines that it feels it has set. Specifically, the FAA believes that sUAS are aircraft, and are regulable under the rules which apply to aircraft, with specific exceptions carved out by a small number of guidelines and rules.

The legal basis for these claims is dubious at best — the summary at Drone Law Journal covers most of the legal questions attached to this issue relatively well. However, most people flying a remote controlled model aircraft are not in a position to fight the FAA. If you want to stay on the ‘easy’ side of the fight, here are the things that I would recommend, based on what the FAA is currently doing.

Stay under 400′ above ground level. The AC 91-57 model aircraft guidance suggests maintaining a limit of 400 feet AGL. This is well below the 700′ limit which is the typical upper bound for class G airspace, and also lower than the 500′ limit on flight over rural areas for private flights. This is a good idea to ensure that your UAV is out of the way of any aircraft.

Stay more than 5 miles from an airport, or contact the tower if needed to be closer. AC 91-57 suggests 3 miles, but Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 suggests that the FAA can not promulgate any regulation that prevents flight further than 5 miles from an airport.

Stay out of controlled airspace. The FAA recently issued a fine for an operator flying a drone in downtown Manhattan, even though the operator was more than 5 miles from the nearest airport. The letter he received indicates that he was fined for flying recklessly, but also for flying in a Class B airspace without receiving tower clearance. To stay away from the FAA, stay out of all controlled airspace. (This is also a good idea for safety reasons, in general: controlled airspace is controlled because it is where airplanes can be flying low, close to airports.)

Fly only for “recreational or hobby” purposes. The 2012 Act suggests that the FAA has no right to promulate regulations that affect model aircraft if they are flown ’strictly for hobby or recreational use’. Any use beyond this puts you in the sights of the FAA; they have already issued one fine (to Raphael Pirker); although Pirker won in court, the FAA is appealing and has not changed their enforcement approach.

Stay a ’sufficient distance from populated areas’. This is, again, from the AC 91-57 guidance to model aircraft operators. A recent case in Denver where a drone was flown over a crowd at a 4/20 rally resulted in the FAA launching an investigation; the FAA’s website claims that “Routine operation of UAS over densely-populated areas is prohibited.” (FAA UAS Fact Sheet)

Don’t fly in a reckless manner. Both the two people who have been issued fines so far have had those fines issued for what the FAA referred to as ‘reckless’ flying.

So far, the FAA has only been fought in court once, and they lost. Another lawsuit is ongoing, over non-commercial search for missing persons. (A petition to encourage the FAA to change its policies allow these flights is up at the White House petition site, if you believe this is an important issue to fix.) But they have sent cease and desist letters to many, and it seems unlikely that this will stop anytime soon.

By following the above recommendations, it is possible that you may be able to avoid the wrath of the FAA, until they change their policies to pursue people even more aggressively. I am not a lawyer, I am definitely not your lawyer. But if you want to enjoy your new Phantom, these are the recommendations I would make to you, to enjoy your hobby with the least risk of persecution by the FAA.

Video: It’s Hard

Posted in Photography, default on May 7th, 2014 at 07:23:53

So, I’ve been an amateur photographer for years. I started helping to take pictures of family vacations with my dad’s AE-1 back when I was in grade school. I took photo classes in college, and I got my first digital camera in 2003. (I still have it, by the way.)

close up of a flash for a canon camera

I’ve had a Digital Rebel for the past 9 years. (I got my first in December of 2005.) I’ve had my most recent camera for another 3 or so. I’ve brought these cameras to a dozen conferences and events; I’ve used them in bars, on skating rinks, at the beach. I have uploaded over 6000 public pictures to Flickr — which means that in that time, I’ve probably *thrown away* another 12000 or so. (My rate of success has drifted over time, from as low as 10% to as high as 75%.)

I won’t claim I’m an expert photographer — I’m good at taking candid portraits, but a lot of other things continue to evade my skills — but I’ve taken a lot of pictures, and I like a lot of what I take these days.

And now that I’ve started looking at video, that all changes.

I have no meaningful experience with video. I helped run the camcorder at a couple of events for my dad (who has been doing video for years), but that’s it. Now I’m faced with an entirely different medium, with a different set of requirements, and a different set of tools, and I find myself feeling completely frustrated by my efforts.

The number one thing that I learned with digital photography is you have to prepared to throw away 90% of what you take, especially when you get started. (It took me a while to get good at this.) Most of the pictures you take will be crap; even if you got the frame and content you tried to capture, you might have caught a person blinking, or have a photo that’s more out of focus, or with the wrong color balance to the point you can’t adjust it any more.

With video, the same is true (at least, I feel that way): most shots don’t come out the way you want them to. Even worse: a minor edit to a shot can change it from being perfectly reasonable to being silly (or from being perfectly silly to looking just reasonable). So in addition to finding the perfect shot, you’ve got to edit it right.

Attention spans are short. I once read an article from someone complaining about ‘quick cuts’ in modern TV. Since then I’ve paid careful attention, and learned that it is rare for most TV to have single visual cuts that are longer than about 3-5 seconds. (If you watch fast-paced shows like The Amazing Race, this drops by half; you have tons of super-fast clips.) Even for a relatively short, 3.5 minute video, my Ohanami video, on average people only watch one minute of it before they stop. (And I consider that video one of my better / more entertaining efforts so far!)

picture of cherry blossoms

When I started editing video from my quadcopter, Jess jokingly sent me a link to the Friend Who Sent Link To 8-Minute YouTube Video Must Be Fucking Delusional Onion article, in response to my first Phantom FC40 edited video. I defended my position, indicating that I had put a lot of work into trimming out the boring parts… but since then, I’ve become much more ruthless. (In the case of the Ohanami video, I edited approximately 1.5 hours of total video footage into a 3 minute clip reel, and it was relatively well-received.) As usual, my lovely wife was right: people don’t care about 90% of the footage I’m filming, a lesson I should have learned from photography.

Even beyond editing, I’ve got new equipment problems. While the DSLR is great for shooting photos, shooting video with it means holding it out far from me, which makes steady shooting hard. You get jumpy, jerky footage (as you can see in the Us at the Zoo video I put together from this weekend); zooming with a lens is great for photos, but crappy for videos.

In part, this is my choice of tool. The DSLR is a fine camera now that I’ve learned to use it, but it’s not clear that it’s the best tool for shooting video, but it’s what I’ve got for the moment. But even ignoring that, I’ve got the bigger problem: Shooting candid, entertaining video is an entirely different ballgame.

I’m enjoying learning new tricks, and producing slightly more compelling footage and editing. I’m enjoying this new medium; I’ve been watching lots of other people’s videos, to learn how to do it right — or at least better. (My favorite candid family gathering video is this Easter video that someone posted in one of the quadcopter forums due to its use of a quad for a couple of the shots. This has actually been a primary motivator for me to get out there and see what I can do.) So far what I’m learning more than anything else is “This is hard work!”

Next Upgrade: GoPro Hero 3+ Black

Posted in Photography on May 6th, 2014 at 21:08:25

My next upgrade for the quadcopter is going to be a GoPro. Specifically, I’m looking to pick up a Hero 3+ Black (though if I find a great deal on the Silver, I might take that instead.)

A friend of mine joked the other day that he was disappointed in the quality of the shots from my quad; linking the video of flight in DC as what my video should look like. He was clearly just making a snarky comment, but I wanted to establish that there are two huge differences here: a gimbal mount and a GoPro.

A gimbal mount offers in-flight stabilization using a gyroscope, and typically also offers pitch control (looking up and down) via a 7th channel on the transmitter. A good gimbal (like the ZenMuse H3-3D) costs about $350 — and is also balanced around a particular type of camera (in this case, the GoPro), for both balance and placement. A gimbal is key for doing stable shots: a quadcopter stays in the air primarily through brute force, constantly adjusting its four motors to stay level, and shifting in moving air is constant. Without a gimbal, you will always have shake, especially when hovering or moving slowly. (With a strong lateral or forward movement, there tends to be less drift.) This YouTube video demonstrates two different types of gimbals, and is a good video of a gimbal in action.

But currently I’m shooting with a cheap 720p camera, and the more I shoot, the more I notice it (and see how it suffers). Upgrading to a GoPro — in addition to making the gimbal usable without hacky mounts — seems like it will have the following effects:

  1. Better color. Everything taken from a modern GoPro is just significantly more consistent in color, and that’s a huge problem, especially in low light, from the cheap FC40 cam.
  2. Better compression (or maybe none? I don’t know.) The FC40 cam does a shitton of compression on-device before you ever get to the video, which makes getting some types of video out of it (like my forest flight) impossible to get good quality out of. This is a real PITA for flying in a lot of places — even the river gets affected.
  3. Better consistency in light. The FC40 does do exposure adjustement, but it’s super jerky and ugly, especially in the evening. The GoPro footage I’ve seen doesn’t seem to have the same problems.
  4. Better base resolution. The black offers up to 2.7k video at 30 fps, or various different sizes (like the 1440p super-wide) that give you plenty of room to crop crap out while doing post-processing for things like image stabilization.

The reasons for choosing the Black over the Silver aren’t huge — the Silver doesn’t have the higher end resolutions (4k, 2k, 1440p), but is otherwise pretty similar. However, when you look at eBay, the price differential is < $50, rather than the $100 difference retail, and I think that the $50 is worth it.

I know that the video I'm producing isn't great yet, but that's okay. As time goes on and I can invest some more in my tools, and also learn better video editing techniques, I feel confident I'll be able to continue to improve in this area.

But step one is definitely a GoPro.

Flying Machines within Yosemite

Posted in default on May 3rd, 2014 at 08:40:39

The NPS released an announcement today related to drone use within Yosemite. It claims that a statement that ‘“delivering or retrieving a person or object by parachute, helicopter, or other airborne means, except in emergencies involving public safety or serious property loss, or pursuant to the terms and conditions of a permit” is illegal.’ applies to drone use.

Drone flying over a waterfall in a wooded area

Now, I personally find that sentiment a bit odd — my quadcopter isn’t ‘delivering or retrieving [an] object’, as far as I know; I would be hard-pressed to consider that phrasing to apply to me if I were reading it. But even more importantly, reading the CFR that is referenced, there is a much more obvious section that the FAA would probably claim applies: 36 CFR 2.17 (a)(1) says: “Operating or using aircraft on lands or waters other than at locations designated pursuant to special regulations.”

Given that the NPS has instead chosen to go with section 3, this seems like a position of the NPS/DOI that the FAA’s position on drones/remote controlled model aircraft being treated as ‘aircraft’ is just wrong. However, weaseling this into another regulation (with the dubious claim that the ‘object being delivered is the drone itself’, as they claimed on their Facebook page), is almost as bad of an approach. It at least has the benefit that it doesn’t affect flying outside the parks, so I find it less personally concerning for long-term survival of the hobby.

They already have a prohibition (36 CFR 2.12 (a)(1)) which prevents ‘operating motorized equipment … [t]hat exceeds a noise level of 60 decibels measured on the A-weighted scale at 50 feet; or … makes noise which is unreasonable, considering … [the] purpose for which the area was established [and] impact on park users…’ I think this is an entirely reasonable regulation, but the noise level from the quad almost certainly doesn’t meet the “60 decibels at 50 feet”, so only the “bothering other people” aspect would apply — and therefore make it reasonable to operate in an area where there are no other people around, or where people won’t be bothered by the noise (such as where I was on the Presidio, where no one could even hear the quad over the wind).

I think this has three big take-aways for me:

  1. The people who wrote this document did not feel that drones are aircraft. This runs counter to the FAA position, but is good, because there is no legal defense for calling these things aircraft. This means that there continues to be support for the legal notion that there are no current regulations which apply.
  2. The NPS has a desire to block the use of drones, and will do whatever they can to do so. This means that regardless of what the law says, you should not expect to fly in a National Park and not get told you can’t.
  3. Given the other regulations prohibiting the use of ‘motorized toys’, I expect the NPS will change their regs to explicitly ban drones in the future, at which point you will not have a legal leg to stand on — so if you want to pick a fight, you might as well do it now.

I continue to be supportive of reasonable regulation regarding drone use in the national airspace, and continue to be supportive of the NPS/DOI passing reasonable regulations that apply to model aircraft. I dislike the use of wordsmithing to try and fit these things into existing regulations, and I think that the NPS should work hard to make their regulations legally match their claimed authority.