Man vs drone: some pilots fight back against robots

18 January 2015 - 02:00 By Jack Nicas
EYE IN THE SKY: A drone captures images outside the high court in Pretoria during the Oscar Pistorius trial
EYE IN THE SKY: A drone captures images outside the high court in Pretoria during the Oscar Pistorius trial

Surveyers, Photographers Saying They’re Losing Business, Push FAA to Crack Down

In an unfolding battle over U.S. skies, it’s man versus drone.

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. And now these aviators are fighting back, lobbying regulators for strict rules for the devices and reporting unauthorized drone users to authorities.

Jim Williams, head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s unmanned-aircraft office, said that many FAA investigations into commercial-drone flights begin with tips from manned-aircraft pilots who compete with those drones. “They’ll let us know that, ’Hey, I’m losing all my business to these guys. They’re not approved. Go investigate,’” Mr. Williams said at a drone conference last year. “We will investigate those.”

Unlike the vast majority of commercial pilots in the U.S.—those that helm passenger jets tens of thousands of feet above the ground—the primary drone opponents operate helicopters and small planes generally between 500 feet to 2,000 feet, making maps, inspecting pipelines and spraying crops. Drones are supposed to stay below 400 feet, but the FAA has received dozens of reports of the devices flying too close to manned aircraft—typically smaller planes and helicopters.

“I’m now looking for lawn mowers flying around,” said Mike Peavey, a former Vietnam War pilot who flies helicopters around New England to monitor power lines and shoot movies. “A 40-pound object impacting certain parts of a helicopter would be disastrous.”

Mr. Peavey said he initially refused to film a sailboat competition in Newport, R.I., in June because drones would also be buzzing above the water. He lobbied Rhode Island’s aeronautics inspector to reconsider its authorization for drones at the event.

A week before the event, the inspector said operating a drone near an open-air event would be a misdemeanor under Rhode Island law. Mr. Peavey filmed the sailboats but drones did not.

The FAA has effectively banned the commercial use of drones until it completes rules for the devices in the next few years. Meanwhile, the agency has approved limited commercial-drone flights for 15 operators.

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.

For several exemptions, the FAA agreed with the crop-duster group’s recommendations to require operators to file notices with local aviation authorities two days before flying and to display identification numbers on their drones. The group urged the FAA to also require bright paint, strobe lights and transponders that broadcast the drones’ location to other aircraft, but the agency declined.

Last year, after a judge struck down the FAA’s first-ever fine against a man for operating a drone recklessly, the crop-duster group filed the only outside legal brief in support of the fine. If the FAA can’t punish unsafe drone users, “then the safety of flight of agricultural air operation (and all manned aircraft operations for that matter) is in jeopardy,” wrote the group, which urges its members to report drone sightings to the FAA.

Pilot Chuck Boyle, president of the Professional Aerial Photographers Association International, said drones have been a hot topic at group meetings for years. “We have lots of members who are very frustrated,” he said. “I hear stories of them losing business to a construction company who’s decided to do it themselves [with a drone], or a drone operator who just took another job from them.”

Mr. Boyle has started reporting drone users who flout the FAA ban. “I am very concerned that the cavalier attitude that he displays and his very open commercial ’drone’ offering will get someone hurt,” he wrote to an FAA inspector last year, reporting an Orlando, Fla., businessman whose company shoots TV commercials with drones.

The inspector told the company, CineDrones, that if it was using drones commercially, “I must insist you stop operations immediately.”

CineDrones President Mike Fortin said he ignored the warning and is still operating without issue.

Many pilots, however, aren’t as critical of drones, and some are even adopting them.

Former U.S. Air Force pilot Robert Hicks, who runs an aerial-photography company using manned aircraft, said he recently started his own drone company after realizing his industry was shifting. He has targeted Latin America for customers because of the strict regulations in the U.S.

Julie Belanger, who runs an aerial-mapping company with her husband in San Martin, Calif., said they want to use drones but are waiting for FAA rules. Meanwhile, they’re competing against entrepreneurs who are using the devices against FAA policy. The system is encouraging unsafe users, she said. “In the right hands drones produce beautiful stuff and are safe,” she said. “In the wrong hands, they’re a danger to aviation.”

Bill Richards, a pilot who shoots films with his helicopter in New York City, said that while “everybody in my business is pooh-poohing them,” he decided to build his own drone for $15,000. “They can do something I can’t: get within a few feet of you without blowing everybody off the set,” he said.

Still, he said, manned choppers will maintain a role. “The speed and power of a real helicopter is not going to be challenged.”

Indeed, some pilots say drones don’t threaten them because their manned aircraft can carry heavier payloads and fly much longer and farther.

Japanese farmers have been using Yamaha Corp. helicopter drones since 1990 to spray crops; those devices carry 4.2 gallons of pesticide, fly 12 miles an hour and cost about $150,000. That is not commercially viable in the U.S., said Andrew Moore, executive director of the agricultural aviation association. His members’ planes sometimes cost a fraction of the Yamaha drone, carry 500 gallons of pesticide and fly 160 miles an hour.

“I think that drone works fine in Japan where they have postage-stamp-sized fields,” he said. “But when you’re looking at agriculture on the U.S. scale, it doesn’t translate.”


This article was originally published on 15-01-2015 on The Wall Street Journal

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