As of most recently, the more common use of the word Drone is related to SUAS vehicles (Small Unmanned Aerial Systems) that include the capability for Military (or Commercial) style activities, armed or otherwise. These are the systems the FAA are most interested in regulating. Typically, a Drone is capable of un-assisted, mission style flights. Such as: Take off, go to location, do something, and return to base completely un-assisted by a human. But in today’s world our military drones still have the capability of being “Mission Flown” from a human for political reasons above any other.
So, are our models Drones? Not exactly. They are however clearly SUAS’, or UAV‘s (Unmanned aerial vehicle) . Any Radio Controlled Aircraft, flown for hobby, education, military or commercial is an UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLE. Where the line begins to blur, however, is when you start talking about the capability of that UAV.
This last year, the Board of Directors removed the “Autonomous Ban” on flying at the field. This meant that this rapidly growing segment of our hobby could be enjoyed per the AMA and field operational guidelines. So, we are seeing these systems at the field in growing numbers since many players are entering the hobby market. Locally, we have a company, 3D Robotics that is dedicated to UAV development, and offers one of the most advanced systems available for RC use. Many 3D Robotics employees are club members.
Systems that are autonomous allow the aircraft to fly with electronic stabilization, GPS navigation, and perform ‘missions’ like aerial mapping. They also can perform take offs and landings completely un-assisted. Isn’t that a drone you ask? Still no. Because it is not for commercial or military missions.
Electronic stabilization systems have been a key player in the explosion of Multi-Rotor Aircraft. Without them, there would be no way to keep 4 motors in sync to maintain any stability. Typical multi-rotor systems sample motor RPM over 300 times per second, and communicate that information to systems using Accelerometers made affordable by the new gaming systems and cell phones that can tell which side is up or down, and sense the RATE at which it is turning and moving (unlike traditional Gyros that could only detect changes from its original path, course, or attitude).
So back to the DRONE… is a Multi-Rotor Helicopter a drone? Not in the definitions sense, but the public is using that as a description all too often. Most hobby grade Multis do not have the capability to ‘go somewhere, do something and return’ without a human pilot. But, the more advanced systems for our hobby use GPS navigation to ‘hold position’ and certainly to ‘return to home’ as they most commonly do when activated, or if signal is lost. These hobby grade systems also do things like “Auto Land” when battery power is low. Fixed Wing RC airplanes surely do not do that.
Personally, I have to admit, using the term Drone when traveling with my DJI Phantom. Going through TSA inspection at airports, I always get the question after the raised eyebrow X-ray inspection “What is this?” Just to make it simple I commonly reply “it’s a Photography Drone” and instantly get sent on my way without any further inspection. Is it a drone, no. But the TSA folks know what I mean when I say it.
Something else to understand about these hobby-grade systems is that all of them have ‘failsafes’ built in. With the loss of RC signal, the device will return to its take off point. When battery is too low, it will remove control from the pilot, and simply land itself (which can be a problem if you are above the wrong place). They are manufactured with the AMA guidelines in mind, and even the more advanced system’s like the APM 2.5 Ardrino board must be capable of instant pilot control simply if the sticks are moved. The PIC (Pilot in Command) does not need to ’flip a switch’ to take it out of any autonomous or assisted flight, simply moving the sticks gives the pilot control over any system. Also, the RC Transmitter is NOT shunted away from the system, but a key component. If the RC system experiences any trouble, loss of signal, interference, dead battery etc, the systems go into failsafe and either return to a set ‘loiter’ point, or in the case of a Multi-rotor, simply return to the take off location. Of course these fail safe’s cannot compensate for all failures, if you run out of battery before it auto lands, it will crash. If you ‘toss a prop‘, on a quad, it will crash (however if you toss a prop on a 6 or 8 motor multi, it will compensate and keep flying)
I can tell you from experience, that very few of the pilots at SEFSD that fly traditional aircraft bother with the Failsafe settings because they are often complicated, difficult to understand, and don’t offer any security other than placing all the servos and throttle settings to a set point. What good is a failsafe that is not set? Exactly, no good whatsoever.
For those of you that are still wondering what all these acronyms of our alphabet soup mean when it relates to our operations, here’s a small list for you to be aware a of:
SUAS Small Unmanned Aerial System
SUAV Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
FPV First Person View (flying via a camera view)
RC Radio Controlled (just in case, wink wink…)
RTH Return to Home
RTL Return to Land
FBW Fly By Wire (maintains stability while you guide the airplane)
STB Stabilize (electronic stability)
ALH Altitude Hold (maintains set altitude)
LTR Loiter (makes aircraft circle a predetermined location)
WP Waypoint (in a set list)
The Ardu Pilot has more terms in their programming ‘modes’, you may hear some of the autonomous pilots using these terms:
YAW_ACRO – Will not hold an yaw angle, not recommend for most flyers
YAW_HOLD – Will hold a Yaw angle
YAW_AUTO – Will point towards the next WP or however your mission requires
YAW_LOOK_AT_HOME – Always points at home
ROLL_PITCH_ACRO – Just Rate based Acro Mode
ROLL_PITCH_STABLE – stabilize the copter and try to hold user input angles
ROLL_PITCH_SIMPLE – Simple mode; corrected input based on the Z Gyro/compass
ROLL_PITCH_AUTO – Used by the auto mode to fly towards Waypoints.
THROTTLE_MANUAL – Just manual throttle, nothing fancy
THROTTLE_HOLD – Holds the desired altitude – interactive using throttle control
THROTTLE_AUTO – Used by Auto mode to change altitudes.
Where is all this going? Well there is really no way to predict. FedEx and UPS are saying they will have pilot-less aircraft in the next few years. Even today’s modern commercial jet liners have the ability to take off, navigate, and land without the pilot doing much if anything at many airports. Law enforcement and other government agencies across the USA are buying and using small hobby style multi-rotors for surveillance. One challenge is how the FAA and Government is going to keep up with Technology and its implementation as these situations grow.
Lets keep our hobby in mind here… when SEFSD lifted the “Autonomous Ban” on RC aircraft flown at our field some things changed. What is happening now is the scrutiny on these systems. It seems that any time there is any activity around them, it gets top-level attention and concern. What is being ignored as of late, are the incidents around ‘regular’ RC airplanes. No one seems to even raise an eyebrow when someone does the ‘Walk of Shame” out into our field to pick up fragments of what was once a RC airplane. A UAV crash is a UAV crash regardless of the model and should be considered equally as sensitive to our field and situation. Autonomous system or not, all field boundaries, AMA and FAA regulations still pertain. 400 ft limit, and adherence to our own field rules are essential. Autonomous and stabilized systems add a new technical aspect to our hobby that for some is quite interesting, and as for others, they could care less. I have seen opponents become advocates after a few hours of introduction to systems. It’s a wide open grab bag of perspectives.
Bottom line is, they are here to stay. Our own adherence to our own rules and guidelines will ensure that we, as a club, remain the model for operation within San Diego. We need to be vigilant in our own enforcement of these policies to prevent any negative views from city officials, the public, and the media. From the public perspective, a drone by any other name apparently is, a drone.