(Originally published on Blogcritics.org)
Drones were everywhere at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in Las Vegas this year. No, not male honeybees or parasitic loafers, but unmanned aircraft remotely or programmatically controlled. More specifically, drones with cameras attached.
You could gain knowledge about drones at numerous vendor booths (many with cages for flying the drones inside the convention hall), a series of talks and panels, and demonstrations centered on a new feature at NAB – The Aerial Robotics and Drone Pavilion. Topics included the technology, the training, the practical applications, the law, and – another first – the awards.
Drone technology is not new. Marilyn Monroe was discovered by an Army photographer when she was working in a drone factory. Many of us had remote control airplanes as kids. Military drones attack targets on the other side of the world controlled by a ground based pilot. The miniaturization of cameras, digital video, and the potential for multi-band radio frequency remote control have changed the game.
Drones at NAB ranged in size from toys that will fit in the palm of your hand to custom built machines three feet across. For the hobbyist, you can get a drone in the air recording 720p video for less than $1000. (Check the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International for things you should know before you fly.)
Commercial application drones can get close to six figures in cost.
The biggest use for drones commercially has been in cinematography for Hollywood films, but that’s not the only use.
Ryan McMaster, of Volant Productions, and Steve Wheatcraft, Professor of Hydrogeology at the University of Nevada and aphotographer, demonstrated how to customize a drone for business purposes. McMaster, a commercial photographer, uses aerial photography to add drama to his client’s projects, and Wheatcraft says he uses his drone as a 400 foot high tripod, giving him unique perspectives for his projects.
Wheatcraft started with the airframe – the top piece, landing gear, and rotors. This was about $1000, but with that, you are not yet ready to fly. He explained that you have a choice of controllers, with options involving bandwidth and antennas. “Never use the stock antennas,” he said. “They just don’t work that well.”
Wheatcraft demonstrated a handheld controller while McMaster preferred a dashboard which was strapped onto his body. (Dropping a controller can have disastrous results for your drone.) Add a few more thousands.
Then you get to the camera, mounting hardware, remote control, and transmitter so you can see what you are photographing. Add another $5000, at least.
Ron Futrell, a TV newsman in the Las Vegas market for 30 years, demonstrated another drone application, this one for TV news. This drone went up another level of complexity from the ones shown by McMaster and Wheatcraft.
Futrell’s AeroJounalism drone uses separate controllers for a pilot and a videographer. This allows the drone to be safely flown in breaking news areas while allowing the photographer and director to focus on the story.
The camera on Futrell’s drone can broadcast up to 2000 feet to a television station’s satellite truck. The truck can then provide a live feed from the drone back to the station.
Neither of these drone systems is designed for your kid to fly in the park. You also wouldn’t want to take one up without some training. That’s where Unmanned Vehicle University(UVU) comes in.
John Minor, Provost of UVU, explained that drones have been around for a long time, but only recently have people realized the business potential. UVU offers Doctorates and Masters in Unmanned Systems Engineering, certificates in drone project management, and pilot certification.
The pilot training resembles traditional civil aviation training, with a ground school done online, and the actual flight training conducted at one of seven locations around the USA. If you have a team of pilots you would like trained, UVU will come to your site.
Minor said that UVU is closely tracking the pilot requirements being developed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and is keeping their training up-to-date.
Minor compared the status of drone technology to that of laser technology in the 1960s. “Back then people saw lasers as scary and dangerous,” he said. “If you had told someone that someday you would be able to repair someone’s eyes with a laser, they would have thought you were crazy.”
The double-edged sword of the fear of dronesand their commercial potential is one of the reasons the FAA is taking its time in coming up with regulations. This time, however, the slow moving gears of bureaucracy are advantageous to the public. Until final rules are published, through a part of the law referred to as a “section 333 exemption,” if someone else has proved that a particular drone use is safe, you can get approved for the same activity. So far, there are over 300 approved uses.
When you have your drone and you are using it to take beautiful pictures, you might just win an award. YuVue, a media distribution company, announced at NAB that they will hold a competition for drone imagery – The Dronies. Details are not available yet, but eventually will be found at thedronieawards.org.
So can you get your next shipment of books and cookies from Amazon delivered by drone? If you live in Miami, this could happen soon, as the FAA has approved a test program for Amazon. I have to stop writing now. I think my pizza just landed.