Drones And Hurricanes

frayintermedia’s fraybird1.  Love at first flight.

Our DJI Mavic drone is a lovely little thing.  It flits about at 60kph taking pictures and video.  I can setup a computerised track for the multirotor beauty to follow,  or fly it manually.  It has sensors,  flashing lights (green on the right, red on the left, like a proper aeroplane) and its dark grey exterior belies its sensitivity.

To water.

The LiPo or Lithium Polymer battery hates the stuff.  If there’s too much mist or the humidity is above 100% the battery gives notice by swelling like a puffer fish.  Not that I’ve seen that yet as I’m keeping it well away from H2O,  but that’s the warning on its operators manual.   Yet drones have been used heavily in very wet areas,  such as Houston for example, and if protected, can provide an incredibly important service.

DJI Mavic Battery – R1,694 each, very slippery when wet.

In East Africa,  drones are now carting lightweight emergency medicines across miles of wilderness.  The Mavic I fly can operate up to 1500m away from the base station,  although the law says you have to have visual line of sight or VLOS at all times to the vehicle.  The radio signal from the remote handset won’t allow for that distance anyway.   In Houston,   there are a couple of thousand drone operators.   There aren’t that many in the whole of South Africa,  although licences are being scooped up at record speed.

Humanitarian missions around Houston after Hurricane Harvey have seen drones used to spot people on rooftops,  to carry small medical kits,  and to assess areas for water damage.   Boats are heavy and cumbersome,  and with water receding, drones have come into their own as people return to their dwellings.   The FAA reports that there are now dozens of special licenses for those operators who’re helping the rescue and recovery efforts,  where helicopters can be very expensive,  drones can be very cheap.  Flying at 400 feet above ground level (AGL) or lower it means these devices are also not endangering aviation as long as you follow the rules.   So police helicopters continue to fly overhead while in the intermediate area,  or drone zone,  services are being rendered.

But they don’t like water,  as I said.  I have tested the frayintermedia Mavic over the ocean and I became very nervous as the craft drifted away in the wind,  fearing that the device may be lost if there was a technical hitch.  The other fear was about seabirds who really didn’t like the device at all.  And by the way,  the Mavic was in far more danger of being attacked by a large bird than vice versa.   The Mavic is the size of your hand,  a seagull would easily smack it into the Indian Ocean.

Just a thing of beauty.   frayintermedia’s fraybird1.

So I respect these American drone operators taking their hugely expensive drones to Houston in order to save lives.  They’re not being paid to do this,  most are operating as volunteers and from all accounts,  have been involved in numerous incidents where people were trapped and saved.   There is, however, a dark side to droneism.

Apparently insurance companies are hiring these drone operators as the water recedes – turning them into assessors as they scan mile after mile of housing destroyed by one of the most destructive hurricanes to ever strike the US mainland.  So first they’re free,  then they’re paid.  I guess you have to make a living.   One of those insurance companies is second biggest in Texas, Allstate, and its just a matter of days before the biggest company,  State Farm,  orders a fleet into the air as well.


Speaking of insurance,  I discovered while registering drones that you need insurance coverage to the tune of R500 000 per drone.   That is the same as a small plane or a glider.  Which is madness,  but that’s bureaucracy for you. And speaking of gliders,  I am now the proud member of the Aero Club of South Africa and begin my glider training this week.     More follows gentle folks.  But later as right now I have to pack up the drone to go shoot a video.







Droning On & ICAO 50% Special Gold

FlySafair maintenance Hangar, Lanseria
Yay! South Africa has just scored first in Africa following a two week ICAO Safety Inspection.  While Afro-pessimists may giggle into their mug of Eurospite and bitters, that puts us in 33rd place globally.  Not too shabby.   A big plus is the drop according to ICAO and the Transport Minister,  in the number of non-commercial accidents.  They’re down 50% with the stark numbers really a thumbs up to our training institutions – down to 72 deaths in the last year from 144 in 2012/13.   The audit was conducted between the 8th and 18th of May according to information just released by the Transport Ministry and was covered in a previous blog post (see below).

So another training opportunity has arisen and boy! (or girl!) I’m excited.  I’ve signed up to do CAA certified drone pilot training but its not for the faint hearted.  Because its pretty expensive.   To give you an idea just how expensive – its about a fifth of the price of a full pilot’s license.   If you’re quick enough,  a PPL could cost between R250 000 and R350 000 depending on how many hours you fly and how you compress the training.   Drone training costs R50 000 and that’s before you buy the little thing.   Which costs at least another R10k for the basic piece of kit and around R35-40k for a good aerial vehicle with camera/s.

DJI Mavic
Luckily in my case its about half that price because I have a PPL.  Had I walked into this course without any theory in aviation,  the cost would be significantly higher.   But that doesn’t mean its easy.   The CAA along with civil aviation authorities everywhere has now ordered pilots to be certified when your Unmanned Aerial Vehicle ( UAV) or drone is of a certain size.   Being a videographer come aviator,  the idea is obviously most attractive.  I’ve already filmed quite a bit from the cockpit and even in a Cirrus with its low-slung wing,  so that’s feasible.  And we’ve also shot a few videos from a borrowed drone for a series I’m filming for SADC.

DJI Mavic folded away
But the idea of having our own drone and using it to garner great footage within the law is a real attraction.   News organisations are falling over themselves to use these inconspicuous UAV’s over protests and police action.    This is a quick update ‘cos there’s a need to attend a special safety evening at the hangar and I can’t dilly dally.    Look out for updates on the UAV training on this site in the next few weeks.

DJI Mavic not folded away




How do drones see in the dark?


That’s the sound of a drone at night pinging its way through the buildings and people and cars and stuff.  In an attempt to build drones that make deliveries or drop a bomb or two, engineers are trying to solve one big problem.  How is the device going to manage to avoid slamming into something hard at high speed if its autonomous?

Drones are dangerous.  And that’s not because they have a serried rank of sharp pointed missiles, but because they fly at low levels which means one could pulverise your VW at any time.  Or not.

I’ve been flying a drone around the place for a while and love the technology.  No, I don’t spy on the neighbours,  just practice landing and taking off and taking videos of the dogs and visitors.  They’re all amazed at the spindly little thing that comes flitting out of the top floor and speeds around, turning like a robot and gazing at everyone with its 4 beady little red LED’s gleaming on its engines.

Now just to get it to move on its own.  Imagine if it was able to take off and follow a thug around the yard who was looking to break into my house?

At night.

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 3.23.11 PM
Airware which was founded in California by CEO Jonathan Downey.

Well one of these days.

But the most interesting thing is watching company’s like Teal Group which has billions of dollars in startup capital.  Aurora Flight Sciences is also one to watch.  That company is testing bat-like technology that copies Batman.   Sensors ping objects and detect them by closely examining the image that comes back.  Call it flying by pixel if you like.

Then lets not forget Airware which manufacturers drones with cash from .. Google Ventures.

Screen Shot 2014-06-08 at 3.27.37 PM
World UAV forecast including R&D and Procurement courtesty of cotsjournalonline.com

In South Africa, the CAA is so terrified of drones that the authority banned them outright.  Talk about over-reacting.  When in doubt, ban.  If you’re a despotic state of course.  Not that my country is suffering from despots.  The ban is until our civil aviation authorities figure out how to write a law that regulates drones.

I have a message for the authority.

Too late.

The citizens have already accessed this technology and no amount of bleating about its dangers is going to stop folks flying their drones around the place.  Particularly since radio controlled aviation has been around for decades.  These planes and helicopters already have camera’s imbedded in their fuselage and the movie industry and so on use them.

Too small to ban. UAV's of this size are already buzzing around.  Banning? Good luck.
Too small to ban. UAV’s of this size are already buzzing around. Banning? Good luck.

So while the local CAA bleats and whines about “un-regulated flight”  our world-wide competitors just get on with the business of building technology to export.  Arms company Denel here is also selling a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), but that sector is already regulated to the hilt anyway.


That’s the sound of a Facebook message.  Must be an investor.