Steve Flynn pre-launch at Aer Arann aerodrome, Connemara
JANUARY 2019 |Month 1
Hello, Can you please give me a call to discuss the logistics of sending a 50g payload to the Arann Islands via drone. Best Regards Derek
This was the brief email I received from Professor Derek O’Keeffe of NUI Galway back in January 2019 which gave birth to the #DiabetesDrone BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) historic event which took place in the middle of Connemara – ironically 9 months later! The project was led by NUI Galway, project managed by Skytango with partners Survey Drones Ireland, Wingcopter, Vodafone and global healthcare company Novo Nordisk.
Prof. Derek O’Keefe, NUI Galway | Photo: Andrew Downes @xposure101
Derek, a Professor of Medical Device Technology, NUI Galway and Consultant Physician at Galway University Hospitals, asked me to meet with his group after he’d read about our work with the national postal service here in Ireland in 2018. He asked if we could deliver a batch of diabetes medicine (insulin) via a drone from the mainland near Galway to the Aran Islands.
Following Hurricane Ophelia in 2017 and the flooding that ensued, Derek noticed that his diabetes patients were unable to make it into his clinic. Storm Emma the following year had similar results when patients were snowed in on farms. All patients with Type 1 diabetes require a supply of both insulin and glucagon for disease management and 40% of patients with Type 2 diabetes require insulin therapy. These medications are usually available from local pharmacies, however in remote geographic regions, communities and individuals can become isolated for days and a situation may arise where patients can run out of their lifesaving diabetes medication.
This gave him pause for thought. Climate change meant that these severe weather events would not be isolated and would become more commonplace in the future which would put his patients at greater and greater risk. He felt it was incumbent on him to look for a solution.
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right!
My initial reaction was that not only was this a worthwhile #DronesForGood project but it was an opportunity to explore what is real and what is hype when it comes to drone deliveries. Because of advances that have already been made in the industry, I explained that the act of simply delivering something by drone was no longer news, but a BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) delivery that tracked operational and regulatory compliance – vital for the delivery of medicines – and kept all stakeholders informed in real-time; the drone pilot, the hospital, the drug manufacturer, the patient, even the doctor and community under the drone, would be a project worth doing.
This was a terrific opportunity to work with NUIG (Galway University) but I knew we needed a cross-discipline team to pull it off.
The question was, what kind of drone did we need?
The first drone suggested was the DJI Mavic Pro. I heard from several quarters that ‘the specs say it will fly 8km’.
That’s the first bit of hype I needed to overcome. Just because a drone might say on the label that it can fly the distance, doesn’t mean it can really do it. Secondly, you can’t just throw a drone up in the air with something strapped to it and expect it to perform as it would without a payload. Thirdly, the distance we needed to cover was well over 8 km!
A traditional quad or octocopter wasn’t the best choice either to cover the almost 20km we needed it to. I knew we needed a fixed-wing system. I figured if we’re flying a parcel the size of an Epi-Pen, a foam wing with a small area for the payload might be the craft for the job. However, many of the pilots I know who fly foam wings were sceptical about this being reliable enough and on further investigation, the payload would need to be kept at a constant temperature which meant different technology and a larger payload.
As I was searching for the right machine, I was introduced to Sam Barraclough and Wayne Floyd of Survey Drones Ireland.
Back in April of this year, they were preparing to receive a new fixed-wing VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) from a German startup called Wingcopter. I looked at the specs on this machine and it seemed perfect. It was midsized, had set a Guinness speed record (with an average of 240.6 km/h) and could land virtually anywhere.
Wingcopter VTOL Drone flying in Connemara, Galway | Photo: Andrew Downes/@exposure101
I arranged a meeting with Survey Drone’s chief pilot Wayne Floyd, who has a long history of flying drones including for the Irish military. He’s a quick-witted fast-talking drone pilot and certified trainer whose energy, enthusiasm and ‘can do’ attitude was a plus, and I knew he had the experience to follow through and actually do what he said he could do. We talked at length about how important transparency throughout the process would be and if we thought we could wade through the regulatory hurdles with the Irish Aviation Authority to make this flight a reality.
At the time we talked, there had not been a BVLOS delivery in Ireland. Wayne brought me in to meet his colleague Sam Barraclough. Sam’s expertise came from GIS services and traditional survey technology, but recently he and Wayne had been developing and growing the services at Survey Drones Ireland (a division of SISIrl). When we began to explore using their new Wingcopter drone to execute the delivery, Sam explained that their system was designed for carrying a large Lidar survey unit, and as such, was not really equipped with the necessary redundant systems that would be required by the IAA if we were going to get permission to execute this BVLOS flight. So it was back to the drawing board to find the right rig.
It looked like it wasn’t going to happen in the allotted timeframe.
I gave the bad news to Derek at NUIG but said we shouldn’t throw the towel in yet. As it turned out, it was the first of many ups and downs on this 9-month rollercoaster. A few weeks after my initial meeting with Wayne & Sam, they contacted me again and told me that they had spoken to the engineering team at Wingcopter and that they offered to join the efforts by supplying a drone specifically designed for drone deliveries. As it turned out, Wingcopter had been working with Unicef in Malawi doing long-distance deliveries for the past 3 months. We were back in the game!
Unicef.org with the Wingcopter drone used for vaccine delivery
April 2019 | Month 4
In mid-April, we began to get a better sense of what the IAA would require from us to allow us to attempt this #DiabetesDrone BVLOS flight. Wayne Floyd led the effort to plan the RAM’s (Risk Assessments and Mitigation Statements). These are the documents that explain in detail what the risks of the operation are, followed by our efforts to mitigate those risks. You can never reduce risk to zero, but you can work through how to reduce the chance of anything happening to such a point where it is acceptable to execute the operation. Creating these documents is an extensive effort and includes everything from how to prevent collisions with other aircraft, the safety of the public, landowner permissions, solar flare and GPS signal limits, and anything else you might imagine could happen.
Also, how would we assure connectivity with the drone over such long distance?
The Irish Aviation Authority required us to have constant data connectivity including very low latency for live video downlinks and telemetry over the 20km. Using satellite links was possible, but also very costly. So our second option was to leverage a mobile data LTE network if possible as our primary link, leaving the sat links as redundant backups. This meant we needed an additional partner.
Over the last four years, Skytango has developed a close working relationship with Dublin Smart Cities and I knew they had made great inroads into developing IoT networks. So I asked them if they could make any introductions at Vodafone Ireland. Once we explained the #DiabetesDrone project and goals, Vodafone stepped right up and agreed to support our efforts with their 4G LTE network. We arranged a group meeting and my thoughts were that now we could finally move forward.
Wayne, Sam, my co-founder Susan Talbot and I went into Vodafone to discuss how it would all work and we were met with our second obstacle on this journey to break new ground with drones. It was not a given that the signal strength we needed would work! The signal towers are focused on putting that signal on the ground, and nobody really knew how they would work with a drone flying as high as 1300 feet. Vodafone couldn’t guarantee their involvement until we could prove the drone had signal strength along its flight path.
So… more testing! Sam, Wayne, and the Vodafone technician Rob Kennedy began working with the IAA to find a place in the country where they could put a Wingcopter up in the air near a tower and actually test signal strengths at various heights. Vodafone fitted special equipment to sense signal strength within the drone and determined that the optimum height would be from 130 Meters to 300 meters.
JULY 2019 | Month 7
It was mid-July before we had confirmation that we could meet the stringent IAA standards for connectivity across the entire flight path.
AUGUST 2019 | Month 8
By August 10th everything was in alignment. We finally had positive tests thanks to Wayne, Sam and Vodafone’s engineer, Rob. We had the drone hardware (WIngcopter), the pilots (Wayne and co.), the network (Vodafone), our compliance and drone management software (Skytango), and the final piece of the puzzle was waiting for the IAA to say yes.
If you push the regulator, they’ll push back!
Regulators in Ireland actively resist responding to commercial pressure or deadlines when they are charged with ensuring public safety, as it should be. So no amount of phonecalls will hasten the process. A BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) flight is something that, as yet, has no clear process in place here, so there were no simple forms to fill out. No way to just apply and get a sign-off. We were in new territory. Wayne led the charge throughout the summer months through many meetings and many revisions of RAM’s to get the approval.
We chose to believe that the IAA was on our side and wanted to champion innovation, so in early August we took a chance and began to book flights and accommodation to bring over the crew from Wingcopter for the week-long testing scheduled before the actual delivery flight to Inis Mór.
We only had a provisional sign off from the IAA and this wouldn’t change until two days before the scheduled flight which put everyone under pressure.
Flying in the face of superstition, we scheduled the delivery for Friday the 13th September.
MONDAY | Sept 9th 2019
Our Wingcopter crew arrived on Monday, 9th September. Drone Pilots Santiago Montenegro, Christoph Zechner, and Wingcopter engineer Julius Boes arrived in Dublin with their cases and their drones and in the case of Christoph – a healthy dose of jet lag as he flew in from Japan. This was a big deal for us all. We drove our caravan of vehicles across Ireland to the Gaeltacht area of Connemara, just west of Galway. Our first view of Galway Bay was sunny and full of promise. We drove to our accommodation in Carraroe, about 15 minutes west of the aerodrome in Inverin where we would be spending the week, and got ready for our first flight tests on Tuesday. We still had no final approvals from the IAA but hoped they were close.
TUESDAY | Sept 10th 2019
L to R: Santiago Montenegro (WC), Wayne Floyd (SD), Christoph Zechner (WC), Martin Osborne (Camera).
After a hearty breakfast on Tuesday morning, we began setting up our launch area in the empty parking lot adjacent to the Connemara airport. One of the big issues at an airport is who is allowed to be “airside” or on their runways. Because we didn’t know how many people we’d have on a given day, we didn’t want to have to negotiate that paperwork, so we positioned our area in an unused section of the parking lot behind some ropes. This would become our exclusion area for launching and landing.
The gravel was much more packed than we’d expected. This prohibited the crew from securing to the ground the tarp that would prevent stones and dust kicking back up into the drone on launch. So we needed another solution. Utilizing our local fixer’s contacts, we found a fish processing factory nearby that was willing to supply us with some large pallets to build an elevated platform.
But the weather began to close in and the rain and wind we associate with the west of Ireland began punishing us. We abandoned testing when winds of 35 mph and heavy rain pushed us home early.
WEDNESDAY | Sept 11th 2019
As an American, September 11th is always a little poignant for me. It felt good for us all to be involved in an aviation project that has the potential to benefit others in a really useful and practical way and ultimately, save lives. Our plans for the day included getting the final approval and clearances from the IAA and initiating flight tests to check connectivity on the drone over the channel. But again, the weather was not cooperating. We continued finalizing the landing zone, and the Wingcopter team did a detailed inspection of the drone after its shipping from Germany. They discovered one propeller showed small abrasions and needed replacing, which they did and proceeded to test the spares. When a drone is flying BVLOS, everything needs to be in perfect condition. There can be no surprises and the margin for error is extremely small. This flight was primarily over water. I don’t need to spell out the consequences of a malfunction in a congested area – on this of all days.
We spoke to the IAA, and their senior drone regulator committed to attending our Thursday tests and the Friday delivery. However, while we had mission approval, we were still missing approval to close the airspace. We needed a TRA (Temporary Restricted Airspace) issued, and a NOTAM (Notice To Airmen) which was to come from another department within the IAA. These are what other pilots use to plan their flights and we needed to be listed to be safe. With only two days to go before we lost our team and the drone, we had still not completed a flight test and had no idea if the #DiabetesDrone project would go ahead.
Before we shut down for the day and in an effort to get some preparation done, the Wingcopter team executed an 18km flight by flying a 1.8km circuit 10 times. It took 15 minutes from launch to landing.
Photo: Andrew Downes @xposure101
The Wingcopter is one of the most graceful drones I’ve seen in action. It fed not only the engineer in me with its function, but the artist in me with its form.
The first time I saw the drone fly, I was mesmerized. It launched and sounded like most large hovering drones. But when it transitioned into forward flight, it went almost silent. And it moved fast! The wind was blowing at 25 to 30 mph and had zero effect on the drone. My old octocopter would be working so hard in that wind it would fry the batteries. Actually – I wouldn’t be able to fly it in 30 mph winds.
THURSDAY | Sept 12th 2019
On Thursday the weather began to break. The drone regulator from the IAA arrived on site and we were finally able to begin putting the Wingcopter through its paces. Half of our team, Sam, Julius and Christoph, took the 10.30am ferry over to the Island of Inish Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, to act as the secondary safety team. They would be on the landing site in the event someone needed to manually land the drone and would remain there until their return ferry at 5 pm.
The first flight was more exciting than it needed to be!
It seemed as though there was some interference with the GPS signal and the drone wasn’t as stable as it had been the day before – except in manual mode – which seemed to be perfect. The team determined that the most likely source of the problem was a video transmitter being used by the film crew. Every time the cameraman ventured near the drone and control stations, their transmitter seemed to cause problems. It was probably a poorly tuned or out of spec transmitter but the lesson learned is… if you’re going to fly a drone BVLOS, keep everything else away from it as you just don’t need the mystery of things like radio interference.
By 3 pm, the weather had cleared and the team were able to show solid stabilization modes, clear signal and good GPS. Wayne was able to execute a few VLOS (Visual line of sight) test flights out over the water near the airport simulating the crossing. Again, they flew 20km each time by flying a circuit with a 1km radius, each loop running nearly 4km in circumference. This was the first day I got a look at the payload pod. Even this was impressive. Inside this pod there is a temperature regulated box to hold medicine and samples.
By the time the second team returned from the island, we had still not received our NOTAM for Friday. Without it, there would be no delivery the following day and all the efforts and money spent would be for nothing. While we were confident we would get it based on all the feedback we were getting from the IAA, there was still a chance it could be denied and there would be no #DiabetesDrone project to speak of.
There are many departments within an organization like the IAA, and they all have a responsibility to ensure decisions are based on safety and merit and not any external pressure. We all understood that and have a deep respect for their role, but it’s easy to lose that perspective when you know you have all the ‘T’s crossed and the ‘I’s dotted and with failure dangling in your face. We really wanted that NOTAM!
We had been working with Connemara airport all week. Our flight path was over the sea and in some of the quietest airspace in the country. The emergency recovery boat (an IAA prerequisite) was ready to go.
“Who’d know if we went ahead and launched anyway“? Without proper permissions, as a team, we’d rather walk away empty handed than push through because we could. If you’re doing this for a living, it’s not only about doing the right thing, but the correct thing.
Compliance of every aspect was the lynchpin of the entire project, from a medical regulatory standpoint as well as from an aviation regulatory standpoint and doing anything other than adhering to that would have defeated the purpose.
The weather forecast for Friday looked like the best of the week, but we’d all go to bed not knowing if the #DiabetesDrone project would materialize.
FRIDAY | Sept 13, 2019 | D-DAY
Unlucky for some…but not for us!
The morning was clear with bright sun, blue skies and low winds. The final word came back from the IAA that our NOTAM was approved and issued the night before at 20:17. We had finally cleared all the regulatory hurdles and run multiple technical tests. Now, it all had to come together with the medicine on board.
I chose to go to the landing zone on Inis Mór with Derek. I’d seen the drone fly the day before, and I was excited to be present on the receiving end of this historic event. I joined the team on the 10.30am ferry and arrived at the Inish Mór airport around 11:50 am.
Ferry leaving Rosaveel en route to Inis Mór | Photo: Andrew Downes @xposure101
The safety team set up their workstation and opened radio comms to the shoreside station.
Listening to the team on the shore run through their checklists using the Skytango App and prep the drone was terrific. We could hear the drone power up and launch, and then we watched it on the telemetry as it began its journey across the sea. There were 10 people waiting in anticipation at the airport, Derek, Owen Treacy, the country manager of Novo Nordisk (the manufacturer of the medicine being shipped), the local doctor, a diabetic patient, and the airport staff. Everyone had the same niggling fear in the back of their minds that was never voiced for fear of making it a reality.
What would happen if the drone went down? Would there be anything to recover for the recovery vessel?
Thankfully, we never had to find out. About 8 minutes in, we got the word the drone had crossed the midpoint of the channel. This meant that any emergency or ‘return to home’ maneuvre would bring the drone to us, and not back to its launch point.
At 14 minutes, we were warned to watch for the drone. You could hear it just before you could see it, and at 13:30, the drone was identified inbound over the centerline of the runway, just as expected. It swooped in over our heads and did a large smooth arc to enter a landing pattern. It flew downwind and came around flying into the gentle 4mph breeze. When it transitioned to hover mode it made a loud pitching sound, and then went into a perfect hover.
As it began to descend on autopilot, I couldn’t help but notice it was the best landing of any drone I’ve ever seen. It was like it was on an elevator, one smooth movement all the way to the ground.
It touched down, powered down, and we’d done it!
I honestly couldn’t believe after 9 months of finding the right team members and working with everyone to help get over the challenge of the day, we’d done it. We’d flown the first autonomous BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) delivery of diabetes medicine in a regulated space in Ireland and possibly in the world!
The halfway mark or the moment ‘Home’ became Inis Mór
As if that wasn’t enough when the doctor took the medicine off the drone, the team placed a blood sample to be returned to the mainland for testing into the pod. The nose cone was mounted and the drone launched itself back into the air, yawed northward and flew like a seagull back to the mainland, landing where it began an hour earlier.
The battery still had 70% power remaining and could have done the mission over again – twice.
This was (and is) a seriously efficient drone managed by a very talented group of people and the whole project, while it didn’t go smoothly from beginning to end, was an absolute pleasure to work on and will hopefully pave the way for other worthy BVLOS projects in Ireland.
About #DiabetesDrone Partners
NUIG NUI Galway is one of Ireland’s foremost centres of academic excellence. Over 18,000 students undertake an extensive range of studies at the University, which is renowned for the quality of its graduates.
NUI Galway is a research-led University with internationally recognised expertise in areas including Biomedical Science and Engineering, Web Science, Human Rights, Marine Science, Energy and Environmental Science, Applied Social Sciences and Public Policy, and Humanities, in particular literature, theatre and Irish Studies. For more information visit www.nuigalway.ie Further information on the #DiabetesDrone will be available soon on www.diabetesdrone.com
Vodafone Vodafone is Ireland’s leading total communications provider with 2.3 million customers and employs over 2,000 people directly and indirectly in Ireland.
Vodafone provides a total range of communications solutions including voice, messaging, data and fixed communications to consumers and to small, medium and large businesses. Since 2011, Vodafone has expanded its enterprise division, offering integrated next-generation fixed and mobile solutions in addition to cloud-based platforms, IoT machine to machine services and professional ICT support.
Vodafone Group is one of the world’s leading international mobile communications groups with mobile operations in 25 countries, partners with mobile networks in 44 more, and fixed broadband operations in 18 markets. For more information, visit www.vodafone.ie
Skytango Skytango is a drone operations management platform that was founded in 2015 by Steven Flynn and Susan Talbot. Steve was one of the earliest drone pilots to hold a commercial license in Ireland and quickly realised the problems when working with drones, clients and the communities they fly over. Skytango helps manage the Health & Safety aspects of drone operations across industries such as construction, utilities and media as well as improving transparency with real-time communication between stakeholders. Skytango streamlines the business workflow for organisations that want to embrace drone technology while maintaining regulatory compliance. For more information, visit https://skytango.com/about-us/
Survey Drones Ireland Survey Drones Ireland is a division of Survey Instrument Services (SIS). Survey Drones Ireland was created in April of 2018 to provide specialist training in the use of drones for surveying & construction purposes. SIS has specialized in the supply of high end Surveying Equipment since 1973. Shortly after its inception, Survey Drones Ireland became an approved IAA registered training facility, providing training across all types of drone operations, it rapidly expanded far beyond the surveying & construction industries
To date, we are proud to have trained hundreds of pilots in achieving their IAA licensing certificates, implementing drone workflows within some of Ireland’s largest surveying and construction companies as well as a number of state agencies. Our success has allowed us to invest in the very latest drone technology, software and training which has played a significant role in our level of involvement in this project and ensuring its success. For more information, visit www.surveydrones.ie
Novo Nordisk Novo Nordisk is a global healthcare company with more than 95 years of innovation and leadership in diabetes care. This heritage has given us experience and capabilities that also enable us to help people defeat obesity, haemophilia, growth disorders and other serious chronic diseases. Headquartered in Denmark, Novo Nordisk employs approximately 41,600 people in 80 countries and markets its products in more than 170 countries. For more information, visit novonordisk.com, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube. For more information, visit: www.novonordisk.com/
Wingcopter Starting a company in a small workshop and developing a cutting edge drone, this self-funded startup wants to inspire the world by aiming high and starting vertically. Following the German tradition of focus on quality, they use lightweight glass fibre and carbon airframes to create benchmark platforms that aims to get the best ratio between payload and take-off weight. For more information, visit: https://wingcopter.com/
Looking at the increase in the number of drone fines charged against illegal behavior by aviation authorities over the world, I see an emerging trend: more and more authorities are starting to prosecute unlawful drone operations.
While this is good news, many in the industry – as well as myself – feel that the authorities have been slow in enforcing. Why is that?
Well, most of the focus of the regulators to date has been on defining the legal framework of this new industry. How can you enforce if you don’t have a clear set of rules in place first?
Drones represent a revolutionary technology which is booming and being adopted across several verticals with new uses discovered almost every day. While the technology is ready and progresses at an amazing pace, regulators are chasing rather than anticipating this changing industry
The problem was (and still is), setting the rules isn’t an easy task.
Even in countries where considerable efforts have been made so far in building a legal framework for safely integrating drones into airspace, regulators had to conciliate two different interests – sometimes conflicting: promoting safety and compliance and supporting the needs of the fast-growing drone industry.
Another factor complicating the regulatory efforts is that increased drone use raises several issues from a legal perspective.
Operating a drone involves different areas of law: privacy law, tort law, insurance law, civil aviation regulations, in particular, safety for people and manned aircraft. On top of that, privacy is a trending topic in the past few months.
The complexity of this task increases in countries where multiple authorities have input and control over some of the legal aspects related to hobbyist and commercial flying.
For example, in the U.S.,a confusing crossover of federal, state and local regulations – the so-called patchwork quilt – is negatively impacting the industry’s development and the capacity of the authorities to focus on enforcement, as a recent research by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College highlights. One of their key insights was that in several cases local drone laws contravene the FAA’s drone rules, resulting in legal conflicts.
Another problem the aviation authorities have been struggling to deal with is the lack of resources specifically dedicated to managing drone registrations, complaints and reports of illegal or reckless operations.
Despite these difficulties, during the last couple of years, several countries managed to put a drone regulatory framework in place, and are switching their attention from setting the rules to enforcing them.
Moreover, drone regulation is not the concern of drone operators only. Their clients are requiring compliance as well to protect their own brands.
Content buyers have begun to understand that drone content must be acquired legally – like any other type of content such as music – if they don’t want to face the risks associated with illegal operations.
In some countries, regulators are enforcing on the buyers’ side too. For example, in the US, if you hire a drone operatorwho doesn’t hold a Part 107 allowing commercial operations, you could be facing federal charges as well.
“Given that more than a million drones have been sold in the U.S., the fact that only two dozen fines have been levied is surprising and likely reflects the FAA’s lack of resources, rather than a lack of desire.”
said Craig Thompson, a Dallas-based aerial photographer, when asked about this data by drone regulation expert Jonathan Rupprecht who agreed and added:
“As time goes on, we can expect to see many more of these enforcement actions to be more fully prosecuted.”
It’s interesting to note that even where enforcement efforts have been put in place, FAA’s focus up to 2016 has been on punishing reckless behaviours, rather than illegal commercial operations, as the 2016 Motherboard analysis of the 24 prosecutions found out.
Lawyer Loretta Alkalay, who was in charge of the FAA’s legal operations for the eastern region for more than 20 years, has her opinion on why the FAA didn’t prosecute illegal commercial drone operations much until 2016:
“I think it’s pretty obvious the FAA doesn’t think it can win a case on this whole commercial issue, which is why they haven’t really pushed it.”
Let’s check a few significant drone fines in the U.S.
SkyPan – $200,000
This is the largest of all drone fines ever issued by the FAA to date. The initially proposed fine in October 2015 to SkyPan International, Inc., of Chicago, amounted to an impressive $1.9 million for conducting 43 illegal drone flights in congested airspace over Chicago and New York City between 2012 and 2014.
SkyPan was further accused of operating 65 aircraft without proper communication tools and without receiving an airworthiness certificate and registration.
The company eventually settled with the FAA in January 2017 for $200,000.
Besides the $200,000 civil penalty the company also agreed to pay an additional $150,000 if it violates federal aviation regulations again in the next year, and $150,000 more if it fails to comply with the terms of the settlement agreement.
Mical Caterina – $55,000
What drone pilot Caterina considered a hobby has landed him in trouble with the FAA, which in 2016 levied $55,000 in fines against him for violating five aviation regulations.
The FAA claims Caterina flew his drone for commercial use at an event in August 2015, though the Minnesota man has never charged anyone for his aerial photography and contends he’s only honing his skills.
“If you’re a recreational or hobby flyer and don’t know where the divider is between commercial and recreational activity, you’re likely to engage in neither if you know the FAA can come after you after the fact. Since the FAA has failed to provide a clear and adequate definition of what these entail, the risk is real and costly.”
said Jason Snead, a FAA policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
Xizmo Media Productions – $5,000
XizmoMedia, a New York video production company, was hired by Fordham University to shoot footage of its 2015 commencement ceremony.
His videos on YouTube showed views from heights of at least 100 meters of Premier League, Champions League and Championship football matches. Other videos showed views of Big Ben from close range, the Queen Victoria Memorial next to Buckingham Palace, HMS Belfast at its mooring on the Thames and the Shard, Europe’s tallest skyscraper, all accompanied by a dramatic soundtrack.
Richard was fined £1,125 in October 2015 for illegally flying his drone over Hyde Park without permission during a shoot for a promotional video. The drone flew in controlled airspaces without consent from the Civil Aviation Authority. He was also charged for flying the drone 10 metres away from traffic and pedestrians.
Mark Spencer – £300
On 9 November 2013, staff at Alton Towers Resort observed a quadcopter flying over the X Sector of the resort. Mark later posted video clips on YouTube which showed that he had launched the quadcopter some way from the resort, beyond visual line of sight.
Australian drone laws are established by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). Drone regulation for both recreational and commercial use are extensively explained on their website. The CASA has started to prosecute illegal behavior of drone pilots seriously in the last few months.
TV presenter Sylvia Jeffreys and her journalist partner Peter Stefanovic thought it would be a good idea to ask one of their friends to catch images of them popping champagne at their wedding using a drone.
Their friend now faces a $900 AUD fine for “hazardous flying at and near guests” after the drone footage uploaded on Instagram got CASA’s attention. CASA’s director, Shane Carmody, made no apology for the fine.
“The rules protect people, property and aircraft from drones,” Mr Carmody said.
“While each individual breach was not major in itself, the number of breaches has caused me concern”,
said the CASA investigator.
Each of his uploaded clips could have been charged between $850 and $8,000 AUD. The $850 fine was large enough to scare the flights out of this pilot as the drone in question quickly appeared for sale online.
Since the legislation went into effect in 2012, around 30 legal cases involving drones have given way to criminal punishment by the French Aviation Administration.
Almost all of the offenders were slapped with small drone fines, but one person earned a one-year suspended prison sentence. In this case, he had flown a civilian drone dangerously close to a helicopter.
Tristan Redman – €1,000
British reporter Tristan Redman was charged a €1,000 drone fine in February 2015 by Paris Court for flying a drone several times over central Paris. The journalist, who was compiling a piece for Al-Jazeera news, also had his drone confiscated.
The drone was flown above the city center (which is forbidden by current Netherlands drone regulation), at night, in a CTR zone (Maastricht has a busy regional airport), in close proximity to the 12,000 people attending the concert, and without a permit.
The amount of the fine was not divulged but the Dutch newspaper De Limburgerestimates it around €8,000, the largest fine for illegal drone operations given by the Netherlands authorities to date.
The FAA has granted a waiver to CNN allowing the media company to fly drones over crowds, covering public assemblies to a height of 150 feet (45 meters).
The first of its kind to allow untethered flight to this degree, this waiver is the product of two years of research by CNN and its partner Vantage Robotics who established their case for safety with the FAA.
The “Reasonableness Approach” developed by CNN and Vantage Robotics established conditions whereby a number of factors were taken into account before the FAA granted the waiver. These factors include the operators safe history of use, safety features of the craft and exhaustive test data, as CNN explains in their press release.
“We are pleased that Vantage was able to work with CNN to present and establish the safety case for the Snap to the FAA”,
said Tobin Fisher, CEO of Vantage Robotics.
The waiver to Part 107 (Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations) applies to the use of the Vantage Snap UAS, a frangible, 1.37-pound aircraft designed specifically with crowd safety in mind.
Here is sample footage in 4K shot with the Vantage Snap:
While the Vantage Snap is limited in its use at the moment, this decision could spell the beginning of a new regulatory trend within the industry.
Former US presidential advisor and attorney Lisa Ellman of Hogan Lovells, the firm that represented CNN in the waiver application process, has been working hard in the last few years to develop legislation allowing commercial use of drones.
She believes this new legislation could have broader implications within the industry:
“CNN’s new waiver represents a very important development for the commercial drone industry at large. The FAA’s willingness to approve reasonable waiver requests is a strong step in the right direction as we seek to bring the benefits of commercial drones to the American people.”,
Ellman is a strong advocate of commercial drone use in the U.S. and feels U.S. legislation still has a way to go before the industry can catch up with countries like Japan, which has allowed the commercial use of drones for the past 20 years already.
In a broader sense, this regulatory step has the potential to bring the plans of companies such as Amazon, eBay and even regular delivery companies closer to fruition.
So what might thismean for the smaller, independent drone pilots? Well, probably not a whole lot just yet as this reasonableness approach puts a lot of weight on the user’s track record.
However, with the stock industry and other end users of drone footage increasingly demanding the footage they purchase be accompanied by full documentation and legal permissions, it won’t be long before pilots will earn their reputations for safety and compliance.
The first autonomous drone parcel delivery in Ireland and the team behind it.
I was contacted in 2017 by the Irish National Postal Service, An Post, because their innovation people wanted to know more about drones – specifically autonomous deliveries. At that time they wanted to demonstrate to their internal teams what might be possible with drone technology in the future. Their suggestion was to fly from one side of a large An Post distribution centre to the other. The project never got off the ground so to speak – but it got everyone thinking.
Almost a year later I was contacted again, this time by their marketing team and they wanted to make a video that talked about the future of parcel deliveries for the communities they serve. This time, they asked if we could fly a drone from the Irish mainland to an Island about 5km off the coast. Ireland is a small country, and you can already get a letter or package anywhere overnight, but there are islands and remote places that might one day be best served with drones and this was to be the theme of the video. This was a project that was primarily a PR stunt but not singularly PR as it also had elements of R & D. And therein lies the rub. Marketing requires quick results and R&D requires failure, time and money. But we explored the possibilities.
Skytango was a one stop shop for three reasons: 1. We are an authority on drone operations and knew the people we needed to pull together for a project of this nature. 2. This was a project that needed to be compliant in its execution and it’s what Skytango is about. 3. We know how to make videos and the value of PR.
View from the back of the Clare Island Ferry
With that in mind, we settled on an Island off the coast of Co. Mayo as the destination for Ireland’s first parcel delivery by drone. But before we accepted the challenge, we traveled to County Mayo and did a recce of Roonagh pier and Clare Island and located suitable launch and landing sites. From a compliance perspective, the airspace is Class G – unrestricted for drone use up to 400 feet and it is not over a congested area. There are no roads or people out at sea to fly over. We had the co-operation of the Coast Guard, the Clare Island Ferry Company and Mayo County Council. In our view, there was no obvious requirement to involve the Aviation Authority because of location and methodology.
So after some deliberation, we accepted the challenge and told An Post that we could make their promotional video as well as get the drone across autonomously, staying within rules, regulations and insurance restrictions. It all had to be done by the book.
Clare Island Pier
The plan we devised was simple -make sure the weather was good, put me and a heavy lift pilot in a RIB and chase the drone across the channel as it flew autonomously between waypoints, ready to take control of the rig in the event it lost its way. Using this method, we remained within 50ft of the drone and in line of sight at all times – completely within license parameters. A beyond visual line of sight – BVLOS or even an extended visual line of sight – EVLOS operation would have needed longer preparations, more personnel and the involvement of the Aviation Authority and our timeline and budget didn’t stretch that far, but we could still pull off an autonomous delivery our way.
So what could go wrong? Turns out – quite a few things! Even though we really did nothing that was technically amazing (those of you immersed in the business of drones know of their capabilities), pulling it all together proved to be a lot of work and took the spirit of a whole team of people to make it happen and some of those spirits, including my own, waned toward the end. The custom drone build proved difficult under the time constraints, insurance surprises lurked because it wasn’t ‘off the shelf’ and sourcing drone parts was time consuming as most everything needed to be imported. As time marched on and deadlines were missed because of technical issues or weather, the pressure mounted.
We decided to approach the project as two separate events. The first was the making of a promotional video. The second was the autonomous crossing. We had to make sure that at the very least, we had the footage to tell the story of what could be (#DeliveringTheFuture), before we sent the drone across, just in case it didn’t make the journey and ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic. We had discussed the possibility of the drone failing mid crossing with An Post from the very first meeting – there was just no margin for error or nature and to their credit, they understood the risk. But as the client, they really wanted this to succeed. We all did.
So we started, full of enthusiasm. We set out to build a heavy lift, choosing a Gryphon Dynamicsframe, mostly because it’s visually impressive and easy to brand.
The vertical faces on the arms (rather than the carbon pipes) looked great wrapped and the Z frame also gave us the chance to seat a 3D printed box above the drone rather than below. It allowed better access for the postal operative and I had an idea of a shot where we could look down on the drone and actually see the box as it flew over the water beneath. One shot that told the whole story.
Additionally, we chose a Pixhawk 2.1 controller – capable, reliable and within budget! However, in reality it proved to be a very finicky piece of kit to set up (if you dig deeper into forums this piece of information is available) and needs a lot of time to play with before it lives up to its reputation. One thing we didn’t have was a surplus of time. We stuck with it and eventually it got off the ground and seemed good.
Steve wearing his director’s hat with An Post’s Richard Miley as well as Keith Tracey and Niamh Talbot in the background looking on.
With the drone ready we could embark on Phase I.
After several weeks of engineering and several more weeks of pre-production, our crew of 6 set off for County Mayo with the Green Machine in tow.
In the production van resided a RED Dragon, a case of Prime Lenses, a custom landing pad and other props and various pieces of equipment necessary for filming.
The West Coast of Ireland is breathtaking, but it’s not called theWild Atlantic Way for nothing and Clare Island is situated smack bang in the middle, complete with its own micro climate. As we set up for the first crossing attempt over 5km of open water and measured winds at altitude on the day, we realized we had miscalculated the propulsion power necessary to make the crossing.
When we ran the numbers on paper, it seemed we should have been able to get enough range and time running on the X4 with 4 U7 motors, but we very quickly realized that we had under propped the drone. Could we have made it across on what we had? Perhaps. But if we wanted the extra power margin (to be sure), we’d need to add another 22,000 milliamp battery, 4 more motors and bigger props. This weight increase posed a second problem. The original pilot, Keith, was licensed to fly up to 7.5kg. The new additions would bump the drone to circa 10kg. We would have to source another pilot licensed to fly the heavier rig. It was disappointing for us all, but in reality, we had plenty on our plate with the actual video production and that became the focus. Phase II would have to wait.
Keith Tracey soldering in his workshop
Rebuilt X8 test flight
Once the video production was complete, back at the bench Phase II began. Four extra motors, more batteries, bigger props and an increased gross takeoff weight meant we needed a new pilot with a different class of license. We put the feelers out in the community and found a pilot who fit the bill and was available. By this time the budget had evaporated, but determination kicked in.
We made the decision to put a safety net in place. Our second pilot had just taken possession of a heavy lift drone with a DJI A3 flight controller on board which was capable of the appropriate mission planning and he very kindly offered it as a back up. It really took the pressure off knowing that everything didn’t rely on a single drone on the day. A lot of work had gone into making the green drone and it looked phenomenal. The last thing we wanted was to put it to the ultimate test over open water and see it go down – project over, no record, no delivery!
We arrived at Roonagh pier a few days later on Thursday July 5th with two drones, several cameras and a RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat). Clare Island Ferry Company, who run the ferry between Roonagh pier and Clare Island and who also own and operate the RIB, couldn’t have been more accommodating. Before we did any test flights, we took the RIB ride over to the island to time the journey, test the sea state and to make sure the drone pilot could control the radio and sticks in a moving boat if it was necessary. We wanted to map the approach to the bay and secure the landing zone.
We returned to Roonagh Pier to carry out another of our safety flight tests. Given the winds at altitude and our planned boat speed of 20 knots, running out of battery margin was still a possibility, so we erred on the side of caution, transferred the parcel to the larger drone and flew it across, leaving the X8 on the pier to live another day and look good for branded photo opportunities.
Steve & Fearghus with his new DJI – our back up drone
Having planned the mission waypoints, we boarded the RIB and positioned it next to the drone on a private pier. The drone pilot started the pre-planned flight mission, and the drone climbed safely to 30 meters altitude, paused and then flew to the first preprogramed point adjacent to the RIB. From here both the drone and the RIB set off side by side towards the open water.
The drone remained within 50-100m of the RIB at all times as the pre-programmed mission was set to fly at the exact speed of the RIB i.e. 10 m/s which is 20 knots – a good clip for a big drone. While the drone could go faster, we wanted to stay well under control and this speed ensured that both rigs were in tandem with each other and if needed, the pilot could pause, stop, speed up or slow down the drone so it wouldn’t get out ahead. A second pilot was on hand – me – as a spotter and as an emergency back up in the unlikely event something should happen to the actual pilot mid crossing and I had to press the ‘Home’ button. I got skillz 🙂 Another real consideration was our safety in the RIB. We couldn’t go any faster on the boat without risking being bounced overboard.
Drone Mid Crossing
When the drone arrived at Clare Island, it came in over the bay, turned left, and was programmed to hold over the water while we made doubly sure the beach was locked down and there was no risk to anyone in the area. After we got out of the RIB, we walked to the beach and manually brought the drone in for a soft landing.
One autonomous parcel delivery across 5km of open water in 11 minutes 20 secs.
An Post Tweet July 6th 2018
While it was gutsy putting a drone like that out over the sea, I think the technical achievement of this project is not the whole point. Drones have been capable of flying Waypoint missions for quite some time. There are many big companies putting millions into drone technology to do fully autonomous deliveries. I know the tremendous work going into safety and reliability – and we haven’t contributed to that R&D in any major way. But what we have done, in my view, is just as important. We broke a record, achieved the first autonomous parcel delivery in Ireland and most importantly – we started a conversation.
We were able to do this without the involvement of the Aviation Authority because it was Line of Sight and tasked by responsible, licensed individuals who have been flying drones commercially in Ireland for several years, who motivated, who are not reckless, who want to see the industry advance safely and who innovated and achieved ‘a first’ – and we’re proud of that.
At the end of the day, no matter who is flying these machines or how advanced the technology, drones will not achieve their potential unless we win the hearts and minds of the communities they fly over. Companies like An Post have to figure out how to integrate them into their business, and help communities accept their presence by utilizing tools that enhance safety and transparency. The fact that we were able to fly an ‘off-the-shelf’ (albeit a very expensive shelf) drone this distance autonomously is testament to how far the technology has come. That it made a few people a little nervous, is understandable. This project was designed by An Post to get attention – and do it in a way that was inspiring and hopeful for the future use of this technology. We are happy with what we achieved, and have proven what can be done with some imagination, diligence to rules and regulations, two guys, and a RIB. It was nerve racking looking at the drone out over open water with nowhere to land if it needed to get out of the air. It left me with a profound sense of what it’s actually going to take to make this a daily, regular occurrence in all types of weather. The companies and people building for that day and institutions like NASA & SESAR developing UTM (Unmanned Traffic Management) have my deepest respect and admiration. But as good as things are today, we’re nowhere near ready for prime-time and fully autonomous operations at scale are still in the R & D stages.