Drones for Christmas

Over the past few years, remote-controlled multicopters, often referred to as “drones,” have become more sophisticated, less expensive and easier to use. More and more people are taking to the skies in these multicopters ranging from micro quadcopters which fit in the palm of your hand all the way to massive octocopters capable of lifting pro-grade cinema cameras.

With an unprecedented number of these multicopters finding their way into stockings and under trees this holiday season, the important question comes up, “how do I fly mine safely?”

I’ve been flying multicopters as a hobby for the better part of a year, both the popular DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter as well as a custom Y6 hexacopter I built with my mentor back in October. While I can attest to how much fun they are, I always treat them with a great deal of respect, having seen the damage and injury they can cause. The bottom line is that these are not toys, even if they may look like toys.

Before you even get airborne, make sure you know where you can and cannot fly. For instance, most Air Force bases are Class D restricted airspaces extending five nautical miles from the runway in all directions horizontally, and from the ground to 2,500 feet above ground level vertically. This means that outdoor flying on-base is prohibited. (learn more about Class D airspace at https://www.faa.gov/air_traffic/publications/atpubs/AIR/air1702.html)

Some people might argue that as long as the multicopter is kept below the treeline, it’s safe, but that’s not necessarily true.

Multicopters have their own control boards and are self-powered. This means that there is an ever-present danger of what’s known as a “fly away.” This is when communication is lost between the remote control (called a transmitter) and the receiver on the multicopter, and the multicopter begins to fly away on its own. Normally, the only danger would be to the multicopter, but this close to an active airfield, there’s a very real possibility that a fly away could find its way into a fighter jet engine intake, severely damaging the Jet and obliterating the multicopter.

Flying elsewhere isn’t free from rules either. The Federal Aviation Administration outlined rules for model aircraft in their Advisory Circular 91-57. Among the short list of rules is a paragraph stating that model aircraft pilots should contact the airport operator when flying within three miles of an airport. This would include the Mountain Home Municipal Airport. Note that it doesn’t say you can’t fly within three miles, just that you need to contact the airport operator and ask for permission.

There are other areas that are no-fly zones for remote-controlled aircraft including the area around Washington D.C. and national parks. To see a fairly comprehensive list of these no-fly zones, take a look at this map: https://www.mapbox.com/drone/no-fly/?embed=true#5/33.174/-83.364

AC 91-57 has some other useful and important tips as well. Starting with the obvious, it says to avoid full-scale aircraft, and to use observers to help if possible. It also says to stay within 400 feet of the surface. The 400-foot rule is important. Planes can’t fly below 500 feet above ground level, so this rule creates a 100-foot buffer between multicopters and full-size aircraft.

There has also been recent guidance saying not to fly in first-person view, i.e., flying by watching a video feed from a camera mounted to the multicopter. This means you need direct line of sight of your aircraft at all times and steer it by watching the multicopter instead. It’s important to follow this advice, both for the safety of your drone as well as your surroundings. Multicopters, especially, can move in all directions, and if you start to drift backwards, you won’t know what’s behind your drone if you’re only looking at the live feed. You may not even realize you’re drifting until it’s too late. One time, I was looking at my live feed for a brief moment to line up an aerial photograph. I thought I had drifted backwards about 20 feet when it was really more like 150 feet. I had anticipated the drift and cleared a path, but it still caused me to panic for a moment when I looked up and didn’t immediately see my drone where I had left it.

Speaking of navigation, some multicopters like the DJI Phantom 2 can use GPS technology to retain a constant position despite wind currents. Along with improved stability and hover capabilities, the GPS also allows the pilot to set parameters of how far to fly away from its starting point (both vertically and horizontally) as well as what to do in the event of a lost control signal. Be sure to read the instruction manual of your multicopter if it came with one, and learn how to use computer- and smartphone-based configuration tools to set these parameters, especially the 400-foot vertical limit. Unfortunately, even when multicopters have these settings available, they’re usually set to 1,200 feet or higher, which is well above the FAA limit.

Reading the manual is important for other aspects as well. For instance, it’s good to learn how to properly handle and store your battery. Some of the high-capacity lithium polymer batteries multicopters use can explode in six-foot flames if handled incorrectly. Learning the warning signals the multicopter’s lights can display and calibrating the compass can help prevent a fly-away as well.

Once you’ve considered safety in the air, now it’s time to think about safety on the ground. My friend and mentor, Retired Tech. Sgt. Parker Gyokeres, likes to refer to multicopters as “flying electric machetes.” He’s not far from the truth. With the exception of micro-quadcopters, even small quadcopters like the DJI Phantom can easily send someone to the hospital with deep cuts. A friend of mine was unlucky enough to experience this first-hand (no pun intended) when his brand new Phantom cut his thumb right to the bone. Like I said before, I treat my multicopters like loaded firearms.

Never fear though, if you treat them with respect and follow some safety advice, the likelihood of a safety incident reduces significantly.

– Make sure anyone you’re flying near knows what you’re doing and what to do in the case of an emergency (pro-tip, don’t put up your bare hand to stop it like my friend did). Enlist their help to keep an eye out for air traffic or other potential risks.
– Don’t fly over crowds. When things go wrong with your multicopter, they go wrong rapidly. You don’t want it to happen over a crowd full of people with soft, fleshy faces to slice off.
– Check your gear and take the time to do a full startup. It takes time for the GPS to lock-on and set its home point. Give it the time to do all this and your flight will be much smoother.
– Practice flying in a wide open space away from people first, and know how to use other flight modes in case GPS mode fails. This will help prevent you from accidentally drifting over people. Some of these multicopters are capable of speeds up to 35 miles per hour. Combined with the frequent high winds here in Idaho, it can make for a dangerous mix of speed and instability.

It’s also important to find a mentor, either online or locally. Learning from their mistakes can help prevent making the same mistakes. There is a wealth organizations and resources out there for new multicopter pilots, and I can certainly help anyone who’s interested. Remember, this is just a starting point of information, and I highly encourage you to learn more about your new multicopter so you can fly it safely, and best of all, have fun!

To review, here’s a starting point for flying safely:
– Don’t fly within five nautical miles of the flightline (i.e., on base)
– Find out about other no-fly zones at https://www.mapbox.com/drone/no-fly/?embed=true#5/33.174/-83.364
– Stay below 400 feet AGL (above ground level). If your multicopter has a setting to restrict flight range, use it.
– Fly line-of-sight, not first-person view.
– Handle batteries with care.
– Learn to fly in a wide-open area before you fly around people.
– Brief those around you when flying.
– Don’t fly over people or cars.
– Check your gear, read the manual, and make sure you have a full startup and GPS lock (if applicable) before taking off.
– Check the weather for wind and precipitation.
– Find a mentor or flying buddy to learn and stay safe.
– Have fun!

Editor’s note: This list is not all-inclusive and subject to change pending FAA guidance.

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