UAV news round-up: Rules, birds and malicious drones

February 17, 2016  - By

This month’s column recaps UAV news that you may or may not have picked up over the last few weeks. We start with stories related to the rules for operating drones in the U.S., then we’ll look at bird-like drones — used to scare away birds, new commercial UAV applications, and steps being taken to protect us from malicious use of drones and other possible “impacts” of drones.

Who owns the air?

A long time back, the U.S. Congress passed laws which gave the government control above 500 feet and limited land rights so that overflying aircraft could not be considered as trespassing over private property. But, it turns out, ownership of the airspace from the ground up to 500 feet may not be that clear.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently reaffirmed that the agency controls all U.S. airspace, even right down to the ground, but it seems that landowners may still have some claim to their own air directly above their property.

In a precedent-setting case dating back to World War II, the U.S. Supreme Court said that landowners have rights to as much airspace as they can use for the enjoyment and use of their land. So if “enjoyment and use” entails flying a UAV at up to 500 feet above their property or alternatively requires no UAVs flying above their own roof-line, who’s rights prevail?

Certainly, there seems to be a number of people who are not too fond of UAVs being allowed to fly over their homes at low altitude. Manned aircraft might be a different kettle of fish as they generally fly higher and don’t seem to bug most people as much. And noise abatement regulations attempt to limit the sound of loud aircraft engines on landing and take-off.

But with this continuing ambiguity, several state and local governments have already begun to take steps to protect airspace over people’s homes.

There are currently more than 150 active bills in more than 30 states — either carried over from 2015 or introduced this year.

Indeed, the FAA, in an effort to dissuade such lawmaking activity, recently released a fact sheet on state and local drone regulations: “Navigable airspace free from inconsistent state and local restrictions is essential to the maintenance of a safe-and-sound air transportation system,” said the FAA. The agency urged local and state lawmakers to consult it before making any new regulations. And it would clearly be far better for drone manufacturers and operators if there was only one set of (FAA) regulations across the whole U.S., rather than each user having to navigate a tangled web of potentially conflicting local and state regulations.

In the meantime, there has been at least one case in which a property owner sought to protect his “home and castle” by unloading a shotgun into a low-overflying drone. The lawsuit was settled to the benefit of the property owner, rather than the drone operator, so property rights did prevail in this case.

Nearly 300,000 owners have registered their small unmanned aircraft (sUAV) in the first 30 days using the FAA’s online registration system and have received a refund for the $5 application fee. While the refund period has now expired, the agency continues to see a steady stream of daily registrations.

The FAA’s registration rule, which took effect on December 21, 2015, applies to sUAV that weigh between 0.55 lbs. and 55 lbs. Existing owners of these aircraft must register before Feb. 19, 2016. The current online system only supports use by recreational or hobby operators, while the FAA hopes to provide commercial operators with access by March 21.

Name, address and email are required ,and a registration number and printable certificate are then provided. The registration number must be marked on the UAV.

A drone flies in Russia.

A drone flies in Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law that obliges all private owners of unmanned aircraft weighing more than 250 grams to register them with the Federal Air Transport Agency.

According to the new act, which comes into force at the end of March 2016, owners and operators of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) must also appoint a crew and a commander responsible for flight safety. In order to operate, a flight plan must be submitted to the regional air traffic controllers — as required for manned aircraft operations — and the flight plan has to be followed unless an emergency landing is necessary when there is a threat to public safety.

Is that a bird or a drone?

But, of course, the more we try to overcome issues related to UAVs, the more complicated it seems to become. A core element of all FAA authorizations to date has been that a drone should never be operated within several miles of an airport to avoid collisions with aircraft. Now, a company has come up with a drone which carries a broadcast sound unit, programmed with a number of hawk, owl and other bird calls — ideal for scaring feeding or roosting birds away from areas we want to clear, such as at airport runways.

Bird strikes by aircraft in the critical phases of landing or take-off are a major concern for airlines and airports alike. Many methods have been tried to reduce birds flying around at the sound of loud aircraft noise. Birds can get sucked into engines or can damage other critical aircraft structures. Air blasts that sound like shotguns and flying live falcons are only a couple of methods used to clear birds away from airport approaches, departures and runways.

Bird-repelling drone.

Bird-repelling drone.

In the meantime, at least one enterprising associate prof at the University of Illinois has recognized the requirement and is developing a robotic falcon that chases birds away from airfields.


A flying falcon.

Soon-Jo Chung and his team have been supported by funding not only by the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award program to create the flying falcon above, but also by other sources to develop vision-based navigation. An analytical computer simulation has replicated motion control and avoidance so the robotic falcon can intelligently come up with motion planning algorithms.

And another the twist to this story is that bald eagles and other birds of prey are being trained to hunt and take down drones in the Netherlands. Dutch police have been investigating this natural “anti-drone technology” to combat criminal use of drones, and to counter the prospect of drones being used to deliver bombs or chemical and biological weapons.

UAV inspection/monitoring to reduce costs and enhance safety

A DJI UAV was recently used by Lufthansa Aerial Services to inspect rotor blades on wind turbines. Previously, inspection was somewhat dangerous, and required climbing the wind turbine tower. While cost reduction may be the principle motivation, it’s possible that wind turbine inspection and maintenance periods could also be extended.

And, in partnership with Flot Systems, Xcel Energy has become the first utility company to use drones in beyond-line-of-sight inspection of more than 320,000 miles of electricity and natural gas infrastructure.


Xcel began using UAVs to visually inspect substations in 2015, and is one of the first operations to receive FAA approval for research to use “beyond visual line of sight” for these inspections.

Previously, manned helicopters were contracted that would carry an inspector and would fly along transmission lines. But from a safety viewpoint, flying UAVs near high-voltage lines is less risky for workers and pilots. Transmission line inspectors also used to have to walk through difficult terrain which can also be hazardous.

(Editor’s note: Look for more information on UAV’s used for utility inspections in the March issue of GPS World.)

Another major area that can benefit from the use of drones is agriculture. Remote crop inspection through live and recorded video helps farmers gather much better information to support improved crop growth.

A Hermes 450 may be gathering lots of usable growing crop information this summer, provided an ag project in North Dakota is approved. The UAV can carry up to 400 pounds of sensors and cameras, and collects data at around 92 mph for 14 hours at 8,000 feet, covering 50,000 acres per hour.

Photos and videos of growing corn, sugar beet and other crops have the potential to identify fertility deficiencies, yield estimates, and weed and disease issues. North Dakota State University (NDSU) is collaborating with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and Elbit Systems of America to conduct the crop project.

The operation is planned to cover a whole county in North Dakota, mostly outside line-of-site of the operator, so in this case a manned aircraft is needed to observe the UAV — it’s a safety condition of the FAA Section 333 approval. Many producers in North Dakota are already buying, registering and flying their own smaller UAVs.

And one drone operator is taking a pro-active approach to help the agriculture industry decide if using drones can help them. Working with the American Farm Bureau Federation, on behalf of several major sponsors, Measure  has released what it calls the Drone Flight Calculator.

The Drone Flight Calculator quantifies the economic benefits of using drone services for crop monitoring — such as soy, corn or grapes. When data such as fertilizer use, farm size, and crop type are entered, the calculator provides economic returns by acre and for each growing season. Farmers can also learn how much they can expect to save on inputs such as fertilizer and irrigation.

Drone flies into hurricane

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been working with several UAVs to investigate the tracking and modeling of hurricanes. NOAA successfully deployed a Coyote UAV from a P-3 hurricane hunter aircraft into the eye of Hurricane Edouard in the fall of 2014. The Coyote is a small, expendable UAS that can be tube-launched from an aircraft or from the ground.

The seven-pound unmanned aircraft was deployed from a free-fall chute in the belly of the plane, which then opened its six-foot wingspan to fly through the storm. It can be controlled from miles away, but was piloted by scientists onboard the P-3.

A successful calibration flight over Avon Park, Florida, was recently completed, where a Coyote was launched from a P-3 hurricane hunter aircraft to prepare for deployment during storm season.

“This successful flight gives us additional confidence that we will be able to use this unique platform to collect critical continuous observations at altitudes in the storm environment that would otherwise be impossible,” said Joe Cione, a hurricane researcher at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory and chief scientist of the Coyote program.

Read more about the Coyote hurricane program here, and in the February print issue of GPS World.

Anti-drone system

With a particularly military look to it, a consortium of British companies has come up with a system to defeat potential attacks using drones. Dubbed the Anti-UAV Defence System (AUDS), it combines electronic scanning air security radar, a stabilized electro-optic director, infrared and daylight cameras, target tracking software, and a directional radio frequency (RF) inhibitor/jammer system.

Source: Tony Murfin

Anti-UAV Defence System (AUDS).

The portable system can spot small, slow-moving drones up to four miles away using radar. A military-grade camera then tracks it before jamming the radio signals that control it, making it impossible to fly. The whole process can take as little as 15 seconds.

With incidents of drone-related security breaches occurring regularly, there is a need to address heightened UAV concerns within military, government, critical infrastructure and commercial security organizations. While UAVs have many more positive applications, it’s nevertheless anticipated that they could also be used for terrorism, espionage and smuggling — with cameras, weapons, toxic chemicals, explosives and drugs as potential payloads.

The AUDS technology has apparently been extensively tested in South Korea, at French government trials and in UK government-sponsored counter-UAV trials.

In fact, this system or one very much like it underwent a successful trial at London’s Remembrance Day parade. The system was installed on the roof of Scotland Yard, close to where the Nov. 11 ceremonies took place. Police in the UK are apparently looking for such a device to block drones flown by terrorists at major public and sports events.

Along the same lines, Drone Labs has developed a Drone Detector unit that appears to use audio and radio frequency sensors along with GPS to find not only a drone, but also the location of the operator, over at least a range of 1 kilometer.

Drone Labs plans to add video, thermal and radar detection capabilities. The object is to provide some level of protection from drones used for illegal activities, such as delivering contraband at prisons. Some operations already using the system include movie sets, celebrities and facility management professionals seeking to protect assets and people from intrusive drones, as well as law enforcement. Presumably, criminals might also use such a system to reduce the risk of detection by law enforcement drones.

Crashing drone nearly hits skier

And, while it’s good that we put attention on protecting us from potential drone attacks, it’s unfortunate that we recently witnessed live TV coverage of a drone crash that could have had really bad consequences. In December, one of world’s best Alpine skiers was lucky not to be taken out by a crashing drone carrying a TV camera during a slalom run in Italy. Unfortunately, following the incident, the International Ski Federation (IFS) went on to ban camera drones from its World Cup races.

IFS’s broadcast partner — Infront Sports and Media — has indicated the likelihood that the control link to the UAV may have been lost, possibly due to radio interference. Infront has decided to engage an external independent expert to formally investigate the incident. IFS noted that the drone operator had agreed to maintain a safe 15-meter distance from the ski slope. However, it’s possible this safety margin was not maintained…..err, well, it would seem so! The drone fell directly onto the ski slope!

So, maybe it was some over-zealous operator error along with a technical failure — this can happen with any technology — but hopefully no active jamming was involved. For one, I was happy that nothing broke on the overhead camera-carrying wire-system following the action on the field at the Super Bowl this weekend! (It wasn’t such an exciting game in the end anyway.…)

Almost every day, news about UAVs continues to pour in with updates on regulation, legal aspects of drone operations, new ways to reduce costs by applying drones to an existing task, and privacy and security angles on why and when something should or shouldn’t be done with an unmanned air vehicle. It’s interesting to watch how things develop in this new industry — almost like when GPS was brand-new and just getting started…

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

This article is tagged with , , , , , , and posted in Opinions, UAV/UGV

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).

1 Comment on "UAV news round-up: Rules, birds and malicious drones"

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  1. Wiliam K. says:

    Getting around a system intended to jam drone controls would not be terribly complicated. AND, what was not mentioned, is how to stop drones following a programmed route that utilizes a GPS position reference system. Such systems are already commercially available and would certainly be the choice of many evildoers. Probably a high power laser system will be found to be the best choice for stopping drone devices, although laser-proofing methods undoubtedly exist.