About Maestro

Raw analog FPV footage from a flight with a Blade Nano QX FPV (a 22 gram / 0.78 oz FPV quadcopter) from a drone-themed gathering at Greylock VC in San Francisco organized by Chris McCann / Greylock. Participants included Adam Bry (Skydio), Andreas Raptopoulos (Matternet), Antoine Balaresque (Lily), Buddy Michini (Airware), Dan Burton (DroneBase), Dr. Greg McNeal and Ben Marcus (Airmap), Dr. Parimal K. “PK” (NASA), Eric Cheng (self), Paul Doersch (Kespry), Viraj Tipnis (SkyFund), Romeo Durscher (DJI), Jerry Chen (Greylock).

Flight by Eric Cheng, recorded with Fat Shark Dominator V2 FPV goggles.

A month ago, at WSJ.D Live, seven autonomous DJI Phantom 3 quadcopters lifted off the ground and performed a drone ballet, arranging themselves in patterns to music. Spark Aerial were the technical wizards behind the show, using DJI’s SDK to control the small swarm of Phantoms. Swarming quadcopters isn’t new, but prior examples of drone swarming required external position tracking or one-off drones made by research organizations like KMEL Robotics (since acquired by Qualcomm) and ETH Zurich. Parrot’s AR Drone also does swarm dances at various events, but uses external position indicators (a visually-encoded floor) and are done in controlled environments.

The WSJ.D drone ballet is really interesting; it hasn’t been covered in the press very much, but the event is as an early indicator of what is possible with current, off-the-shelf drone technology, even at such an early phase in the larger arc of what drones will be capable of doing.

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We had a great time hanging out on Good Morning America last night as part of GMA’s 40-hour live celebration of being on the air for 40 years. We talked drones for a full hour from the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. Becky Worley hosted, and we were joined by DJI (Randy Braun, Michael Perry, and Brendan Schulman, New York City Drone Film Festival (Randy Scott Slavin), Renée Lusano (Queen of the Dronies). As a bonus, I got to plug my book!


The Bay Area Drone Film Festival has teamed up with the Know Before You Fly education campaign to welcome a new category to this year’s competition. Festival organizers invite drone enthusiasts and videographers to produce short, creative videos that promote the safe and responsible use of unmanned aircraft systems.

The special category allows the growing community of drone enthusiasts to get involved in airspace safety by uniquely promoting the appropriate practices of their hobby through the festival. The winning video will be featured as part of the Know Before You Fly campaign.

“Drones have opened the door to views and perspectives that we’ve only dreamed of before,” says Clay Coleman, director of the Bay Area Drone Film Festival. “We are promoting drone education and entertainment to the public by showcasing videos that shed light on the diverse views and nature we often take for granted or have never imagined.”

Coleman, who is also an air traffic control supervisor at the Federal Aviation Administration, says the contest will help teach drone users the importance of safety.

“This can be a great way to contribute to the overall safety of UAS operations, and to promote your name as a filmmaker. It really fits with our mission for the festival to reinforce how responsible and enlightening this community can be.”

If you’re interested in submitting a video for competition, it must feature the basics of drone safety and remind prospective users to:

  • fly below 400 feet
  • stay away from emergency responders, people and other aircraft
  • keep at least 5 miles away from an airport unless permitted by air traffic control and airport authorities
  • operate within visual line of sight

Submissions will be accepted through the festival’s FilmFreeway site until Jan. 24, 2016. The screening and awards event will be held at the AMC Mercado 20 in Santa Clara, California, on Feb. 28, 2016.  Visit the Know Before You Fly website or the festival homepage for more information.

About Know Before You Fly

Know Before You Fly is an education campaign founded by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) in partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to educate prospective users about the safe and responsible operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

About Bay Area Drone Film Festival

The Bay Area Drone Film Festival was created to showcase some of the positive aspects of drone use. A lot of the focus on drones has been negative, but educating the public on the positive ways drones are being used in society will hopefully change the negative perception. One of the best ways to reduce unsafe drone operations and misuse is to increase awareness of safety guidelines and airspace rules that have been in place for a long time.

What the heck is ADS-B and why should I care?

I asked myself that question a year-and-a-half ago, because I kept seeing the term ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast) come up in discussions and articles on unmanned aircraft traffic management (UTM).

You may have seen it yourself in the UTM solutions proposed by Amazon, Google, PrecisionHawk, and NASA, with NASA trying to coordinate it all.  They all know that someday unmanned vehicles will share airspace at low altitudes with general aviation equipment such as airplanes, helicopters, and gliders. Agreeing on a safe and efficient system that will manage both manned and unmanned traffic is a vital concern for the FAA, NASA, private companies, and academic users.

NASA’s UTM Fact Sheet summarizes the concern that there is currently no infrastructure system in place for UAS flight:

“A UAS traffic management (UTM) system for low-altitude airspace is needed, much like today’s surface vehicles that operate within a system consisting of roads, lanes, stop signs, rules, and lights, regardless of whether the vehicle is automated or driven by a human… Civilian use of UAS has many growing applications: product delivery, surveillance security, agriculture, film industry, mapping and planning, real estate, and search and rescue.”

This was never envisioned when the FAA conceived the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) for manned aviation, which is due for implementation across the U.S. in stages between 2012 and 2025 and proposes to transform America’s ground-based air traffic control system to a satellite-based one. So, here we are looking for an infrastructure solution to low-altitude flight management, and the mistake may be that we are trying to solve it with an “all-altitude” flight management solution.

Regardless of the origin, all of these system proposals all have one thing in common – ADS-B.   This technology is the key element for the system ‘tracking’ and reporting a drone’s position to other aircraft.

But is it right for all small UAS operating in Class G airspace?

With that question in mind, we conducted an in-depth research study and have just released it: ADS-B and Its Use for Small Drone Traffic Management.

The study is both qualitative and quantitative. The qualitative portion includes information gleaned from academic sources as well business sources — including interviews with aircraft avionic vendors working on ADS-B solutions for all size UAS. Data collected for the quantitative portion study comes from a survey we conducted over the web in August 2015.

The study gives six key insights and seven recommendations. For example, it finds ADS-B is a complex topic that includes a myriad of acronyms (such as “ADS-B” itself), frequencies, and technical concepts. These important details need to be well understood in order to be discussed and adapted.  It also finds the small UAS community does not fully understand the issues of ADS-B “Out” and seems to know very little about how ADS-B “In” works. This insight is supported from the statistics we gathered in our survey.

We also gathered statistics about perceptions of current ADS-B transponders.  Most survey respondents felt current ADS-B units are too expensive, too big, and too heavy – and for the most part, they are right.  Over half had a concern about power consumption – an important issue for small drones since most don’t have a lot of power reserve. To be fair some avionics vendors do have or are working on cheaper, smaller, lightweight units specifically for the small drone market.  They’re also working to solve the power consumption issue.  These vendors are listed in the report.

The study:

  • determines the practicability of using ADS-B for use in small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) from the perspective of owners and operators
  • analyzes if ADS-B is the right solution for small drones operating in low-altitude airspace
  • identifies ten major issues with current ADS-B technology that become even more concerning once you start putting transponders on a small drone flying at a low altitude
  • informs about recent innovations, technical limitations, and integration attempts
  • evaluates how well commercial drone service providers and operators understand the issues of ADS-B
  • calls out the traffic management issues that need to be addressed if ADS-B is used and integrated with other alternative technologies

The report is a great primer for those who want to understand the technology and what impact it might have on the commercial drone industry.  It provides fresh information for industry veterans, entrepreneurs and investors, veteran avionics vendors, and drone manufacturers of all kinds. The full text of the report is 37 pages and contains the most salient industry statistics illustrated by 18 figures.

You can find instructions to purchase the report here.

If you have questions about what’s in the report or would like to comment on it after reading it write me colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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These days it seems just about anyone can get an FAA Section 333 Exemption that allows them to legally use small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) for commercial purposes in the U.S.  As of October 20, 2015, almost 71% of all Section 333 grants have gone to firms claiming that their primary operation/mission is Film/Photo/Video (and most claim multiple uses).  This includes companies that are using drones for movies, as well as for art and real estate, among other things. Inspection and Monitoring has seen the second highest issuance rate, at 31%, while Mapping and Surveying for land and commercial construction, rounds out the top three at 20%.

Looking further into the data, AUVSI reports that at least 84% — and perhaps as many as 94.5%– of all approved companies are small businesses. While we don’t agree with their astronomical forecast (see our write-up here), we concur with this analysis.

But here’s the catch.  With the bar so low for starting a commercial drone service, what’s the guarantee these businesses will succeed? According to Bloomberg, eight out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months. A whopping 80% crash and burn. So given the risk, it makes sense to assess which markets and use cases provide the best chance of success, the skills you’ll need, and the value-add services you should be offering those markets.

Here are five services we think you should consider offering as part of your commercial drone business:

  1. $ – Video
  2. $$ – Mapping
  3. $$$ – Photogrammetry
  4. $$$$ – LiDAR
  5. ??? – Spectral imaging

I’ve put dollar signs next to each service and listed them in progression to represent both the skill and value each has for potential customers. Notice I’ve got question marks there by spectral imaging.  That’s because the jury is still out on whether there is a solid ROI on this service vs. that provided by manned aircraft for precision agriculture.  Precision agriculture often gets touted as the #1 place where “drones will transform the world” but the hard reality is this is a specialized application and a very complex market.  (I have written about this extensively and you can find some very important details in a post I wrote more than a year ago called Film or Farm: Which is Largest Drone Market – Part 2?)

Skill 1 – Video

Now some of you may be wondering why I included video on my list.  We often see drone video footage on YouTube and think it’s cool. But the hard fact is commercial buyers of drone video services have a much higher standard.  So you will, too, if you want to make money in the Film/Photo/Video market.

By now you know shooting good drone video starts with selecting the right drone, the right camera, with the right lens, mounted on the right gimbal.  It’s not a secret any drone enthusiast can go out and buy a DJI Phantom Vision 3 for about $1,200 and shoot 4K video. But just because you can fly it and press the ‘record’ button does not make you a professional aerial videographer.  There is much more to it than that. For one, shooting good video requires you to be skilled in the basics of:

  • Shots (FOV, framing, perspective)
  • Moves (pan, tilt, truck, dolly, etc.)
  • Technique (zoom, action, follow, etc.)

For another, there is timeline editing.  What are you going to do with all that footage?  Hand it to the customer raw?  You could, but it’s better to have it edited or least know how it’s done so you can offer assistance or more services.  For that, you will need to be skilled at:

  • Storytelling / sequencing
  • Cuts
  • Transitions
  • Graphics
  • Lighting
  • Color grading

These aren’t all the things you need to know but if you don’t know these I suggest you get some basic film-school training and offer a better service than the kid next door with a quadcopter and a GoPro.

Skill 2 – Mapping

In researching drones and aerial photography and mapping, you might find yourself coming across new terms. One of the basic ones you should know is “orthomosaic photo” or “orthophotos.”  Orthophotos (aka ‘orthos’) are basically photos that have been stitched together to make a larger one and then corrected.  The technique is not unique to drones.  Orthomosaics have been created by aerial photographers in manned aircraft for years and used by lots of industries.

The point here is if you are not familiar with the techniques and software to create orthos, then I recommend you acquaint yourself with it because it is a valuable service for which customers in the Mapping / Surveying market will pay handsomely. There are even drone apps that automate the whole process like DroneDeploy and Pix4D.

Skill 3 – Photogrammetry

Photogrammetry is a technique which uses photography to measure the environment. This is achieved through overlapping imagery; where the same site can be seen from two perspectives, it is possible to calculate measurements. Again, this technique is not unique to drone imagery, but there is some good news here.  Off-the-shelf software, like Agisoft PhotoScan and SimActive, is plentiful and fairly easy to learn.

The hard part is providing your customer with valuable measurement information.  And the harder part is competing with firms that have been offering this service for years now using ground-based systems combined with aircraft.  For this, you will need some specialized skills and will need to be certified so that you are recognized. One way to get certification is through the American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS).

An ASPRS Certified Photogrammetrist is a professional who uses photogrammetric technology to extract measurements and make maps and interpret data from images. The Photogrammetrist is responsible for all phases of mapping and other mensuration requirements, which include planning and supervising survey activities for control, specifying photography or other imagery requirements, managing projects for mapping or other mensuration requirements and interpretation. You can find more information on their programs here.

Skill 4 – LiDAR

LiDAR drones are fairly new as the units have become smaller and lightweight.  But LiDAR is not new to surveyors and engineers.  They’ve been using ground-based and airborne LiDAR scanning units for years.

The good news is LiDAR drones are great for scanning small areas like building sites and getting in hard-to-reach areas like under bridges.  In this way they provide a significant cost advantage over aircraft or helicopters with LiDAR units and have the greatest margin potential as a service for the Inspection / Monitoring market.

You can get trained and become a Certified LiDAR Technologist (CLT) through ASPRS.  A CLT is technician who performs routine LiDAR collection support and first-level data processing integrating established plans and procedures.  Find information on that here.

Skill 5 – Spectral Imaging

I put this here last because, as I mention earlier, it’s not clear whether drones provide a significant cost savings to the buyer vs. the same service provided by manned aircraft for the Precision Agriculture market.  There are ROI studies being done now, but most people who provide this service will tell you that farmers aren’t willing to pay much for this service.  Why spend $4 to $5 per acre for you to fly a drone overhead and deliver a normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) map unless there is a clear return on that investment?  Some will – like growers of high-margin crops like fruits and nuts – but most won’t. Again, this is a competitive market that demands a lot of knowledge about precision agriculture and remote sensing techniques.

I would to hear your thoughts on these skills.  Send me your comments or write us colin@droneanalyst.com.

Image credit: Shutterstock

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