Pittsburgh Drone Masters work to demystify technology

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On a cloudless 75-degree day in Sewickley’s Blueberry Hill Park, as parents divided attention between peewee lacrosse and toddlers racing on grassy mounds around the field, eyes in the sky were capturing it all.

Conversely, the moment that the Pittsburgh Drone Masters meetup group sent the first of three DJI Phantom Quadcopters — 21st-century remote control aircraft decked out with high-definition cameras and GPS capability — 60-feet vertical, all eyes on the ground darted from the sky to the men behind the controls.

With laws and opinions surrounding use of unmanned aerial systems — commonly known as drones — in a state of flux, the moment in the spotlight was more glare than glow for drone master Tom Reinsel.

The Pittsburgh Drone Masters

The Pittsburgh Drone Masters, a crew of around 40 unmanned aerial vehicle enthusiasts, are out to prove that privacy and safety concerns about drones are small prices to pay for what the technology can bring the nation (Video by Andrew Rush; 7/11/14)

“I never fly in front of people,” said Mr. Reinsel, a serial entrepreneur and Sewickley resident who said he usually flies on a Blueberry Hill Park hill with a little less foot traffic.

Taking the opposite approach, the group’‍s founder, Micah Rosa of the South Side, said the attention offered a chance to demystify the technology for a population that will have to adjust to a future with drones sharing the skies.

PG graphic: Drone use poll
(Click image for larger version)

With Hong Kong-based DJI’s models retailing online anywhere from $600 for a basic model to $1,500 for a model equipped with a GoPro camera, many Pittsburghers have probably already come across a drone, including one that flew over PNC Park during a Pirates game late last month. The operator landed after a warning from Pittsburgh police, but the Federal Aviation Administration pursued an investigation of the incident regardless.

Whether it’‍s online or in person, Mr. Rosa has taken on the duty of telling the public that drones are the evolution of the model plane — not a device made to remotely peek into bedroom windows or to launch missiles at unsuspecting citizens.

“I’‍m big on education, so I try to be found in search results so that I can bring [drones] out in a good light,” Mr. Rosa said.

Between amateur enthusiasts, tech-savvy police departments and a White House order to explore commercial use by 2015, drones are simultaneously coming and already here for the American public.

The question for entrepreneurs sitting on business plans tied to unmanned flight is, when will they be able to join an industry estimated to reach $89 billion globally in the next decade, according to Fairfax, Va.-based aerospace research company Teal Group.

Commercial drones are currently banned in the U.S., but the FAA is allowing private companies to test flights by using experimental airworthiness certificates. It has established six research and testing sites to explore safety, privacy and other concerns surrounding the technology.

On Friday, online retailer Amazon applied for a certificate to conduct testing in Seattle for drones traveling up to 50 miles per hour as part of its proposed Amazon Prime Air delivery service. The company has yet to receive a response from the FAA.

Industry insiders predict the nation won’t see drones en masse until sometime next decade. FAA officials say the process, no matter how lengthy, will make safety the top priority.

“We have a mandate to protect the American people in the air and on the ground, and the public expects us to carry out that mission,” said FAA administrator Michael Huerta.

If the nation’‍s technology sector is denied domestic entry to the drone market much longer, it may be difficult to stage a comeback, according to Mario Mairena, government relations manager for Arlington, Va.-based trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Mr. Mairena will be in Pittsburgh today for the General Aviation Conference at the Downtown Omni William Penn Hotel. His goal is to promote the future of commercial unmanned aerial systems, which the organization predicts will bring 2,000 jobs and $400 million to the state in its first three years.

“The fact that we’re not able to fly commercially yet makes it hard to be economically competitive globally when it comes to unmanned aerial systems. Our international partners are flying commercially and have been for quite some time,” Mr. Mairena said, adding that Japan has been using unmanned aerial systems to monitor agriculture for the past decade.

Even with the FAA’s latest actions, the period of uncertainty has become something of a hurdle for investment, said Dick Zhang, founder of South Side-based Identified Technologies, an industrial unmanned aerial systems company.

Mr. Zhang said his company has garnered interest from dozens of investors who backed off when they realized the state of national laws. Identified Technologies’‍ drones are designed to fly themselves around industrial sites such as oil rigs and construction zones to survey the grounds, analyze data captured, and automatically send results back to the home company.

The company has raised $400,000 so far, but Mr. Zhang said it could have raised much more with clear federal guidelines for the industry.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people don’‍t like cloudy [rules],” he said.

With tens of thousands of dollars per assignment on the line for site inspections, aerial photography and other drone-friendly functions, many businesses are skirting the law to film for profit. A recent ruling by the National Transportation Safety Board that said the FAA has “no enforceable rule” that applied to a drone hobbyists’ aircraft has added to the confusion.

The FAA has issued guidance for model airplane operators since then, but individuals looking for shortcuts around the law aren’t paying attention.

“It’‍s a scofflaw type of thing right now. Nobody cares,” said Patrick Egan, a former member of the FAA’s small Unmanned Aerial Systems Aviation Rulemaking Committee who advocates drone use for business. Mr. Egan said companies dodge FAA detection by conducting business strictly through their websites or taking payments for services unrelated to the actual flight.

As much as he sympathized with businesses operating in the shadows, Mr. Egan also would like to see quick clarification of the laws to ensure everyone’‍s safety.

“The FAA always talks about the safety of people on the ground and in the air, but the very people that have extracted themselves from the business are licensed pilots. They’re removed from the [unmanned aerial systems] industry because they have licenses and certification, but they don’‍t want to get busted and lose their licenses,” Mr. Egan said.

Whether it’s a commercial flight delivering a pizza or an amateur shot of a park, privacy and safety are top public concerns in the age of the drone, according to a poll conducted for the Post-Gazette by East Liberty data science firm CivicScience.

Of 3,007 survey respondents, 84 percent nationwide and 81 percent of Pittsburghers polled said they were concerned about drones. For them, the biggest issues were privacy, surveillance and trespassing in Pittsburgh and across the nation, followed by safety, reliability and property damage.

Amateur enthusiasts such as the Drone Masters will continue to abide by laws prohibiting flying near airports and air traffic, flying above 400 feet and using aircraft heavier than 55 pounds. However, Mr. Reinsel predicted licensing, safety and privacy requirements that could fall upon commercial drone pilots might be a next step for amateurs under new laws.

He’‍s more than OK with an outcome that separates the peeping Toms and hobbyists flying over PNC Park from the majority of unmanned aerial system hobbyists.

“There are people that abuse technology and people that are good. We need rules to take care of the people who abuse the technology,” Mr. Reinsel said.

Article corrected to note that CivicScience is based in East Liberty.

Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652. Twitter: @deborahtodd.

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