Drone skies: how robot aircraft catch criminals – and invade our privacy

Call them what you want – flying robots, unmanned aircraft or drones – vehicles such as the tiny Indago quadrotor are changing the skies over America.
Photograph by Craig Cutler
Date:25 September 2013 Tags:, , ,

The proliferation of unmanned robot aircraft is already outpacing the regulations that govern them. Is America’s airspace big enough for a deluge of drones? By Richard Whittle | Additional reporting by Glenn Derene

It’s a quiet morning in San Francisco, with soft sunlight illuminating patches of thick fog billowing over the Golden Gate Bridge. A solitary unmanned aircraft – a 1,8 kg, battery-powered wedge of impact-resistant foam with a 137 cm wingspan, a single pusher-propeller in the rear and a GoPro video camera attached to its body – quietly approaches the landmark.

Raphael “Trappy” Pirker controls the aircraft from a nearby hill. The bridge is within sight, but the 29-year-old enjoys the scenery through virtual-reality goggles strapped to his head. The drone’s-eye view is broadcast to the goggles, giving Pirker a streaming image of the bridge that grows larger as he guides the radio-controlled aircraft closer.

Pirker, a multilingual Austrian and a master’s student at the University of Zurich, is a co-founder of a group of radio-control-aircraft enthusiasts and parts salesmen called Team BlackSheep. This California flight is the last stop of the international group’s US tour. Highlights included flights over the Hoover Dam, in Monument Valley, down the Las Vegas Strip and through the Grand Canyon. The team has also flown above Rio de Janeiro, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Berlin, London and Istanbul.

The Golden Gate Bridge now fills the view inside Pirker’s goggles. He’s not a licensed pilot, but his command over the radio-controlled (RC) aircraft is truly impressive. The drone climbs to the top of the bridge, zips through gaps in the towers, dives towards the water and cruises along the underside of the bridge deck. Months later, the self-described RC Daredevils post the footage on YouTube, where nearly 60 000 viewers watch it.

Team BlackSheep is wilfully – gleefully, really – flying through loopholes in the regulation of American airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to fly as long as their operators keep them in sight, fly below 120 m, and avoid populated areas and airports.

The FAA also forbids any drone to be flown for business purposes. “In the US right now, it’s completely open so long as you do it for non-commercial purposes,” Pirker says. “The cool thing is that this is still relatively new. None of the laws are specifically written against or for what we do.”

While the FAA did not sanction Team BlackSheep for buzzing landmarks as a publicity stunt, it has shut down other for-profit drone operators…

Read more about the various drones and the regulation thereof in PM’s October 2013 issue – on sale on 23 September.