Some days, when the weather is nice, the air above the Meadowbrook Farm’s open fields in Snoqualmie is filled with the hum of whirling rotors as remotely operated helicopters and planes fly overhead. These Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are complicated flying machines that give their operators a taste of piloting without having to leave the ground.
Andrew Lewis and John Karsunky are into UAVs. Like other enthusiasts, they come to the open space between Railroad Avenue and Boalch Avenue to fly them. They both have multicopters, small helicopters that have multiple rotating blades rather than the traditional single blade. Multi-rotor UAVs usually have four or six rotors. Both their machines have six spinning blades.
“It’s going to be the future, for sure,” Karsunky said. “In the next ‘x’ amount of years we’re going to see it integrated into our life.”
Karsunky is a systems engineer and Lewis is a real estate agent. They have both been into remote controlled flyers for years, but the complex technology of modern, amateur UAVs has been evolving rapidly in the last few years. The advanced technology necessary for the changes from small planes to more complicated UAVs came from several unrelated leaps in digital tools.
The proliferation of cell phones made GPS technology commonplace and inexpensive. Gyroscope technology also fell in price because of the Nintendo Wii, a video game system that uses gyroscopes in its controllers. Eventually, technology that was too expensive for most hobbyists came within reach.
Both men’s machines have cameras attached and both have a direct live feed to tablet computers that act as monitors on the ground. The monitors show in real time what the UAV is seeing as it flies.
“I had always wanted to put video on them,” Lewis said. “You can get shots that you couldn’t get any other way.”
He flew remote controlled helicopters for years before moving on to multirotor machines. The UAVs have a stabilizer that allows for steady photography or filming, and allows them to take pictures from aerial perspectives that used to be impossible. Lewis uses his to take aerial shots of houses for his business.
Both UAVs are similar in shape and design. Six rotors surround a central hub that holds the “brain” of the machine. They have two cameras, one on the top for steering, and a GoPro mounted along the bottom for filming. On the ground, the UAVs stand on fixed landing gear. Lewis’ model is about two feet in diameter, Karsunky’s is about three.
UAVs aren’t always rotor based. Karsunky has a small plane that he flies remotely with a camera mounted on the nose. The camera connects to special goggles that allow the pilot to literally steer from a first person view.
“Everyone’s dreamt of flying, right?” Karsunky said. “You put those goggles on, you’re in.”
UAV planes have a longer range than multicopters, mostly due to battery life. The hexacopters can fly for less than ten minutes, while the planes can reach distances that are miles away.
Mount Si stands in the distance and fixed wing UAVs have been known to fly up to the peak before returning to the field. Or not returning. One of the great fears of these expensive toys is that they will crash.
“There’s probably six, $1,000 planes sitting in those woods right there at the base of that mountain,” Karsunky said.
He once watched one go down. The camera at the front of the plane dislodged and hung uselessly pointed at the ground. Without a video feed to steer, the pilot was blind. He activated the return home switch. UAVs use GPS to set coordinates to return to in case the radio feed is severed. At first, it seemed like the plane would return on its own. But then the dangling camera flipped back into the propeller and the plane crashed.
Crashing is part of the risk and expense of flying UAVs. When Lewis used to fly standard remote control helicopters, the powerful thrust would regularly cost him.
“They’re definitely fun to fly, but I had crashes that were commonly $500,” he said.
For the size of their small rotors, these UAVs are powerful. Karsunky flew his around for a few moments before it took off into the sky, gaining forty feet of altitude as fast as a bird.
“That’s only about 40 percent throttle, I’ve never gone above 60,” Karsunky said, “Because I’m scared to.”
These new, powerful toys raise some serious questions about their place in society. The potential commercial application is enormous, although according to Lewis and Karsunky, it won’t be in the form of Amazon package delivery via drones. The battery life and weight limits make the idea simply unfeasible.
But search and rescue operations, they said, could certainly use UAVs or agriculture, photography or filmmaking. Those potential uses raise questions about privacy, safety and airspace. Enthusiasts like Lewis and Karsunky don’t want some foolish early-adopter to use his UAV dangerously and provoke knee-jerk legislation that bans personal UAV use.
“People are scared about it, understandable … introduction to new technology is always scary,” Karsunky said. “It just will take time for people to grasp on to the idea. Hopefully that won’t be introduced by an idiot that does something dumb.”
Currently, UAVs are in a legal gray area. There is not much regulation of personal flying machines. The airspace below 400 feet is technically police jurisdiction, but municipal police aren’t tasked with creating regulations. The FAA is currently developing rules, but they have been slow to come out.
“My hope is that there are workable rules that are put into place that keeps the public safe but allows us to come out and do what we’re doing,” Lewis said. “I’d rather have rules than have none and have it just be a free for all, which is kind of what it is right now.”
Sam can be reached at [email protected] or via Twitter @samuel_kenyon.