by Donna Harris
Members of the Bartow County Model Aviation (BCMA) braved a cold, rainy Saturday to help novice drone pilots learn how to safely maneuver their new aircraft.
The aviation club took part in the national Drone for the Holidays program by inviting pilots who needed to learn more about flying their drones to its field on Allatoona Dam Road in Cartersville to ask questions and see flight demonstrations during the free five-hour class.
Drone is a term generally applied to all unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and in the case of hobbyists, it refers to radio-controlled (RC) aircraft, mostly with three or more rotors. According to club President Greg Roper, quad-rotor aircraft are probably the most common, with the DJI Phantom series being the most popular, and more advanced aircraft have onboard cameras for photography and videography.
Several club members, including 89-year-old Jerry Smith, whom Roper called a “legend in the hobby,” were on hand to answer questions and show their drones to pilots who are just getting their feet wet.
Roper said he was “shocked” by the turnout, considering the less-than-favorable weather conditions.
“I wasn’t expecting anybody to come out,” he said. “I figured the rain was going to keep everybody in.”
Club member Scott Estes flew his Phantom over the property, which included a lake and railroad tracks, and the onboard camera transmitted real-time video to the monitor on the ground.
He also showed how the UAV can hover over an area, how it can return home on its own and how it lands.
Jim Hughes of Cartersville said he ordered a UAV, but he decided to change his order to the Phantom after seeing Estes demonstrate how easy it was to operate.
“This is exactly what I wanted, and the other one, I don’t think is going to deliver what I wanted like that,” he said. “Even though it was a lower price point, I’m still not getting the satisfaction that I think this one will bring me.”
Topics of discussion during the class included weather conditions, cost of drones, rules for flying and government regulations.
Roper said the club, which started in the mid-1980s, has a defined flying area that’s bordered by U.S. Highway 41, Allatoona Dam Road and the railroad tracks.
“We don’t fly over the road or anybody’s property or over buildings,” the Cassville resident said. “And we certainly don’t fly over 41.”
Wind is the “biggest problem we have” with the weather, he said.
“Quads are a little more forgiving where wind is concerned,” he said. “We generally don’t fly in the rain because there’s a lot of onboard electronics. Wind is our biggest enemy.”
Club member Steve Cain went over some of the rules of flying.
“You don’t fly farther than you can see so in this case, it might be 1,000 feet, give or take,” the Kennesaw resident said. “And we don’t fly higher than 400 feet.”
Cain also said UAVs are “real useful” for taking photos of scenery, real estate and other wide-angle shots, but they’re “not a very good tool for invading someone’s privacy,” as many opponents seem to think.
“Someone with a telephoto lens in the bushes is what you need to worry about, not a shaky drone from 100 feet away,” he said. “And you can hear them. They’re not going to sneak up on you.”
The cost of UAVs is “sort of like cars, a very wide range,” said Cain, who has flown them for three years.
“Less than $500 to $5,000 would be the range,” he said, noting the largest seller is Atlanta Hobby in Cumming. “Typically they cost about $1,000 for one that can take pictures and return home on their own.”
UAVs are user-friendly and easy to fly since they are “very intuitive,” and pilots can generally do well without having a lot of experience he said.
“The issue is to know where you can fly safely, which means you don’t fly over large groups of people,” he said.
Generally, a UAV flies 20 to 25 mph and has the battery power to stay in the air 10 to 15 minutes at a time, though most flights last only seven or eight minutes before the pilot brings it in for a landing, he added.
Though the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t yet allow UAVs to be used commercially, Hughes said he is hoping that changes so his business, Building Ventures in Cartersville, could use them.
“We wanted to use them in our business to examine different properties and things that are interesting to us,” he said. “Our primary thrust is apartment buildings. We want to be able to fly over apartment buildings and count them and see that they’re there and make sure of the quality of the roofs.”
If allowed to be used commercially, UAVs could be used to inspect things like radio towers, water tanks, power lines, pipelines, cell phone towers and roofs; to fly over agricultural crops to keep track of their progress; and to monitor timberland to ward off illegal logging, Cain said.
“There are a lot of important things that are not easily accessible that this gets you access to,” he said. “It’s expensive and dangerous to climb a water tower. UAVs are more economical, more precise, faster, and they’re safe.”
Roper added the Phantom UAVs are “real popular” with real estate agents for aerial views of property “because it’s so accessible.”
Cain, who owns six UAVs that he built from scratch, said a UAV also “unlocks air” that currently is accessible only to pilots with expensive hardware.
“It really opens up the first few hundred feet of the air to anybody, which is really a liberating kind of thing,” he said.
Cain said the potential commercial uses for UAVs are limitless if the FAA would allow it.
“The FAA doesn’t get it,” he said. “They think of them as little airplanes. They’re not a toy, and they’re not an airplane. That’s the problem that the FAA can’t get through their head. They’re likely to require a pilot’s license to fly these commercially. I have a pilot’s license, and having a pilot’s license has nothing to do with operating a UAV 200 feet in the air.”
Roper said his main concern is “the government regulating me to where I can’t do it anymore as a hobby.”
“I would like to be able to do something with it commercially as well,” he said. “But my chief concern is technology is so accessible now and relatively cheap, and people are buying it up, and they don’t have a full understanding of what they’re doing. It’s not hard to not do something stupid. You’ve just got to think about it.”
Hughes added he thinks drones will have a “really good future as time goes by if the government would stay out of it.”
Roper, who owns a Phantom, said novice pilots who have a drone and don’t know what to do with it are encouraged to stop by the club at 150 Allatoona Dam Road on Saturday mornings to talk to experienced pilots.
“By all means, please come talk to us first before you go and do something stupid,” he said, laughing.
For information on the club, visit www.bcmarc.com.