The Drone Fiesta – Aeronotsomuch

What did the heck happen in Albuquerque at the annual Balloon Fiesta? Local news reported that the Balloon Fiesta was a “no drone zone,” plus the authoritarian “don’t even think about it” complete with fines and jail time. DJI had stated that their partners Aerial Armor had identified some 40 drones and not the 450 or even 900 + drone detections as the news reported. What we get out of it all depends on how you look at the terminology, numbers, and timeframes to see what actually transpired. What the heck is the difference between “detection” and “identifying,” you ask?

Form the Aerial Armor website –

A “detection” is an instance in time where the sensor(s) locate a drone. This can include 1) turning the drone on with no flight 2) drone flying in and out of detection range 3) drone flying in and out of line of sight or 4) multiple sensors picking up the same drone in flight.

We will have to assume that the 40 is the Total Unique Drones ID’s during the TFR time period with the total detections number omitted. It was reported that that number of detections was north of 200 during the TFR and north of 900 for the entire 9-day event. Also worth noting in the report is the number of flights above 400’ AGL.

The other information that has to be considered is that this system does not work with all DJI models or those of other OEMs. So, we really have no idea how many drones were actually flying where and when. Even more interesting to ponder is what percentage of those flyers we are to suppose were RC hobbyists practicing their scale Immelmann and split S turns.  

I emailed Les over at the FAA Office of Communications to inquire if the FAA has initiated any enforcement actions. I also emailed Adam at DJI asking for an estimate on just how many Phantom 2s and other DJI systems not detectable by AeroScope systems are still flying. I also inquired as to how many total drone detections there were during the Fiesta for confirmation. Nothing back yet from either inquiry, but we’ll keep you posted if or when we hear back.

Any way you dice this event up, there are lessons to be gleaned. One, the FAA education and media announcements do not appear to be working. The paper tiger threats of enforcement, fines, and/or jail time do not appear to be much of a deterrent. DJI Geofencing? What the heck happened here? It would also appear that the AeroScope system might have a few shortcomings as a viable UTM or airspace management tool. Lastly, we have to ask ourselves just who is controlling the airspace narrative.  

You can visit the Aerial Armor site here if you are interested in viewing the Balloon Fiesta report.

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Patrick Egan
Editor in Field, sUAS News Americas Desk | Patrick Egan is the editor of the Americas Desk at sUAS News and host and Executive Producer of the sUAS News Podcast Series, Drone TV and the Small Unmanned Systems Business Exposition. Experience in the field includes assignments with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command Battle Lab investigating solutions on future warfare research projects. Instructor for LTA (Lighter Than Air) ISR systems deployment teams for an OSD, U.S. Special Operations Command, Special Surveillance Project. Built and operated commercial RPA prior to 2007 FAA policy clarification. On the airspace integration side, he serves as director of special programs for the RCAPA (Remote Control Aerial Photography Association).