What happens when you take your drone to public land in Pleasanton, California and start flying it around in first-person view, using the drone’s onboard camera to see where you’re going? If you’re Sean Wendland, you get a stern talking to from an old man who says you can’t use your newfangled technology here.
The old guard vs. the new. Welcome to the nerdiest beef in the drone world.
For decades, the model aircraft hobby has been dominated by former soldiers, pilots, and other airplane enthusiasts. They've been flying gas-powered model aircraft and balsa-wood clunkers at flying clubs around the country for decades with very little interruption from the government or anyone else, for that matter.
But when you pop a camera on a hexacopter and stream that camera's video back to your iPad to fly it like you’re playing StarFox, things change. All of a sudden, instead of a model airplane you can fly in circles for a half-hour, you’ve got a drone that can be used for deliveries, to do land surveys, to perform search-and-rescue missions, and take aerial photography. And you’ve got a huge influx of Silicon Valley-types who care very little about flying around a little airplane and care very much about getting a slice of the estimated $13.6 billion the drone industry is expected to be worth once the FAA finally sets commercial regulations.
“They are tech guys, that’s one thing I’ve noticed,” Dave Mathewson, executive director of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, said about first-person view droners. “I don’t think they’re as interested in the flying aspect, they’re interested in the platform and the ability to do something with it like starting a company.”
First-person view (FPV) is how Predator drones are usually operated overseas and it’s how commercial drones will have to be operated if they’re going to do anything out of line-of-sight from its pilot—unless we’re going to let them fly completely autonomously. It’s also a technology that is hated by most of the old guard.
Wendland is not a member of the AMA, as that old man at Lassen was, but it’s not for lack of trying. He said he was turned away by three flying clubs who said his kind, and his technology, wasn’t welcome there.
“It’s a cultural and a generational issue,” Wendland said. “I’ve been turned away from three clubs and now I have a bad taste in my mouth. I won’t go near anything associated with the AMA, and a lot of people in the FPV community feel the same way.”
That’s a problem. If Jeff Bezos (or anyone else) wants to be able to fly you shampoo within an hour of you ordering it, FPV is going to be necessary. For better or worse, it’s the near-term future of commercial drones. Bezos can dream all he wants about drone delivery, but fully automated flight is a long way away from dodging every powerline, bird, and streetlight between Amazon’s warehouses and your front door. An experienced FPV flyer can do that, no sweat.
At the end of this video, you can head Wendland's interaction with an AMA member.
“Going forward, the biggest commodity will be pilots,” Wendland said. “A company isn’t going to buy five [aircraft] just to crash four of them. They’ll buy one and hire a pilot that knows what they’re doing.”
The makeup of AMA’s 140,000 members closely matches that of its Model Aviation magazine, which is delivered to 96 percent of the organization’s members. According to the AMA, the median age of a member is 46 and a quarter are retired. There’s no available demographic information for FPV flyers, but many in the community are more likely to be software developers, startup-minded people, or video game enthusiasts, rather than people who are deeply enamored with aviation as a whole.
And that’s a problem for the AMA, which has operated without FAA regulation since 1936 and now face federal interference. The AMA set its first guidelines for FPV flight in 2008 and they are extremely restrictive. To be within the guidelines, you have to have a spotter who constantly has an eye on your drone, fly below 400 feet, and always remain within visual line of sight. That last one is the big hangup: The main benefit of flying FPV is the fact that you can fly your drone much further distances—say, the distance necessary to make a delivery.
The future of legal first-person view flight and of the drone industry could be in the hands of an organization that has traditionally disliked the hobby.
At first, those at flying clubs were merely interested in FPV flight—until the flashy nature of it began getting media attention and flyers like Raphael Pirker, one of the more polarizing figures in the community, began uploading videos to YouTube. In 2011, he posted a drone footage taken while flying FPV in New York City that caught the attention of the FAA and the AMA.
"At first, the clubs were very welcoming, but after we did the New York flights, whenever we came they just said no, you can’t fly here today," Pirker said of clubs in Europe. "I think the same is happening across the United States right now. The momentum at the clubs has swung largely against it, especially in traditional circles."
Now, a bunch of young guys like Pirker and Wendland are ignoring the AMA’s volunteer safety guidelines, flying in populated areas, catching FAA scrutiny, making flashy YouTube videos, and generating tons of media attention (both positive and negative) on the hobby. That’s why you end up with AMA-affiliated clubs that won’t let FPV flyers onto their fields. It’s also why the AMA has, in the past, ripped media outlets for suggesting that flying FPV is the future of model aircraft and have said that those who flaunt the AMA safety guidelines are “unbelievably selfish” and are “clowns” that are “unconcerned for public safety.”
As a matter of policy, the FAA has allowed FPV flight as long as its operator isn't doing it for commercial purposes. Whether they can truly limit that is up for debate; a pending case against Pirker will help settle that debate.
But, whether they like each other or not, drone operators and the AMA are going to have to make nice.
Though some, like Wendland, have completely disavowed and distanced themselves from the AMA, people who want to fly commercially are probably going to need them. The AMA has the legacy, membership, and, most importantly, the political clout to remain relevant. They’re one of the only organizations that the FAA goes to for guidance on the subject.
“They’re not embracing us. They’ve failed,” Wendland said. “The AMA hasn't embraced us and because of that, the FAA knows nothing about this hobby because they’ve never talked to us directly.”
Last month, the AMA and the FAA signed a memorandum of understanding, one that “establishes a cooperative working relationship between the FAA and the AMA.”
“Under the agreement, AMA will serve as a focal point for the aero-modeling community, the hobby industry and the FAA to communicate relevant and timely safety information,” an FAA representative wrote on the agency’s blog. “The group will establish and maintain a comprehensive safety program for its members, including guidelines for emerging technologies such as model UAS. The group also agreed to foster a ‘positive and cooperative environment’ with modelers toward the FAA and any applicable regulations.”
That means the future of legal FPV flight and of the drone industry could be in the hands of an organization that has traditionally disliked the hobby.
“Right now, the AMA and AUVSI [a consortium of drone manufacturers] are the only two organizations that have the FAA’s ear,” said Scott Fuller, who has been flying FPV since 2005.
But the AMA stance on FPV is slowly changing. With the ongoing drone boom, the AMA’s membership should be flourishing, but it’s not. It has remained relatively stagnant, and its resistance to FPV flight is a huge reason for that.
Also, there’s too much money in FPV flight for the FAA to move forward by banning it entirely. The agency may turn to the AMA for initial guidelines, but when Bezos and a thousand other corporations and lobbying arms come calling, it will have to find some way of allowing at least limited use of FPV in commercial flights.
It seems that, finally, the AMA is starting to recognize it needs FPV as much as FPV needs it. In October, AMA president Bob Brown attended a DC Drone Users Group meeting in Northern Virginia. Much of the meeting was focused on how the organization is trying to reach out to its clubs to allow drone flyers to practice in their fields, and Brown premiered a video sent out to all of its members noting that the AMA has to eventually embrace FPV flight.
“Just as with any other form of modeling, the risks are not limited to the technology, it is how it is being used,” Brown said. “We believe it will eventually be seen no differently than anything that came before it.”
Mathewson, the former AMA president, told me that eventually, his members are “going to see that FPV is no different from anything that came before it.”
Whether FPV pilots are willing to play along is another story. Fuller says the AMA has looked at the FPV community “as a cash cow” since the multi rotor explosion started, and Wendland says he won’t work with the FAA or the AMA unless it agrees to allow experienced pilots to fly beyond line of sight, a move neither seems to be caving on.
"This is like the computer club at Apple in 1977. There’s major philosophies at odds with each other in the FPV movement, and someone like Bill Gates is going to split off and make millions," Wendland said. "We have innovators in this community that are doing this stuff without the AMA."