Don’t call them drones, ‘call them UAVs’

Enthusiasts of "Unmanned Aerial Vehicles" are experimenting with uses for the emerging technology, while regulators try to figure out how to bring order to the sky.

“We don’t like to call them drones,” said Steve Krukowski, vice president of Stanford Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Enthusiast Engineers and Entrepreneurs (SUAVE). “The word ‘drones’ implies unintelligent. Instead, we call them ‘UAVs’ or just ‘aerials.’ ”

SUAVE provides the resources within the Stanford community for the development and flight of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). Every week, SUAVE hosts a fly day at Lake Lagunita on the Stanford campus. The so-called lake is now dry and provides a 1000-foot-wide clearing with golden grass.

On the Oct. 24 fly day, SUAVE members, amateur drone flyers and students from the Stanford Journalism Program gathered around picnic tables crowded with equipment. (Editor’s Note: Peninsula Press is a project of the Stanford Journalism Program.) The typical, azure-blue sky above Stanford beckoned. SUAVE members sported bright-yellow safety jackets and tinkered with the machinery.

Following a brief safety warning, Krukowski introduced the DJI Phantom quadcopter. It’s geared toward professionals, equipped with a camera, remote, WiFi range extender and app. Experts say these consumer products, while by definition, cheaper and more market ready, simply don’t compare to the professional UAVs in terms of maneuverability and power.

The DJI Phantom was not the only flying object that morning. Eli Wu, a Stanford sophomore studying electrical engineering, brought out a drone he built from scratch. His small intricate creation made flips and turns in the air above, as Wu’s fingers moved rapidly over his controller.

Krukowski also invited the attendees to try a test flight of the DJI Phantom over Lake Lagunita. The white drone, with its bright red stripes indicating the front, became difficult to make out against the blue skies as it flew beyond 200 meters, or about 650 feet. While the DJI has the capability to cross large distances, Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) safety rules do not allow flying over humans, so admiring the DJI Phantom’s sophisticated aerial movements was limited.

After a fire caused by a drone this July at Stanford resulted in evacuations of nearby residences, drone flyers on campus must now obtain flight certification and request flight approval from SUAVE. That UAV belonged to nonprofit Uplift Aeronautics and had crashed during a test flight.

SUAVE already has its own club rules: “Pilots have to be checked out for proficiency and if they would like to fly their own equipment versus our club equipment, those vehicles must also be inspected by our club,” Krukowski said. Because it’s so “easy to get it up and flying right out of the box,” knowledgeable and well-trained pilots are crucial, he added.

With the recent escalation of drone production, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has it own strict set of regulations. During Obama’s recent visit to San Francisco, SUAVE was forced to cancel its fly day at Stanford, because the FAA’s rules restrict flying within 30 nautical miles from government VIPs.

Additionally, the Department of Transportation announced on Oct. 19 that it is creating a task force to require the registration of all drones. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx has said that this registration would help “build a culture of accountability and responsibility” and “protect public safety in the air and on the ground.” This registration will also help the FAA enforce rules and continue its aggressive educational efforts.

Krukowski believes that the FAA will have a difficult time regulating hobbyists. “Companies flying UAVs are a little higher profile than a hobbyist going to a park to fly for fun.” His solution rests responsibility on the UAV manufacturers “to ensure that their products couldn’t be used unless the user has a proper FAA registration.”

“If the FAA ends up requiring recreational UAVs to be registered, then I see it as adding an extra layer to our own registration process assisting members with FAA registration.”

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