PORTLAND, Ore. – Most Americans are familiar with “drone” aircraft: unmanned, remote-controlled planes patrolling the skies of hostile war zones that beam back live video to their ground-based pilots and on occasion, launch military air strikes.
The multi-million dollar aircraft are becoming an ever-increasing factor in U.S. military operations.
Advancing technology, especially in transmitting live video, has made them effective weapons.
Meanwhile in Portland, Aaron Shell is getting ready to launch his own drone.
It doesn’t have any missiles, but it does have a camera, weighs almost nothing - and the price tag for his flying high-tech video equipment is stunningly low.
In the past, this kind of hobby was called “flying remote or radio-controlled (R/C) planes” but the addition of real-time video from the aircraft has moved the pastime into a different sphere: flying drones.
Shell wears a somewhat geeky headset that covers his eyes while his aircraft circles overhead, its small electric motor buzzing like a large mosquito.
Video screens inside his headset display video from his lightweight aircraft, which he controls with a common radio transmitter familiar to anyone who has ever flown or driven a remote control toy.
The camera on his aircraft is also remote controlled, able to swivel and pan about as Shell directs it from his radio controller. Inside his headset, he is flying the aircraft in a type of virtual reality that is a close approximation to what the pilots of military drones likely experience.
But the cost of the camera on his simple, electrically powered flat-foam constructed airplane? About $40, instead of the millions needed for a military-grade system.
Compared to the thousands of dollars, technical expertise and flying skill needed to just pilot a quality remote control plane only 15 years ago, the cost and difficulty of flying Shell’s gear is minimal.
Complete aircraft systems, including remote control airplanes or helicopters with cameras and transmitters, can be had online for just a few hundred dollars.
Shell’s simple aircraft, complete with camera, transmitter, engine and batteries, weighs less than one pound.
YouTube hosts thousands of videos shot from drone aircraft. While most of the videos are innocuous, some hint at darker possibilities as drones buzz tall buildings, bridges, trucks on highways and even national landmarks, such as the Statue of Liberty.
Properly piloted, a modern R/C helicopter, powered by batteries, can hover nearly motionless hundreds of feet from its pilot, beaming back DVD-quality video. What it might be shooting video of is only limited to the imagination of the pilot.
Other aircraft, called quadricopters, offer even more stability while hovering. Some aircraft can even be controlled by smartphones.
The explosion of abilities built into current R/C aircraft and the sudden drop in cost can be attributed to the march of technology – mainly from China - but the proliferation of inexpensive, camera-equipped drones, and the surge in hobbyists flying them, is beginning to get the attention of law enforcement officials and the FAA.
The FAA says unmanned planes – or drones - of all sizes, even tiny ones, can fly into the flight path of planes with people on board, risking a collision.
They say pilots on the ground don't have the same ability to see those other planes and move out of the way.
The FAA also says the limited data they have shows unmanned planes have more accidents.
Now, the FAA is working on new rules for unmanned planes of any size, looking at possible regulations on where they can fly, how far they can fly as well as how high and how fast.
Aaron Shell says he flies his aircraft below 500 feet and his video shows that’s plenty high enough to get views of downtown Portland and the area surrounding the park where he hand-launches his plane.
He says the risk from the plane is small – he once accidentally flew it into his forehead and was not hurt – and that new regulation could ground or greatly restrict his hobby, a hobby he hopes to turn into a business.
Shell wants to make a business out of taking aerial imagery, something that usually requires a full-size aircraft, complete with a pilot and photographer and costs a lot of money. With a small drone, the cost is obviously much lower.
A decision from the FAA on any new regulations is expected this summer.
The view from Aaron Shell's drone as it flies close to the KATU News crew. Aaron is seated, flying the aircraft and controlling the camera.