Humming above Bennington: Interest in drones surges

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BENNINGTON >> If you've ever spotted a drone hovering around Bennington — and wished you knew more about those increasingly common craft — well, there's a club for that.

Members of the Bennington Eagle's Eye FPV Club, which meets monthly at the William Morse State Airport, proved a font of knowledge on the subject of drones during a recent photo session at the airport off Walloomsac Road. Between them, they own a number of drones of various sizes, along with other model and even experimental craft — and most developed an enduring interest in all forms of aviation years ago.

Club President Leik Myrabo, a retired aerospace engineering professor who taught at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, said he began flying fixed-wing model planes as a teenager and has kept up the hobby. He now has added drone "quadcopters" to his collection.

There is no question that interest in drones in surging, Myrabo said, and the adoption of Federal Aviation Administration regulations in August that allow people to apply for a commercial drone permit — allowing them to charge for aerial photographs, infrastructure monitoring or other services — should further boost the rapid growth in their use.

The FAA earlier had established registration requirements for recreational drone use, which club members said led to greater safety in the skies and "significantly reduced" the number of incidents involving drones wandering in airport airspace or other similar potentially dangerous situations.

"I think people are interested because it involves information technology," Myrabo said. "They can be programmed to do all kinds of amazing things in flight. Kids love it There is a very rich future for this."

John Likakis, general manager at the William Morse State Airport, said the letters FPV in the club's name stand for First Person View, referring to the camera features allowing a drone "pilot" using goggles or a monitor screen to obtain a "cockpit view" of the flight.

"It's just like you are riding in this drone," he said, holding a mini-size model in one hand.

Likakis said the club has purchased several of the four-prop quadcopter minis, and an educational "drone day" program for youth and for anyone interested in becoming a member is planned for Saturday, Nov. 12, beginning at 9 a.m. at the airport.

"We are looking for members from 8 to 80," he said.

The ultralight smaller models can be flown for demonstrations indoors as well, bouncing off walls with no apparent damage to machine or wall, and plastic rotor blades that are easy on the fingers.

Long-range, he said, there is interest locally in drone racing events, which require navigating an obstacle course. Likakis said ESPN has shown an interest in the sport — the network announced it will cover a series of races beginning later this month.

"Drone racing is becoming a big deal," he said.

Club members said there are myriad choices for anyone wishing to own a drone, and there are opportunities to fly one before deciding to buy.

The mini JJRC H36 quadcopters that Likakis recently purchased were under $20 each. Blade Inductrix models begin online for around $70, with the cameras sold separately.

However, average larger-size drone, some of which could be used for commercial purposes, cost roughtly from $500 to $1,500.

A good professional model that could be used by firefighters or other emergency response personnel, costs in approximately $13,000. It has sophisticated GPS, high-definition camera and video features onboard, as well as infrared imaging technology.

Even relatively inexpensive "off the shelf" drone models have camera, flight programming and monitoring capability, although Likakis said extra features can add to the cost. Among features that have become less expensive as the hobby has evolved, however, are programming with GPS to have a drone fly a course and return to the original landing zone.

While technical advances might be needed before longer flights, extended search missions and such tasks as package delivery, those things are possible today, just difficult to manage. Given the limits of battery life and the craft weight versus power ratios, Myrabo said battery technology will have to improve, but he said it has consistently done just that and should lead to much lighter, more enduring power sources.

Today, rechargeable lithium ion battery packs are typically used to power drones, replacing heavier energy sources of the past.

For some smaller models, battery power can fail in 15 minutes, while larger units can fly for an hour without a recharge or battery change-out. But that makes for a huge logistical challenge if you are a company like Amazon, which has talked about making deliveries by drone.

Most enthusiasts work on their own models, installing controls, monitoring or video upgrades, or replacing rotor motors, Likakis and Myrabo said.

"That is one reason we have a club," Myrabo said. "We teach each other. There is a lot of talent in this club."

Likakis said working on — and sometimes modifying or experimenting with — different add-ons or materials is fairly typical of drone hobbyists. But he added with a laugh, "Or money can be a good substitute."

Rules and regulations

There are drone flight rules and regulations already in place and others still under consideration by the FAA. Only drones under .5 ounces in weight are exempt from federal registration, which requires non-commercial drone operators to register their drones online and obtain a number that must be displayed on each of the owner's drones. There is a $5 registration fee.

Myrabo said the requirement has helped to dramatically reduce the number of incidents bringing drones into airspace with aircraft.

In general, though, Likakis said the "rules and regs in the U.S. are probably two to three years behind the technology."

Commercial use of drones was until August allowed by the FAA only with an exemption, which typically required a process that put the cost out of reach of a small business person. But now that is changing, said Trevor Gilman, a pilot and a member of the North Adams Airport Commission, which supervises the Harriman-West Airport in that city.

He said he purchased a drone for recreational purposes and recently obtained a commercial license, in part because of the potential for assignments from real estate firms and others. Compared to flying a photographer over an area to take photos, he said, a drone is a less expensive option.

Carl Villanueva, of Pownal, received one of the first commercial drone licenses in the Bennington area with help from Gilman.

The approval requires taking a course and test, which is available online through an FAA website, he said, and since he has held a private pilot license since 1969, he completed the process in a few days.

There are two versions of the test, Villanueva said, which allows someone without a pilot's license to use drones for commercial purposes, but only after they know and understand FAA regulations concerning flight space, weather and other aviation necessities.

In general, a recreational drone is restricted to flight below 400 feet, although they could fly much higher.

Villanueva said he is in the process of setting up a drone service of his own and he works as a drone pilot for Gilman's company, based at the airport in North Adams. He also works with the Mohawk Soaring Club there.

Before the FAA allowed commercial licenses, the only option was to seek an exemption, Gilman said, but that required lawyers and time to gain the approval, meaning only large companies — like major film makers — could get an exemption.

Anyone interested in the Eagle's Eye FPV Club, which has a clubhouse at the Bennington airport, should call 802-447-6275. Dues are $35 per year for adults, $20 for youth under 17.

Myrabo said there also is something available that is vitally important for all drone operators — liability insurance. With club membership comes access to an Academy of Model Aeronautics insurance policy.

Holding up a drone roughly one foot from rotor to rotor— they are measured diagonally — with a battery pack attached, he noted that not only property damage could result from a drone failure.

Jim Therrien covers Southern Vermont news for the Bennington Banner and VtDigger.org.


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