JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Drone flying takes off as a popular hobby

Date

Cynthia Karena

There is a growing band of hobbyists piloting machines above our heads to capture the magic of flight, writes Cynthia Karena.

Air time: Drones are controlled from the ground but must always remain within the operator's line of sight.

Air time: Drones are controlled from the ground but must always remain within the operator's line of sight.

Herding sheep and filming AFL training sessions is all in a day’s work for Ryan Hamlet, project manager at hobby drone online retailer I-Drone.

The AFL team wanted to see aerial footage of its training session, Hamlet says. ‘‘People also ask us to film their weddings because it is cheaper than a helicopter shot and we can move in closer.’’

Most drones we sell have a camera either built-in or bundled with GoPro. 

Ryan Hamlet

Most people buy drones for filming, Hamlet says. ‘‘Most drones we sell have a camera either built-in or bundled with GoPro [a lightweight, rugged, mountable action camera].’’

Fancy flyer: Mountable or built-in cameras let users take spectacular footage.

Fancy flyer: Mountable or built-in cameras let users take spectacular footage.

The DJI Phantom 2 drone is popular, he says. ‘‘It comes out of the box and ready to fly. These drones have been simplified for people new to the hobby, starting at $885. You can bolt a camera on, or get the Phantom 2 vision+ with a camera built in for around $1510.’’

Despite the ever-growing technological sophistication, getting good aerial shots while you’re standing on the ground is difficult. ‘‘It’s important when framing a shot to see what’s going on, otherwise you’ll get a bunch of horizon with stuff happening in the corner,’’ says Hamlet, who suggests using a first-person view (FPV) set-up where the camera on the drone broadcasts live video to a screen on the ground.

Drones also have GPS, gyroscopes and stabilisers that enable them to stay steady in one spot if they’re hovering or flying in heavy winds, Hamlet says. That’s how you get the steady, graceful shots from a drone.

Idiot proof. Drones are programmed to return to the point from which they took off if the operator loses sight of them.

Idiot proof. Drones are programmed to return to the point from which they took off if the operator loses sight of them.

But what about people using drones for filming over backyards and beaches? Or going for pizza deliveries?

According to Civil Aviation Safety Authority regulations, drones aren’t allowed to fly over populous areas or within 5.5 kilometres of an airfield; can be no closer than 30 metres to buildings, vehicles and people; and can only be operated in daylight and within line of sight.

Hamlet is able to film weddings and AFL training sessions because he is a commercial operator and applies for area permits.

Privacy is a concern, Hamlet says, ‘‘but everyone has phones with cameras’’.

‘‘An operator has to identify all the risks – for example, flying in a built-up area, and come up with a plan to [manage and reduce] these risks,’’ says CASA spokesman Peter Gibson.

Things can go wrong but most drones have a failsafe system built into the controller that, once activated, will call the drone "back to the GPS point it took off from [to] automatically land itself.’’

And don’t think it’s OK to shoot a drone out of the air. ‘‘They’re an aircraft so the same laws about putting an aircraft in danger apply,’’ Gibson says.

In future, drones will be flying themselves without an operator controlling them, says CSIRO’s robotics expert Jonathan Roberts. ‘‘Drones will make their own decisions. With [advances] in artificial intelligence and sensing technology, the drone will sense how close it is to an object and avoid crashing into it.’’

But he says current CASA regulations will need to catch up as they assume there is a person in control.

Check out CASA's take on drones

casa.gov.au/rpa

See what's going on at I-Drone
I-drone.com.au

High flyers dismiss safety and privacy concerns

Drone enthusiasts such as Melbourne’s Karl von Muller have been building and flying the aircraft for years, posting spectacular footage to hundreds of followers online.

His passion for drone piloting began 18 months ago, after he came across a YouTube video. The network engineer started flying a ready-made unit from the US but graduated to building his own, including a powerful QAV400 quadcopter with a GoPro camera mounted on the front.

‘‘It’s currently in pieces after it crashed into saltwater,’’ von Muller says.

One of the benefits of building them yourself is you’re better able to fix them, he says. ‘‘Building them from kits is a lot more interesting and involved, and you learn a lot more too.’’

Paul Bitmatta has been flying remote-controlled aircraft for 40 years and has clocked up 7.5 million views on his first-person-view video channel. ‘‘I think flight is an almost magical beauty,’’ he says. ‘‘What keeps me in the hobby is the joy of seeing my son develop his technical design, engineering and flying skills.’’

Bitmatta believes the hobby is booming as the technology becomes better and cheaper. He avoids flying in heavily populated areas and can’t understand why the US bans drone flying in national parks.

‘‘I’ve never had anyone paranoid about the camera element at all because we don’t fly up to people, and [our video] is always wide-angle scenic landscapes. Whenever someone approaches us, we always allow them to view though the monitor or look at the video feed we’re receiving.’’

Known as a remotely piloted air system (RPAS), unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or multi-copter, the rise of drone-flying as a hobby has some professional aviators concerned that the craft aren’t sufficiently regulated; currently any drone flown for the purposes of "pure enjoyment or sport of flying" can be legally operated without the pilot having any training or education. Flying drones for any other reason requires a certificate.

A petition on change.org by commercial pilot and model-aircraft flyer Mark Butcher is calling for commercial drone operators to be licensed, citing near misses with a passenger aircraft and a rescue helicopter.

Butcher believes most recreational flyers are responsible but that even high-grade hobby machines should require an operator’s certificate.

Melbourne drone flyer and blogger ‘‘GreyLead’’ argues that ever since lunatics strapped feathers to their arms, humans have enjoyed the joyful evolution of flight, and that drones are merely expanding those horizons, helping farmers and firefighters work smarter, and hobbyists to see the world from different perspectives.

He believes regulation and licensing for recreational flyers is overkill, and that existing privacy laws make spying a non-issue.

‘‘We need to be the people who take the pads off our BMX cross-bars ... mums, dads, and their kids can have their minds blown by what is possible – creating a new wave of makers, creators, and ‘imaginators’. Get your mitts off my drone.’’

Katie Cincotta

CORRECTION

An earlier version of this article implied that many drones are capable of returning to the user automatically if they get too far away. This was incorrect, as the user is required to initiate that function themselves.

Additionally, an earlier version of this article stated that "any drone weighing less than two kilograms" could be legally operated without qualification. This was incorrect. Current CASA rules state that any aircraft over 200 grams that are operated for any reason other than the pure enjoyment or sport of flying are deemed to be being flown under a commercial operation, and therefore the user must be properly qualified. CASA is currently proposing new rules that would allow users to fly drones up to 2 kilograms in weight without qualifications, but only under specific circumstances. 

Featured advertisers