Everything You Never Wanted To Know About Flying Your Drone in the National Parks

USA National Park Service

National Park Service Policy On Aerial Drones

Flying aerial drones in the National Parks of the USA was outlawed in June 2014 by the Director of the National Park Service in his Policy Memorandum 14-05.

Several incidents led to this interim policy guidance, which supplements Title 36 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).  For example, I read reports about amateur drones harassing wildlife, interfering with search and rescue efforts, interfering with fighting forest fires, and in one case a drone that crashed into the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

What You as a Drone Pilot Need to Know

Let’s just get down to the important stuff – what can they do to you if you get caught? Park Rangers are permitted by law to make arrests for violations, and if convicted a drone pilot faces fines and jail time.

So, where does it say that?  Title 36 CFR Part 1.5 and the Policy Memo provide the authority, and 36 CFR Part 1.3 states the penalties, which read: “shall be punished by a fine as provided by law, or imprisonment not exceeding 6 months, or both, and shall be adjudged to pay all costs of the proceedings.”  I’ve also heard of Park Rangers confiscating drones, but I haven’t seen a policy statement granting them that authority.

What parks are covered?  Title 36 covers all lands that fall under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, including National Parks, National Military Parks, National Monuments, and Battlefield Sites.

Can I Fly Over Other Federal Lands?

Currently, my sources state that you can fly your drone over the National Forests and most lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management.  However, watch for changes in policy as lawmakers are crafting new rules regarding aerial drones.

Process for Permission

For most drone pilots, the bar is simply too high to get a waiver or what the National Park Service calls a Special Use Permit.  The NPS Policy Memorandum outlines the process in Exhibit B. Paraphrased, it states the Park’s Superintendent will receive a written request for proposed drone operations and endorse it up the chain of command to the Associate Director, Visitor and Resource Protection office in Washington, DC for approval.

Are There Any Workarounds?

Once your drone is airborne, your flight falls under FAA rules.  The NPS Policy Memo acknowledges this and states “Launching, landing, or operating an unmanned aircraft from or on lands and waters administered by the NPS is prohibited.”  However, under the FAQ section (no. 9), this prohibition is clarified with a very useful statement that aerial drone flights originating outside the park’s boundary ARE permitted to fly over national park lands (because they’re in the air space that falls under the jurisdiction of the FAA).  I will add that the wise drone pilot will fly strictly in accordance with the safety provisions of the FAA’s 14 CFR Part 107.

Fly Safe!

Traveling With Your Drone

What is the Best Way to Transport Your Drone and all of its Accessories?

The logistics of traveling with your drone on a vacation or business trip are simplified with a little preparation. I’ll outline battery bags, backpacks, and carrying cases in this article.  First, let’s cover the FAA’s position on those Lithium-Polymer (Li-Po) batteries:

Air Travel

FAA requirements (49 CFR 175.10(a)(18)) state that:

  • Each battery must have short circuit protection.
  • Spare batteries must be carried in the cabin (not checked).
  • For less than 100 Watt-Hours (W-Hr) per battery, there is no limit on the number for personal use. (With permission from the carrier, up to 2 batteries can be carried with up to 160 W-Hrs per battery.)

Notes:

  1. Always discharge your batteries to 10-15%.
  2. The W-Hr rating is typically stamped on the battery.  For older batteries, the FAA calculates the W-Hr rating by multiplying the battery’s voltage by its Amp-Hr rating.
  3. Some example batteries: Phantom 3 batteries are rated at 68 W-Hrs and Phantom 4 batteries are rated at 81 W-Hrs.

Battery bags

I recommend a Li-Po fire-resistant carrying bag, such as those made by Lipo Guard.  Not only a wise investment for traveling, it also provides a safe enclosure for charging.

How to select a backpack or carrying case:

Start with your drone’s dimensions, including all accessories that you plan to pack.  That will be your minimum requirement.  Your maximum requirement is the size restriction for your commercial carrier – typically an airline.  The restrictions I’ve come across:

  • Personal item dimensions:  maximum of 18x14x8 in  (typical for under the seat stowage). UPDATE – United Airlines’ stricter dimensions just went into effect: 17x10x9 in. Always check!
  • Carry-on bag dimensions:  maximum of 45 in L+W+H  (I’ve also seen 22x14x9).
  • Your carrier may charge a fee for a carry-on bag, but no one charges for personal items.

If you’re so inclined, then go with a hard case and check it through to your destination.  The advantage of a hard case is that everything is well-protected and much more accessible.  Some hard cases don’t even require you to remove the propellers; although I always do.  Checked bag max dimensions are typically 62 in L+W+H.  Checked bag fees may apply.

Once you’ve listed your requirements, it will be much easier to select a case that meets your needs and suits your style.  Personally, I prefer a hard case for travel by car and a compact (personal item size) backpack for travel by air.

Fly Safe!

The Exciting World of Panoramas

Fourteen Individual Photos Were “Stitched” to Make This 360-degree Wide-Angle Panorama

How often have you wished for a wider angle lens to capture your subject of interest? Or have you seen wide angle panoramas and thought to yourself “That’s cool, I wonder how they did that?” Let’s take a look at how to make panoramas that provide a poster-size photo of your subject or immerse yourself into a 360-degree wide-angle, or better yet a cylinder or sphere. Virtual immersion is some of the latest technology for real estate marketing, travel, and personal entertainment.

Rules for Panoramas

Depending on zoom setting, eight pictures should be sufficient for a 360-degree panorama. Do some test runs to practice your technique. The general idea is to take a series of horizontal pictures that overlap 10-20 percent. Ditto for vertical panos. Add a row of pictures above (horizon) and below (ground) for a larger panorama. And always:

  • Take pictures from one position (technically, the position of your lens)
  • Lock your camera’s exposure for all pictures

Making Your Panorama

The term for assembling the individual shots into a panorama is “stitching.” Basic stitching software includes Microsoft’s ICE (it’s free). For more professional results, programs such as PT GUI Pro automatically blend the images. Think of the blue sky that varies in intensity from shot to shot. Automatic blending provides a pleasant transition from lighter to darker shades of blue.

Can I Control Where The Stitches Are?

Good stitching software will give you control over where the images get stitched. Say you have 20 degrees of overlap, but an object is in motion in both images. For example, a car is in position A in one image and position B in the other image. You select which image to dominate through masking, and the other will disappear. As long as you have adequate overlap, the images can be successfully stitched.

Spherical Panoramas

Use the software’s “Layers” option to create the file set for a spherical projection. Then use Tools/Publish to Website, add these files and hit the convert button to build the web file set. Upload these files to a web folder and copy the link to the master file “name.htm”. (You will see a lot of image files, each with small portions of the pano; this is normal.) Insert the link wherever you desire and the spherical panorama will come up when viewed in your browser. Use your mouse to move around the pano. This is how the professionals do it for real estate portfolios, FaceBook, etc.

Here’s an example of a spherical panorama we made with 26 images: Monument Valley

Other Practical Uses

As I mentioned above, panoramas can be used to make super wide angle photos. If you can’t position yourself far enough away from your subject, then take multiple images of it and stitch them together. Do you have a large print or poster that’s too large for your scanner? Scan it in sections and stitch them together for a high-resolution image file that’s much better than taking a picture.

Fly Safe!

Balanced Propellers Will Reduce Vibration in your Aerial Drone

Use an instrument like this to ensure your drone has balanced propellers

Balance Your Propellers For The Smoothest Possible Flying Experience

Balanced propellers will reduce the vibrations that transfer to your flying camera as these small movements can result in blurred stills and shaky video.

How Can I Improve the Quality of My Drone’s Photography?

Drone manufacturers have fairly good quality control for their airframes but like any airborne device their smoothness depends on proper balancing of the rotating components. In our case, that would be the propellers. We’ll assume for the moment that the motors and propellers are running true and aerodynamically balanced. More on that below.

First, Why Should the Propellers be Balanced?

Well, why do drivers balance the tires on their cars? Experienced drivers know that unbalanced tires lead to vehicle vibrations when their speed picks up. The same holds true for drone propellers. When one part of the propeller is heavier, the spinning mass delta will cause vibration that increases with speed.

The Solution is Propeller Balancing

To balance the propellers, you’ll need to purchase a balancing kit; example in the picture above. It works by attaching a rod to the propeller and the pair is then balanced on a very low friction support. Any propeller imbalance will cause the propeller to roll until the heaviest part of it hangs below. Balance is achieved by adding or removing material until the propeller is stable.

Here’s the How To:

Place the propeller so it’s horizontal and watch for one side or the other to dip. Then sand/scrape off a small amount of material from the heavier blade such as on the bottom side near the tip. (Or add a little scotch tape to the lighter blade.) Horizontal balancing will take out most of the vibration.

Vertical balancing is next. The concept here is that whatever imbalance that remains is in the hub. Place the propeller so it’s vertical and look for motion. Balance is again achieved by adding or removing material until the propeller is stable, but this time it’s at the hub. If needed, sand/scrape material from the heavy side of the hub, between the propeller blades. This step may take longer because more material typically needs to be removed.

Your propeller is properly balanced when it remains stationary on the support no matter which position the blades are placed.

How Do I Ensure the Propellers are Running True?

Great question and easily answered! Start your drone on an elevated surface, such as a table, but don’t take off. Then observe the blade tips, looking for spread. There will be little to no spread if the blades are running true, which means they’re aerodynamically balanced.

If there’s spread between the tips, then the blades have different amounts of lift or the motor/shaft are bent. This means that your propeller is aerodynamically unbalanced, causing vibration. Typically, the culprit will be just one of the propellers so you can rule out a bent motor by swapping the propellers (e.g. exchanging one black hub propeller with the other). If whatever spread you saw on the one side does the same thing on the other, then the propeller is bad.

Balanced propellers will lead to the smoothest possible photography with your drone. Whatever residual vibration that appears in your video can be taken out with post-processing software.

Fly Safe!

Video Production and Post-Processing

Video Production and Post-Processing

Example of a Video Editor Timeline

Video production and post-processing are where the video and photo clips are assembled into a composite video. This is where the art of taking pictures meets the art of developing a deliverable product that meets the expectations of the client.

What is typically done in Video Production and Post-Processing?

Videos, photos, voice, and music components are planned and then sequenced into the software’s timeline. Each component has a time associated with it, so the sequence is planned from beginning to end with a target run length. For a specific run length, video segments are cut to the desired length and photos added/removed for a pleasant balance.

Post-Processing is challenging, but is key to achieving great results. In addition to assembling the components, there are special effects that include cropping, adding motion to photographs, reducing shake and vibration, adjusting brightness, contrast, color density, etc. Sometimes, a voice or music track is not needed, but other times they’re critical to finish that perfect video.

Once the video has been assembled, it is rendered – or processed into the feature video. Rendering is processor-intensive and can take as long as several times the finished run length.

Tell Me More about the Sound Track:

As you know, aerial drones don’t record audio. For many productions, this is OK because the finished video doesn’t require a sound track. For example, the business person is in an open office space where the audio can be distracting to others.  A target audience like this is looking for information – and subtitles will suffice.

There are other productions where a sound track is preferred and, fortunately, video mastering software makes adding a sound track relatively easy. The hard part is getting the audio track, whether it’s the client’s voice recording or a specific music request. You’ll want to work closely with the client at this stage as the process works best when he/she understands what is needed and provides the voice and music files.

In my experience, manipulating the visual media is the easy part. Sound, on the other hand, can run into multiple iterations with each requiring another rendering and submittal for approval.

Visit our Portfolio page for examples of the different types of sound tracks.

Should I be concerned about Copyrighted Material?

We must respect copyrighted material, whether it’s video or audio. So, although it may be easy to copy a track from our favorite CD/DVD, there’s also the risk of getting discovered and forced to pay. Detection methods are now being used to track unlicensed usage of media, and copyright owners love to demand outrageous prices when someone gets caught. It’s always best to purchase the license and have a clear conscience.

I could spend a lot more time on copyrighted media, with some horror stories to go along with it. For now, let’s stop here and I’ll follow up later with a more detailed blog.

Fly Safe!

How Serious Are You About Commercial Aerial Drone Photography – Do You Have a Remote Pilot FAA Certification?

FAA Remote Pilot Certificate

FAA Remote Pilot Certificate

Having the right answer in case anyone asks (or anything goes wrong) is that you have a Remote Pilot FAA Certification. Better yet, being certified means that you have prepared for and passed an exam that demonstrates your knowledge in relevant areas. Therefore, certification will help you to avoid incidents where you may become legally liable, especially if you’re flying for profit.

Remote Pilot certification requirements were relaxed with the publication of 14 CFR Part 107 on August 29, 2016. Prior to that date, a pilot’s license or FAA waiver was required. Since then, remote pilot certification follows a process specifically tailored for small aerial drones.

There are a number of Internet resources that explain the process. One that I found informative was posted by a lawyer who specializes in drone law:
http://jrupprechtlaw.com/get-faa-drone-pilot-license-first-time-current-pilots

Requirements

The applicant must be at least 16 years old, be physically and medically fit for safe operations, understand the English language, and pass the initial aeronautical knowledge test.

Aeronautical Knowledge Test Areas

The FAA administers exams through contractors. In my case, I took the exam at the Computer Assisted Testing Service (CATS) testing center in Ashland, VA. Test areas included:

1. Regulations
2. Airspace Classification and Operating Requirement
3. Aviation Weather Sources
4. Small Unmanned Aircraft (UA) Loading and Performance
5. Emergency Procedures
6. Crew Resource Management
7. Radio Communications
8. Performance of a Small UA
9. Physiological Effects of Drugs and Alcohol
10. Aeronautical Decision Making
11. Airport Operations
12. Maintenance and Preflight Inspections

The test consists of 60 multiple-choice questions, with a minimum score of 70%.

Certification process

Upon passing the exam, the CATS testing center will notify the FAA. Register for an FAA remote pilot certificate online at: https://iacra.faa.gov/iacra. Your temporary certificate will be issued by the FAA within a few days.

Your permanent certificate requires further vetting by the FAA and TSA and will arrive some 6-8 weeks later. For example, a copy of mine is shown above. As some of you may have been the victim of identity theft (as I have) my date of birth has been masked.

One final and very important note. For commercial operations, your drone(s) must be registered with the FAA and the registration number affixed to the airframe. There are steep fines for failure to register your drone!

Fly Safe!

You Don’t Have to Know Trigonometry to Plan a Drone Shoot, But It Helps

Image of trigonometry for a drone shoot.

Learn Useful Information By Applying Your Camera’s Field Of View Specification

Here are some tips on how a little trigonometry can help you to improve your drone shoots. Most Virginia drone pilots can fly to a position that “looks right” in their display for taking photos and videos, but what about those large jobs, such as a hundred-acre tract of property?

I recently had a commercial session involving the marketing of 116 acres of undeveloped land. My usual preplanning (and pre-programming the aircraft) was a little more challenging because I wanted to fly at the right altitude, the right speed, and the right camera tilt in order to minimize the “trial and error” approach to videography.

I’ll be happy to talk off-line about the actual formulas, but to keep this post as brief as possible I’ll just outline the principles. The fundamental information you’ll need is your camera’s field of view (FOV) and the frame’s aspect ratio. For example, the DJI Phantom drone’s FOV is 94 degrees and its aspect ratio is 4:3 for photos, and 16:9 for videos.

For 4:3 photos, the trig results are 75 deg horizontal FOV and 56 deg vertical FOV. (Approximate because this is a two-dimensional approximation of a 3-D device.) These results are shown graphically in the figure above. For 16:9 videos, the horizontal FOV is about 7 deg wider (82 deg), and the vertical FOV is about 10 deg narrower (46 deg).

With this information, you can calculate the field of view for any given distance. Say you’re shooting a photo straight down from an altitude of 100 feet. Using the sine and cosine functions, the horizontal FOV is 122 ft and the vertical FOV is 95 ft – or – a rectangle 122 x 95 ft. This is suitable if your subject, say a house, is around 60 ft wide. This ratio stays the same, so at a distance of 200 ft, the rectangle scales up to 244 x 190 ft.

Another useful angle is the tilt required to put the top of the frame just below the horizon. We found out above that the vertical FOV is 56 deg. With the camera’s tilt at 0 deg, the horizon is centered in the view. Therefore, the top and bottom of the view are at 0 deg plus/minus 28 deg. So, in theory a camera tilt of -28 deg should put the horizon at the top edge of the camera’s view. For 16:9 video, the horizon (again in theory) is at about -23 deg. In practice, I use a tilt of -30 deg for photos and -26 deg for videos to ensure landscape pictures aren’t turned into silhouettes by the bright sky.

Another tip: Use algebra to solve the time required to run a certain distance at a given speed. This will help you determine how much air time will be required per run and, thus, how many batteries to bring.

These concepts are approximate and you may come up with different results. Regardless, a reasonably disciplined approach will help you plan your flying sessions.

Fly Safe!

Drone Flight Profiles

This is a recent video of pre-programmed drone flight profiles that showcases a residence for real estate marketing. These are just example profiles and we are by no means limited to what you see here. The sky’s the limit when it comes to aerial drone photography.

Notice the production quality of the videos. The smooth flight paths and camera tilting are all controlled by pre-programmed flight profiles. We do this with special after-market drone flight control software along with advanced video processing, which together reduce the residual shake and vibration. The results are breathtaking videos, ideally suited for professional publication.

The video speeds were adjusted to keep this film clip less than 90 seconds. For your video, you have as much say as you want in how the video will be edited, including brightness, contrast, color saturation, playback speeds for each segment, start points, end points, introduction, credits, logos, etc.

When You Work With Us

We’ll provide you with a number of our “standard” drone flight profiles, review how you want your shots to be captured, and program our drone software prior to arrival on site. We are by no means limited to these flight profiles; the possibilities are almost endless. All this can easily be coordinated by phone or e-mail. When you use our drone services, you have as much say in the process as you like.

Scene Composition and Grid Lines

Your camera's grid lines will improve your pictures

Use Your Drone’s Grid Lines Option

Today we’ll touch on scene composition and grid lines. Digital cameras often have a feature that adds grid lines to the viewfinder. The DJI Go application also has this feature, which is turned on within its camera settings menu on your mobile device. Grid lines are a useful tool – they appear on your mobile display but they won’t appear on the actual photos and videos that you take.

Grid lines will help you compose your photos and videos by reminding you to check the horizon and land features so they square up in the frame. It can be a real letdown to take the perfect shot and then find it slanted by a few degrees.

Be Certain Your Drone’s Horizon View is Level on Your Display

If you’ve added a filter to the camera lens, you may find the added weight causes the horizon to tilt a little to the left or right. This is easily fixed by doing a gimbal calibration. Just make sure the aircraft is on a level surface so the horizon will be level in your display.

Tip for Composing Your Subject

Formal photographs are often taken with the subject centered, but for most other photography the image is more interesting if the subject is placed off-center. We recommend placing the subject approximately 1/3 from the edge of the frame and facing towards the center.

Grid Lines Have Many Other Uses

Another useful application for grid lines is for setting up pre-programmed function runs, such as way points. The menu blocks part of the camera view, but with grid lines you can see the center point of the camera’s view.

Try grid lines the next time you’re out flying your drone.

Fly Safe!

Exposure Compensation for Photos and Videos

Too dark?  Too light? Color is off? Whether your drone is using automatic or manual exposure, you’ll almost always have to use post-processing to get the right brightness, contrast, and color saturation. Setting EV to zero and using the histogram is great, but backlighting from the sun and bright horizons will turn the best landscape photos and videos into silhouettes.

Example of an under-exposed photo taken by an aerial drone

Before

Example of adjusting a photo's brightness, contrast, and color saturation

After

Adjust Exposure With Photo/Video Editing Software

No worries though; most of your under- or over-exposed photos can be corrected in post-processing. There are a number of commercial software applications on the market that will assist you with this. Choose one and get familiar with exposure compensation. The results will be well worth the effort.

A simple but effective application known as Microsoft Picture Manager comes bundled with their Office Suite. Even for extreme cases of under/over exposure, adjustment will enable you to salvage images you thought were destined for the recycle bin. I like Picture Manager and Windows 10’s Movie Maker because they’re intuitive, quick and efficient.

For our commercial editing, we like Adobe’s Photoshop Elements for stills and Corel’s VideoStudio X10 for videos, but the same principles can be put to work with the more basic (but effective) Microsoft products.

Aerial Drone Camera Settings

Drone pilots, you already know that the best picture is the one that won’t take much post-processing. I’ve found that you can get great results letting the drone’s camera take stills using Automatic Exposure (AE) and tapping the screen where you want the exposure to be measured. The only lens filter that you should use is an ultra-violet haze (uv haze).

For videos that pop, the golden rule is to film with a shutter speed of at least double the frame rate. So, if you’re recording video at 30 frames per second, your shutter speed should be 1/60th of a second, or faster. ISO should also be low, in the range of 100 to 200. Look for an EV value near zero.

You can achieve the above video settings automatically or manually, but for drone cameras with a fixed F/stop you’ll need to use neutral density (ND) filters. Choose a filter, say ND4 or ND8, depending on how bright it is. I prefer AE for video as well, and use the ND filter that gets my drone’s camera closest to the above settings.

It’s a good day when your stills and videos come out perfect. The rest of the time (read most of the time) count on using photo and video editing software to get optimal results.

Fly Safe!