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Flying Drones Near Airports


Last week we had the Stinson Tower professionally photographed. Although I’d like to think of myself as being pretty handy with a camera, what I bring to the table pales in comparison to what my friend Dror can do.

That said, there’s one thing I can do that he can’t. I can fly a drone.

And so while Dror was busy at work on the ground, I took to the skies to try and communicate the relationship between the new tower and the historic terminal building on the other side of the runways. With special clearance from the tower (like drinking and driving, drones and airplanes don’t mix), I was able to fly up to get some nice views of the wings from a vantage point that would have been all but impossible ten years ago.

Career Change Alert

drone mailer.jpg

I've written before about how useful I've found drones to be. Since becoming a commercially licensed drone operator I've done some work-for-hire but mostly it's been done as favors for colleagues. In other words, although it's helps with my architecture work, it's not something I intend to make money from by itself.

Then I got this flyer in the mail. Now I am very tempted to go sit at the feet of "THE DRONE BOSS" and learn how to become a "TRUE DRONE ENTREPRENEUR."

Or I could just keep on being an architect.


On Flying Drones and Carrying Handguns

As I mentioned last week I've been in the process of acquiring an "Airman Certificate" from the FAA that would allow me to operate a small unmanned aerial system for commercial purposes. I'm happy to report that I passed the exam and have been issued temporary paperwork: my official license will arrive in the mail sometime next week.

I spent a little over a week studying for the exam and now know quite a bit about how the United States manages its airspace. I also understand better how the FAA regulates the use of drones and how to operate one safely so as to minimize the danger to people and property. The process seemed reasonable given the relatively small threat to public safety posed by the kind of small drone I am now permitted to fly (for the record, we're talking about this kind of drone as opposed to this kind).

At any rate, how I felt about this process was in stark contrast to how I felt after earning my Concealed Handgun License last year.

For the record, I don't carry a concealed handgun nor do I personally feel I have a compelling reason to do so. I don't have a particular problem with someone else "carrying" provided they do so in a responsible manner and that the process of acquiring a CHL is reasonably rigorous. 

I was curious how difficult it would be for me - someone who had only fired a handgun a couple of times in his life - to show up completely unprepared for a CHL class and walk away with a license. That's more or less what I did last year when after a few hours of classroom instruction and about 15 minutes on a gun range I had all the paperwork I needed to file for a license to carry a handgun in the state of Texas.

It seems odd to me that it is easier to acquire a Concealed Handgun License than to acquire a Remote Pilot Certificate. The civilian drones I'm now allowed to fly aren't designed to kill people. Handguns are designed to kill people.

Yes, drones they can hurt people (i.e. Enrique Iglesias) but only if they are operated or interacted with irresponsibly. The same is true of motor vehicles which is why we have a thorough process to make sure those who choose to operate them are able to do so safely.

Of course our right to keep and bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution - a document that says very little about our right to keep and operate drones. Then again the first few words of the Second Amendment include the term "well regulated" but that's a different discussion for a different day.

In Praise Of The Sectional Chart

Last year the FAA established new standards for the commercial operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, drones, etc.) in US airspace. What that meant for me was that I could no longer use my drone for what I had originally purchased it for without obtaining a Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airman Certificate. I am in the process of doing that now and have spent the last week or so studying for my Aeronautical Knowledge Test.

I've spent about a week studying the material and like most exams (the ARE, the bar, etc.) some of the material covered is of dubious importance. For example, I've learned all about runway markers even though my quadcopter doesn't need a runway to takeoff. Still, I now know what the colored markers mean that are pictured on the left side of our rendering of our design improvements for the Stinson Municipal Airport Control Tower. The yellow "B" on the black background indicates that is Taxiway B and that the white "32-14" numbers on a red background indicate that taxiway is about to cross runway 14/32.

One thing that has been worthwhile to learn is how to read a VFR Aeronautical Charts (see above). Produced by the FAA and updated every six months, these so-called "Sectional Charts" are designed to give pilots the information they need to navigate under visual flight rules. As such they illustrate and label landmarks that would be visible from the air (cities, roads, lakes, etc.). But overlaid on top of that are several layers of information that is completely invisible.

For example you also see the multi-colored concentric circles you see describe the various classes controlled airspace that surround various airports. The solid magenta circles you see around San Antonio and Austin are for the "Class C" airspace that surround San Antonio International and Austin–Bergstrom International Airports. This type of airspace exists as "inverted layer cake": the inner circle represents a layer that goes from the ground all the way up to 4,800 feet whereas the outer circle represents a layer that starts at 2,000 feet and goes up to 4,800 feet.

Plenty of other information can be found here as well: control tower radio frequencies, the location and height of large obstructions and areas where the military conducts low-altitude operations. Almost everything a pilot needs to know can be found on the charts. Even current weather conditions can be found by listening to the Automatic Terminal Information Service (ATIS) broadcast whose radio frequency is provided on the Section Chart. 

The density of information is part of what makes these charts so compelling. Seeing your world rendered in a way you don't normally see it is equally fascinating. It's like looking at an aerial photo of where you live in Google Earth: the landscape it renders is both familiar and foreign at the same time. It is also abstracted in a way that I would argue is beautiful.

For an even greater level of abstraction, check out IFR Aeronautical Charts (see below). These documents are for pilots using only their instruments and so provide no visual reference to what's happening on the ground. Instead all that is rendered are the invisible airways and waypoints that crisscross the sky above us.

The family that drones together...

I am lucky to have clients who have amazing sites with incredible views of beautiful country.  Of course, almost any view is improved by an increase in elevation.  Lucky for them I have a drone to which I can attach a camera that then allows them to visualize what the view from a second floor would be like.  Why do I have a drone you ask?  It's a long story.

On a separate but related topic, my wife likes to sleep late on weekends.  My daughters and I do not.  Thus it only makes sense for the three of us to go for a drive into the country, for me to strap my youngest daughter to my chest and then fly a drone of dubious legality around private property.  

Hilarity always ensues.