Raphael “Trappy” Pirker controls the aircraft from a nearby hill. The bridge is within sight, but the 29-year-old enjoys the scenery through virtual-reality goggles strapped to his head. The drone’s-eye view is broadcast to the goggles, giving Pirker a streaming image of the bridge that grows larger as he guides the radio-controlled aircraft closer.
Pirker, a multilingual Austrian and a master’s student at the University of Zurich, is a cofounder of a group of radio-control-aircraft enthusiasts and parts salesmen called Team BlackSheep. This California flight is the last stop of the international group’s U.S. tour. Highlights included flights over the Hoover Dam, in Monument Valley, down the Las Vegas Strip, and through the Grand Canyon. The team has also flown above Rio de Janeiro, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Berlin, London, and Istanbul.
The Golden Gate Bridge now fills the view inside Pirker’s goggles. He’s not a licensed pilot, but his command over the radio-controlled (RC) aircraft is truly impressive. The drone climbs to the top of the bridge, zips through gaps in the towers, dives toward the water, and cruises along the underside of the bridge deck. Months later, the self-described RC Daredevils post the footage on YouTube, where nearly 60,000 viewers watch it.
Team BlackSheep is willfully—gleefully, really—flying through loopholes in the regulation of American airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allows unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to fly as long as their operators keep them in sight, fly below 400 feet, and avoid populated areas and airports.
The FAA also forbids any drone to be flown for business purposes. “In the U.S. right now, it’s completely open, so long as you do it for noncommercial purposes,” Pirker says. “The cool thing is that this is still relatively new. None of the laws are specifically written against or for what we do.”
While the FAA did not sanction Team BlackSheep for buzzing landmarks as a publicity stunt, it has shut down other for-profit drone operators, including Minneapolis-based Fly Boys Aerial Cinematography, which was using drones to take photographs for real estate developers. are specifically written against or for what we do.”
Even the military and other government operators must obtain FAA waivers to operate drones. That means that flying over a wooded area is fine for an amateur, but a fire department that uses a drone to scout a forest fire in the same area requires special federal permission.are specifically written against or for what we do.”
Federal, state, and local agencies can apply for FAA waivers to be able to put drones to work. Although the process is cumbersome and time-consuming, there has been a sharp rise in requests (see “Rising Drone Demand,” page 81). For example, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) operates a fleet of 21 T-Hawks, ducted-fan UAS that can be readied for takeoff in 10 minutes and can ascend to altitudes of 8000 feet. The USGS has obtained permission to use these craft to view hard-to-reach cliff art, track wildlife, inspect dams, and fight forest fires. Others are not so lucky. Last year the FAA grounded a $75,000 drone that the state of Hawaii bought to conduct aerial surveillance over Honolulu Harbor. The agency would not waive the rules because the flights were too close to Honolulu International Airport.