Top 10 Drone News Stories in 2015

Top 10 Drone News Stories in 2015

1. Hobby drones fly onto regulators’ radar

In 2015 the number of drone related incidents sky rocketed. Most of the big news stories of this year were about mishaps related to irresponsible drone users.

With the onslaught of amateur drone operators the US government scrambled to pass legislation that would stem the tide of drone crashes, privacy threats and dangerous flying. There was a great fear that massive numbers of drones would be given as Christmas presents this year dubbed by some at the great “drone invasion”.

DroneInvasion

The FAA took responsibility for making drone users accountable by issuing a new law that all non-commercial drones need to be registered with the agency. The FAA reasoned that drone users are “aviators”

“Make no mistake: Unmanned aircraft enthusiasts are aviators, and with that title comes a great deal of responsibility,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement released by the FAA. “Registration gives us an opportunity to work with these users to operate their unmanned aircraft safely.”

The FAA drone registration website went live on December 21st which can be seen here: FAA Drone Site. Their guidelines are bit foggy and fail to define what is and isn’t a drone. They do have a list of samples though, FAA Sample Guide. The guide seems to suggest that only drones with autopilot capability (aka actual drones and not R/C models) need to be registered.  At the moment the registration system is ambiguous and poorly though out.

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The knee jerk reaction from the FAA makes an effort to control the huge number of hobby drones taking flight this year.  Much like the long gun registration in Canada the people who are going to break the rules will not register their drones anyway.

Transport Canada jumped on the drone invasion bandwagon as well but fortunately did not enact a poorly thought out registration scheme. They launched a media campaign instead to educate users to follow existing regulations (Transport Canada Announcement)

 

2. Drones interfere with forest fire operations

There were several big news stories this year about drones interfering with forest fire fighting operations in Canada and the United States.  This summer was unusually dry and led to an increase in forest fires all over North America.  In BC there was a province wide fire ban this summer due to the dry conditions.

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One incident near the town of Oliver, BC made headline news across the country (CBC story).  Aerial fire suppression crews were hard at work battling a fire that engulfed 1500 hectares and led to the evacuation of over 100 homes.  When a small drone was spotted the whole crew of eight helicopters and 6 water bombers was grounded for five hours.

The story spurred negative emotions from many BC residents as the fire fighting effort was desperately needed and the interruption further threatened many homes.

There were several incidents in California this summer too.  California had a rough summer with widespread drought and many forest fires.  Public reactions were fierce. The county of San Bernadino is offering a $75,000 reward for the identity of drone pilots who interfered with three separate forest fire operations (Reward Story).

3. Hobbyists create weaponized drones

Within the last year two youtube videos from the same drone enthusiast sparked much controversy (CNN Article).  In the first video he mounted a handgun to a quadcopter drone and rigged up a remote firing system.  The result was pretty intimidating.  See the video below.

In December the same enthusiast mounted a custom designed flamethrower to a larger drone and posted anouther video.  Once again the controversy spread like wildfire (Popular Science article).  The inventor says that the experiments were conducted in a controlled environment with water and fire extinguishers nearby.

Internet users were mostly outraged with many in the drone community lambasting the teenager who created these drone weapons.  There were a lot of comments from people fearing their hobby would be banned because of this young man.  Others applauded the ingenuity that it took to put these together while some were just plain scared.

It will be interesting to see what hobbyist drone weapons make the news in 2016.  Drones were originally developed as weapons systems starting with the German V1 flying bomb in WWII which was essentially a cruise missile.  With the long history of weaponized drones we shouldn’t be so surprised when kids are creating them in their backyard.

4. Delivery Drones

Everbody has heard of the Amazon delivery drone by now.  News of their plans to develop a 30 minutes or less drone delivery system called Prime Air has been splattered all over the headlines for much of the year (30 minutes or less).  Just last month they released a video with former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson showing a concept of what Prime Air might look like.

Despite the many challenges involved in drone delivery Amazon seems to be taking their plan seriously.  They have proposed a special drone delivery only airspace (BBC article).  It will be several years at least before the technology and regulations are actually ready for something like this.  Take a look at my post on 6 Misconceptions About Drones in 2015 where I explained why this won’t work.

Google (aka Alphabet) and Walmart also filed applications to test drone delivery this year (Walmart Drone Delivery).  Futuristic drone delivery remains a tantalizing possibility and will likely remain in the headlines through 2016.

5. Military drone pilots speak out

Military drone strikes were a big story in the news this year.  In October a leak was released detailing the United States use of armed drones to murder suspected terrorists and other people they don’t like in the middle east (drone leaks).  It had been assumed for years that the US was using drones in countries that it was not supposed to.  The leak exposed a massive drone assassination program that was largely unknown

Around the same time stories began to surface of military drone pilots who quit their jobs due to the emotional toll of constantly killing people on the other side of the world (NBC story)

This story from 2012 explains how a US military drone pilot from Montana killed an innocent child.  He launched a missile at a building in Afghanistan when a child walked out at the last second before the missile hit.  There is a lot of collateral damage in the US drone war campaign.  According to this article on Vice News more civilians are killed than suspects (Vice story).  Anouther article in the New York Times tells the same story (NY Times).

A huge number of drone pilots are quitting their jobs.  More people are quitting than are being trained (Drone Pilots Are Quitting In Record Numbers).  The air force in apparently offering huge bonuses to retain qualified operators (NY Post article).

6. Guys shoots down drone and gets away with it

This summer a man from Louiville, Kentucky took down his neighbour’s drone with a shotgun.  He claimed that it was spying on his daughters who were sunbathing in his yard.  Initially he was charged by police for discharging a firearm in the city.  In October a judge ruled that the drone invaded his privacy and therefore he did not break the law in shooting it (Man Shoots Drone)

The drone’s flight data was analyzed after it was shot down.  The drone was clearly above 200 feet and had only been in the air for two minutes.  It seems obvious that the shooter was acting emotionally and testified that the drone was closer than it was.

There has a been a lot of hype about drones invading privacy.  While camera equipped drones do have the capability to spy on people it is up to the operator to act responsibly.  There are existing laws regarding voyeurism and trespassing which apply to drones as much as people.

Of course this was not the only drone shooting incident.  A New Jersey man also shot a drone with a shotgun he did not have such a sympathetic judge.  He was charged with Possession of a Weapon for an Unlawful Purpose and Criminal Mischief (NJ Drone Shooter).

Drone Shooter

Anouther interesting drone shooter story took place in Modesto, California (Cal Drone Shooter).  Again the shooter acted on concerns over privacy.  This case was handled by small claims court when the shooter refused to pay for the parts that he damaged.  The drone owner won the court case this time.

In some states its OK to shoot drones in others it is not.  It seems that shooting drones is a grey area as in the US the legal system (CNN Drone Shooting).

There have been several news stories of drone incidents on beaches.  In one case a man was arrested and charged for throwing his T-shirt into the propellers of a drone causing it to crash (T-shirt drone incident).

A particularly interesting incident happened in 2014 at beach in Connecticut (Woman Assults Drone Pilot).  A woman was offended that a drone pilot was flying a camera drone over the beach.  She attacked the man and was subsequently charged with assault.  The man filmed the assault on his cell phone and she now faces up to a year in prison.

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It is not against the law to fly or film in a public space.  If you are sunbathing on a public beach people can legally take pictures of you with a drone or otherwise.

7. White house drones

2015 saw two white house drone incidents.  The first incident happened in January (NBC, Mashable).  The drone operator lost control of his DJI phantom and it landed on the grounds of the white house in Washington, DC.  The incident was uneventful other than that fact that it landed on government property.  Nobody was hurt, no property damage, etc.  Although this story reports that the pilot was “drinking and droning” (DUI Droning).

Secret Service Handout Photo
Secret Service Handout Photo

In contrast the the January incident a man was detained for flying a small drone (Parrot Bebop) at the white house (CNN, DailyMail).  The area around the white house was put under lock down.  Secret Service agents quickly tackled the suspect and detained him.  All the surrounding roads have been cleared of people and cordoned off.  The pilot (Ryan MacDonald) was arrested and charged with violating a federal order.

The difference in handling of these two incidents is noteworthy.  In one case the perpetrator was a government employee who recklessly went to sleep with a drone in the air, and may have been drunk.  He actually crashed his drone.  In the second incident the man did not crash and was arrested and charged and the white house was put on lockdown.

8. Drones at airports

Drone incidents at airports have risen sharply in the last year.  It is inevitable that with the huge numbers of drone sales a small percentage of owners will operate in a completely reckless manor.

Once incident in May at New York’s LaGuardia Airport involved a near mid air collision between a drone and a jetliner at 2700 feet (Fox News).

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According to this article from the Washington post there were in excess of 700 drone related incidents at airports in the United States in 2015 and the article was written in August.

On July 10, the pilot of an Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle said a small drone came within 50 feet of the fighter jet. Two weeks later, the pilot of a Navy T-45 Goshawk flying near Yuma, Ariz., reported that a drone buzzed 100 feet underneath.

There have been some actual mid-air collisons:

On May 9, the pilot of United Airlines Flight 863 — traveling from San Francisco to Sydney — reported that the Boeing 777 hit a drone at an altitude of 3,000 to 4,000 feet along the California coast.

Vancouver, BC has had several incidents as well (CBC News).  There was a high profile incident in October at the international airport and one in August involving a sea plane and a quadcopter (National Post).  According to the seaplane pilot the drone came within three meters of his windshield when he was landing.

These kind of incidents have been spreading rapidly and in each case you have to wonder what the person was thinking.  There are several awareness programs in place now but do you really need someone to tell you that its a stupid idea to fly a drone at an airport?

9. Drones over Paris

In February drones were spotted flying over several Paris landmarks including the Eiffel Tower, and the US embassy.  The drones were spotted two nights in a row presumably taking photos or video of the landmarks.  Flying a drone at night is illegal in France and drone flights in central Paris are also banned.

ParisDrone

The story was huge news despite how little was known.  News agencies in Europe reported the facts and that the pilots or drones had not been located (BBC News).  Here is an excerpt from a BBC article.

The security threat from these drones is minimal. Bird’s-eye images of Paris landmarks are available online in far higher quality than anything these devices could produce. And small, shop-bought drones are not strong enough to deliver a significant payload of explosives.

News in the United States took the story to a whole different level.  The CNN video below has “TERROR IN THE SKIES” as the headline for their report.  With no information to go on CNN decided to scare the pants off American viewers.

A week later three Al Jazeera journalists were detained as suspects (Al Jazeera Story).  The reporters were in fact operating their own drone as part of their coverage of the mystery drone story.  They were detained for 19 hours and questioned.

The actual perpetrators were never found.  The Paris drone flights remain a mystery.  They were likely tourists using their toy drones to capture aerial video of landmarks.

10. FAA grants over 1000 permits

In August of 2015 the FAA announced that it had issued over 1000 exemptions for commercial drone operation (Fortune Article).  Through much of the year they were issuing permits at a rate of 50 per week.  The FAA was mandated by congress to come up with commercial drone rules by 2015.  They dragged their feet and still only have an interim measure called a section 333 exemption.

droneMining

Commercial drone activity is illegal in the United States and the permit grants an exemption to the law.  The process is similar to what Transport Canada has been doing for a decade.  Without a permit there is no commercial work.  What this story really means is that the United States is finally able to have a domestic commercial drone service industry.  Prior to 2015 only a small number of permits were issued giving the holders a virtual monopoly on drone services.  With the increase in permits there is beginning to be some competition in the market.

Section 333 exemptions are not easy to get.  There is a paperwork intensive application process and all the criteria need to be met.  The FAA is moving towards an actual licencing system instead of the patchwork of regulation that they are now using.

 

Runner Up News Story:

Enrique Iglesias Slices Fingers on Drone

During a concert in Tijuana, Mexico Enrique Iglesias grabbed a drone out of the air and sliced his fingers on the propeller.  This story made headlines in May of 2015 (DailyMail Story).

EnriqueDrone

The drone was used to get crowd footage during the concert.  Enrique grabbed the drone to get a POV perspective.  He continued performing for 30 minutes and was airlifted to a hospital after the show.  He was bleeding the whole time.  You have to respect the guy for continuing the show despite some fairly serious bleeding.

 

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The Search for Klondike Lode Gold

The Search for Klondike Lode Gold

In the summer of 2010 I was hired to work with a team to find hard rock gold in the Klondike.  We explored a group of claims on the Indian River.

IMG_1741My crew stayed at a camp operated by a character called Big Al.  That name might sound familiar because he has been featured on the popular TV show Yukon Gold on the History Channel.  Of course at that time we had no idea he was going to be a celebrity.  During the trip we heard a rumour that Hoffmans working a few claims over were filming for a TV show, it turned out to be the hit series Gold Rush on Discovery.  We were surrounded by gold mining TV stars but didn’t know it yet.

Klondike Tailings Piles
Klondike Tailings Piles

Indian River Yukon

The Klondike is a place that has a very storied history and was the site of the greatest gold rush of them all.  California, Oregon, and British Columbia had their gold rushes and stories but the Klondike was like no other.  Between 1896 and 1899 over 100,000 adventurers made the journey from all over the world to the largely uninhabited Yukon territory in search of gold.  What made this rush different is the long journeys and overall inexperience of the Argonauts.  At the time of discovery El Dorado and Bonanza creek were the richest creeks in the world.  Some claims on El Dorado were getting $27 to the pan once they hit the pay streak.  That is equivalent to about $750 per pan in today’s money.

My team met up in Whitehorse the capitol city of the Yukon Territory in early August 2010.  We then rounded up some remaining gear and drove in a rented truck up to Dawson City.  As you arive in Dawson City you can see the remains of over 100 years of placer gold mining. Before you reach the town you can see large tailings piles lining the sides of the highway.  When looked at from above they look like something that was produced by a giant insect.  The tailings piles were put there by humongous dredges that scoured the Klondike drainages until 1966.  It is estimated that each of the dredges were producing as much as 800 ounces of gold per day!

Aerial View of Kondike Tailings
Aerial View of Klondike Tailings

Dawson City is a cool town.  The residents have maintained the look and feel of Dawson’s heyday during the Klondike gold rush.  The streets are dirt with wood plank sidewalks.  Most of the buildings are original in the downtown area and many commercial buildings have the false front that was the norm during the gold rush era.  There is even a law that all signs have to be hand painted.

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There are no corporate stores or businesses in Dawson.  Everything is locally owned and operated.  Some of the original establishments from the 1890s are still in operation today.  Diamond Tooth Gerties is one such establishment which offers games of chance and nightly can can dancers 7 days a week.  Anouther is Bombay Peggy’s which operated as a brothel during the gold rush.  It has turned into a classy bed and breakfast now.

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My Crew posing with the Can-Can girls

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Dawson has several historic bars as well.  One such bar is the Downtown Hotel.  We stopped in there one night after visiting several other bars and took part in a local tradition.  It is called the Sourtoe Cocktail.  Only one of my crew was willing to take the shot with me.  The Sourtoe Cocktail is a shot of Yukon Jack whiskey taken with an amputated human toe in the glass.  They keep the toe in a jar of salt above the bar.  Apparently the tradition started with a bootlegger losing his toe due to frostbite.  I was informed that this was their 6th toe which makes you wonder where they new ones came from.

Bombay Peggy'sThe Toe

The Bonanza Creek Road is the main access to Indian Creek.  Along this historic route there are plenty of relics of past mining adventures.  Most notably the historic Dredge No. 4 which mined Bonanza Creek until 1959.  There are other dredges as well and plenty of old heavy equipment that was abandoned by miners of the past.  There are abandoned bulldozers, excavators, trucks and other random big machines.  There is such a surplus of iron that many bridges use large dozer shovels as retaining walls.

Dredge No. 4
Dredge No. 4

We were tasked with finding the source of the placer gold in the Indian River.  We stayed at Big Al’s camp and were exploring mineral claims that overlapped his placer claims.  His knowledge of gold bearing benches as well as historical research was very important in our search.  Likewise our findings were beneficial to Al in exploring new placer areas.  Most of our time was spent exploring old miner’s trails on quads and by foot.  I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a great time.

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We came across several old mine shafts and evidence of placer mining was everywhere.  My crew participated in some of Big Al’s cleanups too.  It was exciting to see the amount of gold that he was pulling out.  We participated in all the steps of his cleanup process from cleaning the sluice to the concentrator jig and so on.  At each stage a fair amount of rum was consumed it seemed fitting when surrounded by hundreds of ounces of gold.

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Yup, that's exactly what it looks like.
Yup, that’s exactly what it looks like.

In our hard rock exploration we employed several techniques utilizing traditional prospecting as well as soil sampling and statistical pebble counts.  The soil sampling was conducted with helicopter support which made it a lot easier.  We were bagging close to a hundred samples per day each which was more than we could carry in the bush.  At the end of the day we’d chop out a helicopter landing area and radio the chopper.  Then we’d pick up the samples that we cached during the day.  Hard work but a lot of fun too.

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We spent a total of six weeks prospecting the area.  We took a lot of samples to be sent in for assay from all over the claims.  Prospecting in the Yukon is similar to BC, there is not a lot of exposed rock around.  Unlike the barren lands of the North West Territory and Nunavut there is plenty of forest and vegetation covering the rock.  We spent a lot of time in the helicopter scoping out rock outcrops.

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There seemed to be a correlation between the garnets that were showing up in the placer operation and high grade gold.  When the placer miners hit the paystreak they got a lot of garnets with it.  We started prospecting up a creek called “Ruby Creek” assuming it was named for the abundance of garnets.  The hunch turned out be be right.  We chased the garnets up to some large outcrops near the top of the mountain.  The samples contained a lot of garnet but not a lot of gold.

100_1595 SoilSampling

From an old mineshaft that we found near a cabin we discovered that the miners hit a layer of pure quartz conglomerate.  And it was loaded with gold.  We then knew what to look for.  The search for the source of the Klondike gold continued for several weeks.  We encountered giant moose, grizzly bears, Northern Lights and some great people.  On several occasions we thought we found the fabled mother lode but the samples returned disappointing assay results.  Some of the more random samples showed the highest grades.  They say gold is where you find it.  We did not find the source of the klondike but we did manage to have a great time and got paid for it.

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6 Misconceptions About Drones in 2015

6 Misconceptions About Drones in 2015

#1 Not all remote controlled aircraft are drones

The rise in popularity of consumer drones has led to a considerable amount of confusion.  The word drone has been misused by the media and manufacturers attempting to capitalize on the excitement that surrounds everything “drone”.  A drone is a robot that has the ability to operate autonomously without direct control from a human operator.
DroneNot“Drone” usually refers to unmanned aircraft which are also called UAVs (more on that later).  There are other types of drones too such as boats, submarines and ground based robots.  For an aircraft to be considered a drone it must have an autopilot and have the ability to fly without user input.  Many of the “drones” on the market right now do not meet that criteria.  For example this is not a drone, Flymemo DM007 but it is marketed as one.  This one is a drone 3DR Solo Drone Quadcopter.

There are similarities to real quadcopter drones though.  The DJI phantom is a real drone, the difference being that it has an autopilot and can operate a flight pattern autonomously.  Likewise “racing drones” are not drones at all.  They are totally cool though and look like a lot of fun.

Quadcopters have been around for a long time and offer a stable platform compared to conventional R/C helicopters.  The correct name for these non-drones is R/C quadcopter.  Adding a camera does not make an R/C aircraft a drone either.

#2 You can’t just fly wherever you want

Commercial and Hobby use of drones comes with regulations.  Like most laws it is the responsibility of the operator to learn and obey the regulations.  In Canada the regulations are in a state of flux so it is important to keep up to date with the changes.  Likewise in the United States new rules are currently being developed to register all recreational drones.

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Canadian recreational users can be fined up to $3000 for an infraction of the recreational rules.  Commercial operators are subject to fines up to $25,000 for flying without a permit or exemption.  Any damage caused by reckless drone usage can also be charged back to the owner.  Other laws also apply such as voyeurism and trespassing.  RCMP have been investigating unauthorized use and have issued fines to non-compliant operators (CTV article).

At the present time both Canada and the United States do not have a licencing system for commercial drone operations.  In both countries the existing laws consider commercial drone activity illegal and therefore an exemption or permit is required.  In Canada this is called an SFOC or a “Section 333 Exemption” in the US.  The Canadian laws are further ahead as there is somwhat of a streamlined system to apply with a clear set of criteria.  Exemptions have been made for small drones provided that they have insurance and operate at a safe distance from airports, and buildings. This link has flow chart for the current exemptions, TC Exemptions.

IllegalDrone

Reckless drone incidents have risen sharply in the last two years with the increase in drone sales.  There was an incident this summer where a recreational drone interfered with a forest fire fighting operation in Southern BC (news article).  A disturbing amount of drones have been spotted at airports interfering with commercial air traffic as well.

#3 Confusing Acronyms

Following up on misconception #1 there are a lot of confusing acronyms and terms for drones and drone-like aircraft.  The “proper” name for drones is actually UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles.  Some people will say UAS or unmanned aerial systems.  These terms are a matter of debate in academic, military and regulatory circles.  Drone, UAV and UAS essentially mean the same thing.

The terminology gets a little foggy when you start talking about RPVs which stands for remotely piloted vehicle.  Many of the large military drones fall into the RPV class.  The difference is that they are actively piloted by a human although the human can be hundreds or in some cases thousands of miles away.  RPV’s are essentially big expensive R/C planes.  R/C is another acronym that is part of the mix.  As discussed in #1 R/C stands for radio control and refers to the hobby planes, helicopters and multirotors that are literally controlled by radio transmitters.

Modern drones developed from R/C aircraft and have many of the same components.  One more acronym that is related to drones is FPV which stands for first person view.  That is the technique used to fly R/C aircraft using a live video feed via radio link and video goggles.  FPV is pretty cool stuff, check out the video below (be advised that they are likely breaking the law).

#4 Drones will not be delivering packages anytime soon

There has been a lot media coverage recently about drone delivery systems.  Amazon has been leading the charge with a media frenzy around what they call “Amazon Prime Air”.  Just this week they put out a promotional video hosted by former Top Gear star Jeremy Clarkson.  See the video below,

It looks cool, even plausible, but there are several major road blocks that need to be dealt with before drones will be landing in your back yard.  First the drones require a system called Sense and Avoid.  This is arguably the holy grail of modern drone development.  Sense and avoid means that the drone can avoid collisions with unplanned obstacles, people and vehicles using onboard sensors and real time decision making.  Great strides have been made in the last two years in this field but it will be a while before it is ready for the real world.  Check out this ground breaking video from researchers at MIT,

In addition to sense and avoid systems delivery drones will also have to be reliable in all weather conditions.  There are very few drones today that are capable of flying in rain, strong wind or at night.  There are other reliability issues that need to be addressed such as battery life, and battery consistency.  Not to mention dealing with militant anti-drone activists or simply kids that might throw plastic bags or rocks at delivery drones.  Apparently it is legal to shoot down other people’s drones in the United States (see this article).

The last hurdle that needs to be cleared is regulation.  Amazon, Google and Walmart have all been lobbying for a designated altitude to be used for delivery drones above cities.  The proposal sounds like something out of a science fiction novel, and may one day part of the solution but it will take a long time.  Currently drones are not prohibited within 9km (Can) or 5 miles (US) from an airport which is where the majority of customers live.

Drone delivery is not a new concept.  In remote regions of Africa experiments are underway to deliver live organs and medicine between villages.  Check out this TED talk on the subject.  In rural Africa there is virtually nothing for the drone to hit, no conflicting traffic and so on.  In areas like that drone delivery can already take place.  Drone delivery services will be available in major cities one day but with today’s technology and regulatory climate it is nothing more than a publicity stunt.

#5 Most of the military drones are not killing machines

A widely held misconception about drones is that the US military drones are all weaponized killing machines.  Coverage in the press gravitates towards the very controversial remote killing machines that the military certainly does posses.  They have several models of weaponized drone, the main drone strike tool is the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper. The Reaper is a bigger, more powerful version of the Predator with the addition of weapons payloads.  They also have F-16 fighter jets converted to drones and unmanned bombers.  The Tomahawk cruise missiles which were made famous in Desert Storm are also basically kamikaze drones.

1970s Target Drone
1970s Target Drone

The first drone weapon was developed by the Nazis in WWII.  It was called the V-1 Flying Bomb and was essentially an early cruise missile.  The US has a long history of drone useage beginning after WWII with unmanned target drones.  Miltiary forces all over the world routinely use target drones to for target practice every day.  It is mind boggling that they build simplified drones that cost between $10,000 and $40,000 just to shoot at and destroy.  These non-weaponized drones are used daily.

The drone age really took off with reliable photography drones in the 1990s.  The most successful drone to date is the Insitu ScanEagle.  The ScanEagle was originally developed in Oregon by Insitu to map tuna schools.  They have been deployed in US military operations since 2004 and all they do is take pictures.  The AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven is a small hand launced photography drone that can be rapidly deployed to take aerial photos.  The Shadow, Blackjack and RQ-170 Sentinel are all photography drones as well.  The Canadian military uses the Israeli made Heron UAV and the ScanEagle, we do not have any weaponized drones.

Insitu Scan Eagle
Insitu Scan Eagle

The Predator and Global Hawk are extremely successful long range, high altitude drones that collect aerial imagery and do not have weapons capability.  I am not advocating in any way the use of drones for murder but the media promotes stories on the controversial killing drones in the headlines.  This disproportionate reporting give the impression that all military drones are killing machines.  In reality there are only a handful of killer drones while the overwhelming majority take photos and collect remote sensing data.

#6 Drones will not crash if their radio is jammed or lost

There has been some press lately about using radio jammers to knock out drones.  There are even some start up companies marketing radio jammer guns.  They look like some kind of futuristic weapons.

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Drone radio jammer made to look like a weapon

Radio jammers work by overloading a signal with random noise.  The jammers that are being designed for drones use directional antennas and focus on the the frequencies often used by drones (2.4 – 5.8 GHz).  Some drones operate on different frequencies such as 900 MHz which would require different antennas.

If tuned to the correct frequency range a jammer can definitely disrupt a drone’s radio link.  That will not cause it to crash though.  Just about every drone in operation today has a set of failsafe programmed features.  One of the most important is a radio signal loss failsafe.  What that means is that the drone is programmed to follow a procedure when signal is lost.  Typically the drone will return to its take off point and hover or circle in the air until signal can be re-gained.

RadioJammer
Drone radio jammer

Drone’s can lose signal for a lot of reasons and it has happened to me on numerous occasions.  They also have failsafe procedures for loss of GPS signal, battey  power, etc.  The definition of drones comes into play again here.  Radio controlled aircraft such as R/C quadcopeters which are often mis-labelled as drones will crash when signal is lost.  That is true of any non-autonomous R/C aircraft.  Without receiving commands from the pilot they will all crash.  So radio jammers are effective on R/C devices.

In recent months momentum is building for drone radio jammers to be installed in airports and other sensitive areas where reckless drone activity could be a nuisance.  First of all they would not actually be effective against drones and second the jammers would overlap with commonly used aviation frequencies.  So that is never going to happen.  If commercial jet flights are concerned about having a cell phone powered up during flight how would they like high powered radio jammers operating in the vicinity?

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Hunting for Diamonds in the Arctic

Hunting for Diamonds in the Arctic

Back in 2010 I had the opportunity to work on a diamond exportation program in the Canadian Arctic.  The camp was called Credit Lake and was located near Lac de Gras in the North West Territories.  The Lac de Gras region was the epicentre of the 1990s diamond rush after the discovery of the Point Lake kimberlite pipe by Chuck Fipke.  Today there are three operating diamond mines in the region Diavik, Ekati, and Snap Lake.

rawDiamond

Diamonds are found in volcanic structures that are called kimberlite pipes.  These are volcanic events that take place very rapidly.  Most volcanoes take thousands or millions of years to develop.  A volcanic pipe can develop and explode in less than a day.  These volcanic explosions are charged by high pressure carbon dioxide and water vapour.  And travel from the below the crust melting through rock at over 100km/h.

CreditLakeLocation

It is important that volcanic pipe events happen quickly if you want to mine diamonds.  The environment where diamonds form is under intense heat and pressure.  Once the pressure is removed diamonds will melt into graphite which is much less desirable.  In kimberlite pipes diamonds are carried to the surface as the superheated kimberlite melts its way through the layers of the crust. When the pipe reaches the surface it releases its energy in a huge explosion and then quickly cools.  The diamond crystals do not have time to melt, they cool with the rest of the pipe and stay in place.

Diavik Diamond Mine
Diavik Diamond Mine

The volcanic events that created the North West Territory kimberlite pipes took place millions of years ago.  The surface has been subjected to many ice ages over the years and different continental ice sheets have scoured the surface like a bulldozer.  To find a pipe today you look for the debris field left behind as the top of the pipe was scraped by ice sheets.  As the glacial ice sheets retreated they left behind a trail of ground up rock and indicators for diamonds if you’re lucky.

Credit Camp

My first stint at the camp was for six weeks in 2010.  We were searching for diamonds as well as nickel.  My role was to analyze pulverized rock samples from an R/C drill as well as preparing samples for assay and general exploration work.  I returned in 2013 to conduct geophysical surveys including ground (snowshoe) magnetometer and HLEM.  Both trips were in early spring when the temperature in the Arctic ranges from -50°C to -10°C.  Show storms were frequent and the ice on the lake was five feet thick.
TwinOtter

The camp is extremely remote, approximately 300km North of Yellowknife,NWT.  Everything is brought in by ski plane or helicopter.  In addition to exploration work we had to work together to keep the camp running.  When a plane would arrive we would all pitch in to get the groceries, diesel drums, and any other supplies off the plane and into the camp.  The same was true for getting water out of the frozen lake for showers, laundry and the kitchen.  Water is always a challenge in remote areas when it is extremely cold.


While I was at the camp we experimented with several different water gathering techniques they all had their merits.  What we ended up doing was using a chainsaw to cut out a section of the lake ice.  Then used an ice auger to drill the final few feet (see video above).  We used a snowmobile toboggan to transport pails up to the reservoir inside the kitchen.

To travel to and from the locations we were exploring we took a helicopter.  We had a Eurocopter Astar B3 to shuttle people and move the heli-portable drill around.  We also had a couple of snowmobiles and a GMC pickup truck that had tracks instead of wheels.

A Star GMC Track Truck

The RC drill is a super light weight drill that produces crushed rock instead of core.  The RC stands for Reverse Circulation.  The drill is air powered and behaves like a giant hammer drill, like the kind that you use for masonry work.  The air returns from the bit carrying the rock chips to a hopper where samples can be collected.  The advantage of an RC drill is that it doesn’t require water and breaks down for rapid transport.  RC drilling is quicker and less expensive than diamond drilling.

RC Drill in Action

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After field samples were collected I conducted several tests on them inside our field lab.  We had an X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer which is a pretty cool instrument.  It bombards the sample with high energy X-ray radiation and the atoms re-emit photons which gives information about their structure.  XRF basically gives you a rapid geochemical assay.  I also conducted magnetic susceptibility tests and identified the lithology of chip samples using a microscope.

Field Lab

The accommodations were first class.  At least as far as small remote exploration camps go.  We stayed in Weatherhaven dome tents which are heated by diesel stoves.  As long as there is fuel in the stove you will be comfortable in any weather conditions.  The stoves are prone to issues though and use half a drum of diesel per day when its super cold.  Our beds are constructed out of 2×4 lumber that was flown in and everybody uses a sleeping bag for bedding.  This camp was not a “dry camp” which means that alcohol was allowed.  That is a huge plus when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere for six weeks.

My houseCamp Tents

The high latitude makes for great northern lights viewing.  That is actually my favourite thing about the Arctic.  Interestingly the mechanism behind the glow of the Aurora Borealis is the same as the XRF machine.  The molecules in the upper atmosphere are excited by a stream of radiation from the sun called the solar wind.  When molecules are excited they reach an unstable electron configuration and rapidly release a photon as they return to a stable state.  The different colours are due to different molecules being excited such as high altitude ozone, oxygen and nitrogen.  The phenomenon is difficult to photograph but here are some of my best shots below.  The best photo in the world doesn’t compare to seeing it in real life though.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

ChopperAurora

The days out in the field can be pretty tough when the temperature drops.  We built a survival shack that would travel with the drill.  Other than that we were fully exposed until the helicopter arrived at the end of the day.  The survival shack also made a great place to have lunch out of the wind.

Credit lake April 031 Credit lake April 041

In addition to drill sampling I conducted geophysical surveys to identify kimberlite pipes.  We used two types of geophysical survey, magnetometer and HLEM.  Magnetometer or “Walk Mag” is a sensor that measures changes in Earth’s magnetic field in very high precision.  As you pass over different kinds of rock the sensor will record minute changes in the magnetic field.  Once the survey is complete you can produce a map that looks like a topo map except that the you are showing magnetic field instead of elevation.  Click here for a sample of a magnetometer map.  Kimberlite pipes stick out as an anomaly because they have a different magnetic signature to the surrounding rock.  You have to use the old school snow shoes because any metal will mess up the readings.

Walk Mag in Action
Walk Mag in Action

HLEM (Horizontal Loop Electomagnetic) works in a similar way except that there are two parts to the system.  One provides a source field and charges up ore bodies.  The receiver records the response signal from the rock.  HLEM actually works the same way as a metal detector just on a larger scale and records actual data.  The instrument is from the 1980s and is very uncomfortable, fortunately in the winter you are wearing lots of clothes.

Maxmin 1 Maxmin 2

I have always enjoyed working in the Arctic.  Its not for everyone though.  It is insanely cold in the winter and the summer has a lot of bugs.  The wildlife is breathtaking I have seen Muskox, Wolverines, Caribou, different coloured bears, Narwhals, and other wildlife that you cannot see below the Arctic Circle.  The Northern Lights shows are simply amazing.  The people are different too.  This kind of work attracts a different breed, those who are willing to travel to remote areas.  Arctic explorers all share a strong sense of adventure.

 

 

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