Can drones help Westport flatten the coronavirus curve? Westport Police want to find out.
Chief Foti Koskinas and Captain Ryan Paulsson, head of the department’s drone program, are testing new technology, through a partnership with drone company Draganfly.
It could be used in areas where large, unsafe gatherings might occur, such as Compo Beach and Longshore. If crowds are gathered, it could make an announcement asking people to practice physical distancing, or leave.
It does not use facial recognition technology, and would not be used over private property.
Draganfly says that its software can also scan body temperature, heart and respiration rates, coughs and blood pressure. The Canadian company says the drone can detect infectious conditions from 190 feet.
Koskinas notes that such data — if it is reliable — would probably be used by health officials, not the police.
A Draganfly drone
The department has been using drones for several years already. Purposes include missing persons, motor vehicle accidents, and assisting the Fire Department.
The Staples High School sophomore is on the tennis team. He’s taking AP courses. He loves photography, and making and editing videos. For the past 2 years, he’s developed websites for family and friends.
A year and a half ago — when the price of drones dropped and the market soared — Ryan started researching options. His parents agreed to fund half a DJI drone. He agreed to work, and pay back his half.
He followed Federal Aviation Administration rules, registering his drone as a Small Unmanned Aircraft System. He agreed to fly below 400 feet; not fly within a 5-mile radius of any airport, and always keep his drone in sight.
Ryan started taking beautiful photos and creating gorgeous videos, including the beach and — during family sailing trips — the New England coast. (Click here to see his website.)
His photos of his own house — with Compo Beach and the Sound in the background — were fantastic. That gave him the idea to reach out to real estate brokers, offering to shoot for them (free at first).
Word got out. He spent most of last summer taking real estate photos.
Owenoke Park, from Ryan Felner’s drone.
The Norwalk Hour ran a big story — “Student’s Drone Photography Business Takes Off” — last October. He was thrilled…
…until later that night, when he saw the comments. The story had been picked up by drone enthusiast sites. People posted harsh messages, saying what Ryan did was illegal.
Apparently, the FAA had released new regulations a few weeks earlier. To “Fly for Work,” a drone operator had to possess a Remote Pilot Certificate, and be 16 years old.
There were a few supportive comments. Some people noted that — like many operators — Ryan probably did not know about the new rules.
But he was horrified. He woke his parents, who were upset they’d allowed the situation to happen.
The next day, things got worse.
Richard Aarons — a volunteer counselor with the FAA’s safety team — emailed him. He told Ryan to contact him ASAP — and warned him he could face huge fines.
Ryan panicked. He was scared about the money. He worried his reputation was ruined for life. He feared for college, and beyond.
His parents helped him respond. Ryan said he was devastated to be out of compliance with regulations. He promised to cease all commercial operations immediately, and said he’d wait until his 16th birthday to take his pilot’s exam and apply for a proper license.
Aarons’ response was fantastic. He told Ryan he completely understood what happened, and said he was now doing exactly the right thing.
Aarons forwarded the emails to Marilyn Pearson, an aviation safety inspector with the FAA Unmanned Aircraft System division. She’d been working hard to educate drone enthusiasts, while implementing the new regs. She too commended Ryan for the way he’d communicated with the authorities.
Ryan Felner with his drone, on Martha’s Vineyard.
As Ryan’s 16th birthday approached, he contacted Pearson and Aarons. Both offered to help, if there was something he didn’t understand as he studied for his FAA exam.
On Tuesday at Sikorsky Airport, Ryan passed his FAA Remote Pilot Knowledge test with a very high score of 87.
Two days later — yesterday — he turned 16.
And tomorrow at 12 noon, in the Westport Library’s McManus Room, Ryan will give a talk at the Maker Faire. His subject: “Adventures of a 16-Year-Old Drone Pilot.”
But wait! There’s more!
When Pearson heard about Ryan’s speech, she was so excited, she said she’d come down from Hartford for it.
So before his talk — at the 9:45 a.m. Maker Faire opening ceremony, in the Taylor parking lot — she will present him with his Remote Pilot Airman Certificate.
Ryan’s spirits are sure to be sky high.
Right up there with his drone. And the possibilities for his great, professional — and now completely legal — business.
David Pogue leads a wonderful life. The Westport-based tech writer (Yahoo, New York Times, Scientific American), TV correspondent (“CBS News Sunday Morning,” PBS “Nova Science Now”) and author (“Missing Manual” series, “Pogue’s Basics”) has won 3 Emmy awards, 2 Webbys and a Loeb for journalism.
But even Pogue’s life doesn’t always go according to plan. The other day — well, let him describe it for “06880” readers:
I love drones. I love reviewing drones. I love filming drones!
But last week, something really crazy happened. I was reviewing the new $1300 Yuneec Typhoon H, taking it out for a test flight before the Yahoo video crew arrived next day to film my video review.
My son Kell (a Staples High School 2015 graduate) and a couple of his buddies stood on our attic balcony, checking it out. I let it hover at their eye level, just so they could see how cool and menacing-looking this hexacopter was. (It has 6 rotors. No, that doesn’t make it a sexcopter.)
From there, I flew it straight up. It hovered over the house, giving me an amazing view (on the remote control’s screen) of the Wakeman athletic fields.
The drone hovered 370 feet up — just shy of its 400-foot, hardwired altitude limit (also the FAA’s maximum allowable height). Then, before my eyes, the drone started drifting away. The controls did not respond!
The screen just said, “Trying to reconnect.” As I watched in disbelief, the drone drifted away over Bayberry, toward Fairfield. I was helpless.
I got on my bike and rode around, looking and looking. I never found it. There’s a $1300 drone in somebody’s bushes somewhere.
Drone flyaways are supposed to be impossible. They’re programmed to return to their takeoff position (in this case, my backyard) if they ever lose their connection to the remote. Somehow, that fail-safe system never kicked in.
A little Googling shows that flyaways do, in fact, happen. (One landed on the White House lawn last year.)
David Pogue, perhaps trying to find his drone.
The company analyzed my flight logs and concluded that nothing I’d done contributed to the flyaway. But they had no explanation for what caused it.
Nobody’s ever been hurt by a flyaway drone, and companies are working on better sensors, software and electronics to prevent flyaways. But I was really rattled — though not as much as if I’d actually bought this drone. (It was a review unit.)
Friends suggested I tape “LOST DRONE” signs on telephone poles in the neighborhood. I decided, nah. That’s just be too embarrassing.
But if an “06880” reader finds a sleek black drone in their bushes: I’ve still got the remote control. Let’s talk.
Rick Eason graduated from Bedford Middle School in June. But the teenager knows aircraft technology, FAA regulations — and Westport skies — like a pro.
Rick has always been interested in electronics. Not long ago, the rising Staples freshman got a drone. His DJI Phantom FC40 Quadcopter is amazing. Equipped with a GoPro camera providing very high quality 2.6K resolution still photographs and video at 30 fps, plus 4 rotors, it tilts, spins and zooms its way over beaches, homes and fields.
Rick Eason and his drone.
Thanks to GPS it holds its position in wind, moves around a center point, and can even return to the exact spot it was launched if contact is lost.
“It’s so much fun to fly,” he says. “It’s so easy and intuitive to control.
“You can get views no one has ever seen before,” Rick adds with pride. “This is not like Google Earth. You can see your house from 20 feet above.”
Or the Westport Library. Here’s a view from Rick’s website that I’m pretty sure is the 1st of its kind:
Rick’s dad, Tony Eason, installs solar panels. Rick’s drone helps him inspect roofs.
Drones are still pretty new. Rick saw another Phantom at Winslow Park. “06880” has posted amazing videos, taken by another owner, of Compo Beach and Sherwood Mill Pond. But right now they’re rare, and Rick gets plenty of admiring stares — and questions — when he launches his.
Drones are so new, in fact, that federal regulations can’t keep up. Though drones can rise 2000 feet high, the FAA classifies them as “remote controlled aircraft,” with a limit of 400 feet.
Technically, they can’t fly beyond the owner’s “line of sight.” But, Rick says, he can watch and control his drone through the GoPro camera, using goggles or a laptop.
Rick Eason’s drone hovers over his front lawn.
Owners need a license to make money off drones. So legally, Rick can’t charge for his photographs and videos. (That hasn’t stopped others from doing so.)
Rick has learned about privacy laws too. “When you’re 30 feet up with a fisheye lens, you might catch someone’s private home,” he says. “If they ask me, I’ll delete it.” But, he notes, “it’s really no different from taking a photograph of someone’s house from the beach with an iPhone.”
Drones are here to stay. Just a couple of years ago, they cost thousands of dollars each — and did not fly particularly well. Now, Rick says, “you can buy one for $300 at Barnes & Noble.”
Rick’s drone, inspecting a roof.
Rick loves his drone — but he’s already looking ahead. He’s saving up for a gyroscopic gimbal, to keep the camera even steadier than it is now.
Meanwhile, he’s thinking up clever new uses for his drone. At Staples, he might contribute aerial photograph to Inklings, the school newspaper.
And last Thursday Rick was at Compo, for the 2nd annual “06880” party. While the rest of us were eating, drinking and chatting, he was hard at work.
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