One of the most popular technological trends of the past months is that of civilian drones.
These compact high-tech aerial vehicles offer different control modes, from traditional remote controls usable on-site to next-generation smartphone and tablets that can be used remotely, and can be employed for a very wide range of activities.
They can adapt to a wide range of potential applications and are a great opportunity for developing interesting business and employment opportunities. Drones, for instance, have caught the eye of many online shopping giants that for some time have been toying with the possibility of providing super-fast delivery services to customers in the near future (like Amazon's Prime Air project authorised by the United States Federal Aviation). Using a drone in combination with a camera has become common and is fundamental for archaeological surveys, aerial photography, surveillance and territorial analysis, policing and surveillance, searching for victims of natural disasters or for lifesaving operations and much more.
Since they are actual aircraft (the word “drone” indicates a specific category of devices, also known as UAV - Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), they are subject to specific regulations such as the Regolamento dei Mezzi Aerei a Pilotaggio Remoto (Regulation for Remotely Piloted Aircraft) in Italy, which has become a necessity over the past years since these vehicles have been approved for civilian use.
In actual fact, since the use of remotely controlled aerial vehicles by civilians is more varied than one may expect and more and more countries are banning indiscriminate use to prevent incidents with air traffic or ground-controlled approach systems (such as radars), the matter of a regulation governing the use of drones is continuously evolving.
ENAC, the Italian Civil Aviation Authority, is responsible also for this category of aerial vehicles and has drafted a first set of basic rules governing their use in all conditions to ensure maximum safety (the regulation first came into force in April 2014). Changes and updates to single items have been introduced since to keep in step with the development of new, better performing drones and to take into account the creation of new activities or more simply to respond to the criticisms received from unhappy UAV enthusiasts and sector experts.
For this reason, a second version of the Italian regulations was published mid 2015 (it has been in force since September 15 of that year) with the later amendments suggested by the Italian Air Force and the EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency).
So, the ENAC has provided specific indications concerning the authorisations needed by pilots (exclusively for professional applications), equipment, pre-flight certifications, the drone types which can be used for civilian applications and much more, once and for all.
This is what you need to know before you buy a drone and the main rules, some of which dictated by plain common sense, that must be followed to prevent damage, injury or being fined by the police or other authorities.
Let's start with some general rules:
• no documents, licences, certifications or insurance is needed to fly drones for amusement or sport (recreational drones), although insurance is always advisable to keep on the save side. On the contrary, those who want to use drones for work or for a profit (professional photographers or videographers) must attend a practical flying course either held or authorised by ENAC according to specific requirements that must be submitted to the authority and must have the documentation needed to certify the drone manufacturer's compliance with safety standards (certificate or flight permit).
• Flights are allowed during the daytime only (never at night) and the drones must give way to all other aerial vehicles (such as hand gliders, aircraft, helicopters etc.).
• The pilot may take pictures and post them on social media providing they do not infringe upon the privacy of other people and may fly in public spaces, but not in cities, urban centres, crowed places or public parks.
• All models equipped with GPS, which are consequently automatic, have a sort of carte blanche, providing the pilot maintains visual contact at all times and is always ready to take full control of the drone from take-off to landing to avoid unnecessary risks.
Precise rules apply according to the type of drone you choose. Pilots who are not licensed to fly a remotely operated aerial vehicle are restricted to drones weighing less than 25 kg fitting motors with a total power of less than 15 kW. In all cases, it is advisable to acquire good piloting skills before flying a drone weighing more than two kilograms as an impact would cause certain injury.
The maximum visual distance between vehicle and pilot allowed by the ENAC regulations for drones is 200 metres, while the maximum height must not exceed 70 metres (150 metres for holders of a specific authorisation). Furthermore, you must keep a distance of five kilometres or more from an airport, see and be seen by aircraft and finally never fly in no-flight zones, like the historical centres of major cities.
The Italian Regulation for Remotely Piloted Aircraft is complemented by rules of common sense. It is advisable to pick tree-less open spaces to prevent losing visual contact with the vehicle and stay away from roads. Stay clear from fenced-off areas to prevent trespassing troubles if the drone needs to be retrieved on the ground. Do not fly in strong winds to prevent the drone from being swept away out of sight and avoid areas near large TV aerials because they can cause interference capable of making you lose control of the vehicle.
After this round-up of the ENAC regulations for flying recreational drones and some rules suggested by common sense, here are some suggestions to be considered before purchasing one of the vehicles that pack the shelves of shopping centres and electronic shops even if the final choice is certainly personal.
Firstly, piloting a drone is not as easy as using a smartphone. Controlling an aerial vehicle depends on many factors, personal skills acquired with practice, the type of drone and its controls. For example, all drones have a different type of flight controller, i.e. the flight control chip. For this reason, not all drones are the same and a smattering of knowledge is needed to choose the right one for you.
In principle, the price of a drone is an indication of how difficult it is to pilot because the ratio between control difficulty and price follows nearly always clearly defined rules. Cheap drones are often very difficult to control because the controller does not implement specific function designed to assist the pilot. Medium-range drones, instead, are more suited for beginners because the respective controllers implement basic specific controls that promote ease of use. Control difficulty increases again with high-range drones which are created for professional applications and for this reason can only be operated by expert pilots.
However, the choice of a drone also depends on other factors which can be verified when you buy it. Importantly, not all products are complete or flight-ready. You need to pay attention to the codes printed on the boxes to avoid last minute disappointments:
• The code RTF stands for "Ready To Fly" meaning that you just need to take it out of the box and you are good to go.
• The code BNF, "Bind And Fly", indicates that the drone is not equipped with controller, which must be purchased separately and, above all, must be compatible with the specific model.
• Finally, ARF means "Almost Ready To Fly", indicating a partially assembled drone which requires completion by the buyer before being able to fly The completion kits of an ARF drone may not be included in the box and so it is crucial to check exactly was you get and what is missing.
If you have had the patience to read all of this, you will have understood that purchasing and using a drone is not child's play! This is why it is crucial to invest in the quality of the drone and its accessories.
The controller is possibly the most important of all for this type of hobby. Choosing a good quality one, if it is not included in the box with the drone, is the priority. Good controllers can last from two to five years and allow you to update the transmitter to be compatible with newer drones.
Another crucial accessory is the battery charger and it is worth investing in a good one. Also in this case, one of the advantages that you will obtain by using high quality products is compatibility with most battery types. The drones change and so does the battery power. A good battery charger must be able to take different types of battery without problems, recharging them quickly and reliably.
More and more manufacturers are offering consumer model drones (that are not toys, mind you!) with attractive shapes and sizes.
We have conducted a brief market survey of the most interesting models to buy for beginners who want to sample their skills and for those who want to invest a little more in their hobby.
• DJI PHANTOM 3
The DJI Phantom 3 is considered one of the best drones on the market. It is a mid-sized model and is relatively expensive (prices go from 900 Euro for the Standard version to 1,400 Euro for the Professional version). It can record 4K video at up to 30 frames per second and take photographs with a resolution of 12 megapixels.
• DJI INSPIRE 1
The DJI Inspire 1 is a particular type of large-size quadcopter with a futuristic look and equally amazing functions: HD video streaming, 4K recording, dual-pilot operation, optical stream stabilisation, top speed of 81 km/h and peerless ease of use. As expectable, this drone will set you back more than 3,000 Euro. It is a highly professional product usually employed for aerial photograph, videography, research and rescue in case of emergencies and for highly specialised military operations in critical conditions.
• HUBSAN X4
The Hubsan X4 is one of the smallest drones for beginners. The entry level of its four available versions costs just 40 Euro (including the controller). Its major features include six LED lights, video camera and First Person View mode to stream the drone feed in real time (the latter only on the most expensive version costing approximately 120 Euro).
• BLADE NANO QX
Another very small drone model is the Blade Nano QX, that for only 70 Euro offers two flying modes, one all-manual called Agility mode and a controlled mode called Stability. The only fault is that because of its small size, it can be difficult to see this quadcopter at a distance making controlling it difficult.
• PARROT BEPOP DRONE
The Parrot Bepop could be a good example of the entire category in terms of implemented technology, flight speed and compact size. Obviously, the top-of-the-range version costs more and despite its small size the Parrot Bepop does not cost less than 450 Euro. Besides the cost factor, it is apparent that this drone is all but unrivalled in its category: it can be controlled by a smartphone (iPhone or Android device) with dedicated app, extended function range, SkyController with real joysticks (to be purchased separately), HDMI port and state-of-the-art video system (14 megapixel camera with 180 degree viewing range, live video stream directly to smartphone or tablet, video recording at 1080p).
• LATRAX ALIAS
The LaTrax Alias is an excellent quadcopter to learn to control a drone manually also without automatic functions. It is crash-resistant and despite its small size it is a hard-core drone capable of housing a small camera, video and audio transmitters to be turned into something higher performing and more professional. Given its popularity with beginners the manufacturer has cleverly created a structure with modular parts that can be replaced. All this can be yours for 130 Euro.
And now you know all the options and the rules, have fun with your drone!