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drone program, became a UAS expert by accident. As a plant physiologist, she has always used remote sensing to test environmental stressors on native flora. She’s worked with everything from cameras to satellites, but nothing other than a drone would work on this particular project. Its 100-plus plots, each 14 meters square, contain various experiments that had to be photographed with a multispectral camera from a (more-or-less) stationary bird’s-eye view, in high enough resolution to allow data analysis. Blimps cast shadows, bob around and require expensive gas. Fixed-wing aircraft fly over, rather than hover, making them better for surveying or shooting video. Knight had experience with radio-controlled (RC) hobby planes and the ability to build just about anything mechanical, Fenstermaker says, so she got him on her team and had him build their first copter. That was 2004, when flying a drone was relatively simple, she recalls. The pair followed the rules set for RC hobbyists: Keep the altitude below 400 feet; stay in designated open air space or posted areas; maintain a certain distance from airports; and follow the guidelines set by the Academy of Model Aircraft. Things changed in 2008, when the Federal Aviation Administration, responding

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Drone’s eye view: Left and top, Lynn Fenstermaker and Eric Knight used a radio-controlled helicopter to capture images of plots where they tested the effects of environmental stresses on desert plants. Show and tell: Above, Fenstermaker talks at Sandy Searles Miller Elementary School.

to pressure from pilots and airports, regulated unmanned aircraft being used for commercial, public or research purposes. They created three classes of aircraft, each with its own set of rules. Fenstermaker had to submit advance detailed flight plans, including safety measures, such as sense-and-avoid strategies and what her team would do in case of a lost data link. The process got even more onerous in 2013, when the FAA began requiring pilot

certificates of authorization, entailing costly ground school, flight tests and physical exams for both the pilot and observer, as well as a pilot’s license for the pilot. Not everyone complies as conscientiously as Fenstermaker and Knight, who have no choice, being from public institutions. Many private and commercial drone users flout the rules, are unaware of them or believe they’re still the same as for RC hobbyists. In 2011, the FAA fined self-proclaimed aerial anarchist Raphael Pirker $10,000 for flying a Styrofoam drone in what the administration deemed an unsafe manner. Pirker was shooting video for an ad at the University of Virginia. The case, which is still pending, will set an important precedent for commercial drone regulation. Fenstermaker hopes the rules will become less onerous, but, having seen

Desert Companion - May 2014  

Your guide to living in southern Nevada