UAS Life After the 333

Two UAS companies with different offerings explain the impact of receiving a 333 exemption and how business life has changed.
By UAS Magazine Staff | January 21, 2016

From the film set to the field
The wait for Nathan Schuett and his team of engineers and software experts behind the California-based unmanned aircraft systems developer Prenav was long and frustrating, but in the end, Schuett and team believe it will all be worth it. Having already applied their technical know-how to the film, “Gravity,” the team knew they could commercially deliver on their UAS vision once granted a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration section 333 exemption. After receiving their 333 in late October, the team has put its abilities for a new and unique approach to UAV flight and data capture precision on cinematic display.

While the company continues to ready the 2016 deployment of its system to the commercial marketplace, Schuett says the team wanted to utilize its 333 to showcase why time spent developing robotic arms and software for the film industry could yield major dividends to the infrastructure monitoring segment.

Before forming Prenav, Schuett and Asa Hammond worked for Google and as freelance software and robotics makers. To create the illusion of zero-gravity, Hammond developed a 10,000 pound robotic arm and software to control it. The arm was fitted with high-end cameras and used to create the zero-gravity illusion by filming from precise locations around the actors. “We are building a very similar system for drones,” Schuett, Prenav’s CEO says.

The system utilizes preflight data collected from a ground-based robotic system similar to that used in surveying operations. Equipped with the preflight data—such as cell tower heights, existing power lines or other potential flight impediments—the Prenav platform software system can be programmed to fly to precise waypoints and capture images or sense data points from very short distances away from the item being flown. “If we are doing a cell phone tower or wind turbine we scan the tower first from the ground and then we know the height and any obstacles we need to avoid,” Schuett says. “We can design a flight path that will capture everything we are interested in and preview it first on a tablet.”

During the flight, the ground system communicates constantly with the inflight UAV through Wi-Fi and 100 Hz radio link. The communication allows for greater precision in image and information capture. “If you are trying to be underneath a bridge or a meter away from a wind turbine blade, you can’t trust GPS to do that,” he says.

As part of their post-333 system roll-out efforts, the team created a short video showcasing how precise the system can be. In the film, the team mounted LED lights on its commercial grade UAV platform. Using a preflight plan, the platform was flown to spell out the phrase, “hello world.” At predetermined intervals and places, the operating software turned the LED lights on. After the flight, the team combined its footage of the system in action to show the results of the flight plan. The flight spelled out the phrase, ultimately highlighting how precise the system can fly. “It is very similar, whether you are blinking an LED or taking a video, the ability to move the drone to any point in space is important,” he says. “Being able to do it over and over again is useful for aerial filmmaking and for infrastructure work.”

For Schuett, receiving the 333 has pushed conversations with clients past the hypothetical stage. The team has already set-up surveying jobs with infrastructure clients. Holding the 333 was key for commercial growth, but Schuett says the team also knew it needed to let the world know about its unique capabilities. With more videos scheduled and a complete system becoming available for purchase or use in 2016, the 333 was the start, but not the end of progress, he adds. “I’m really looking forward to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for sUAS becoming rule next summer and the process of work becoming more accessible.”

UAS helps Colorado engineering firm fly higher
Olsson Associates has successfully integrated unmanned aircraft systems into its engineering firm’s operations. The Lincoln-Nebraska based firm was awarded a FAA 333 exemption in May. Olsson Associates operates two Draganflyer UAS to collect images for its engineering clients.

Jonathan Harris, Olsson Associates unmanned program manager, approached company officials three years ago to talk about the capabilities of UAS and the opportunities UAS could provide.

An Olsson Associates geospatial analyst at that time, Harris also is a hobbyist remote control aircraft pilot and published photographer. Since 2008, he had been watching the Mesa County (Colorado) Sheriff’s Department, the first in the United States to receive a Certificate of Authorization to operate UAS.

Harris says he believes unmanned air systems could contribute significantly to Olsson Associates’ success.

“I definitely saw the writing on the wall that it would be a standard piece of equipment in the quiver,” Harris says.

Olsson Associates applied for the 333 exemption in November 2014 and the FAA granted it to the firm six months later. The fact that Olsson Associates has the exemption for commercial use of UAS is important to many of the firm’s clients, Harris says.

“What we’re finding is that a lot of clients are requesting we have a 333 in place to even have conversations about doing the work,” he says. 

However, the downside of having the 333 exemption is that it limits the areas in which Olsson Associates can operate its UAS, he notes. Some other companies aren’t waiting for the exemption so they may get hired for projects that his firm cannot do, Harris explains.

Olsson Associates, however, “takes the long-term look and realizes the benefits will outweigh the inconvenience,” Harris says.

Not only does Olsson Associates have a 333 exemption, it also has permission from the FAA to operate its two Dragonflyer UAS in areas where typically holders of COA’s cannot. For example, Olsson Associates is working on a project within the 5-mile buffer of the downtown Kansas City airport.

“That required a huge amount of coordination with the airport managers, air traffic control and the FAA,” Harris says. The firm gained the trust of the three by having many conversations about its operating plan for the UAS.

“We really kind of showed them we can successfully work within the airport environment,” Harris says. “It came down to already having the 333 and some successful projects under our belt and having open conversations with the FAA.

“Everyone we talked to was happy we called them. There are so many people out there doing the work without that phone call.”

Besides having conversations with FAA officials, Harris and his colleague Michael Laird, Olsson Associates other UAS pilot, went through a two-day Dragonflyer Innovations training program before they began operating the Dragonflyer for their work.

Operating the UAS to gather imagery has greatly enhanced the amount of data they can collect, Harris says.

“The biggest advantage we are finding is the density of data that you can acquire with UAV.”

The team is also learning that UAS can fly into areas that would be difficult to access from the ground. For example, in June 2015, Harris operated the Draganflyer to conduct a survey for the city of Fruita, Colorado, which wanted to connect a section of land to the Kokopelli Trail, a world class hiking system.

Olsson Associates received an Engineering of Excellence award for that project from the American Council of Engineering Companies. It was the first time the ACEC Colorado had awarded the honor for a UAS project.

Anticipating the potential for UAS to play a significant part in Olsson Associates engineering work and doing the leg work to make it a reality helped the firm get out in front of the competition, Harris said.

“We completed the learning curve before the others have started,” he says.