In the early 1900s, Loudouners began looking up to see more than just birds flying through the air, as airplanes began to populate the skies. In the early 1960s, residents had to acclimate their eyes and ears to the sights and sounds of commercial airliners taking off from and landing at Dulles Airport.
Today, in addition to countless flights that cross the region’s airspace every week, a new type of flying machine is becoming more apparent in the lower regions of our skies—unmanned aircraft systems, more commonly known as drones.
It’s not uncommon to look up and see a drone flying overhead anywhere in the county, whether it’s being piloted recreationally in a park or for work, perhaps to survey a soon-to-be-developed property or a police crime scene.
With models small enough to fit in the palm of a user’s hand that cost less than $20 and can be flown inside a house, and many that feature stabilization systems that make flying easier than balancing on one leg, it’s no wonder why drones present a fascinating technology that residents of all ages are latching onto these days.
Loudoun County Aeromodelers Association President Jim Salmon said that drones began nudging their way into modern culture less than a decade ago but didn’t erupt in popularity until about three years ago. Salmon said that was around the same time that manufacturers began incorporating more advanced technology in their designs—technology including proximity and light sensors that not only automate stabilization, but also keep their users from crashing into the sides of buildings.
One of the residents captivated by drone technology is Brian Waagner, a Washington, DC-based attorney and 10-year member of the Aeromodelers Association—a local model aircraft club sanctioned by the Academy of Model Aeronautics that now gives about 100 members a place to fly and talk about their model airplanes, helicopters and drones.
Waagner said he built his first drone five years ago after wanting to learn what all the fuss was about. That drone spans 450 millimeters diagonally and can travel at about 30 mph. Waagner also recently made his first drone purchase—a 280-millimeter Hyperion Vengeance. He said he enjoys drones because he can tinker with them whenever he’s not working on cases.
Another one of those joining in on movement is Leesburg Police Department IT Specialist Luis Pavese, who started building his own drones about a year ago after a police sergeant demoed his drone out back of the headquarters. After seeing that, Pavese was hooked and has since built quad, hexa and octocopters—drones with four, six and eight propellers—some of which have met unfortunate ends as Pavese was navigating the piloting learning curve. “It was just so much fun,” he said.
Pavese now flies a $3,500 DJI Mavic 2 Pro and shares his passion for drones with his kids. He likes flying drones so much that he even volunteers his time to take aerial photos at his kids’ daycare center.
Aviation Attracts Many, Technology Repels Some
As for that younger generation, Slamon said drones are drawing kids to the world of aviation like never before.
Young drone users in the aeromodelers association are immersed in the schools of not only aviation, but also engineering and modern technology as they learn more about their drones and get a glimpse of what other types of remote-controlled aircraft exist.
In a sense, drones are the gateway drug to the larger model aircraft world. While they give users a taste of what it’s like to control something hundreds of feet in the air, they can fall short of providing their users with more in-flight responsibility.
Salmon said that while many people are drawn to drones for the stabilization systems that make flying a breeze, he’s seen those same systems turn drone users’ attentions to more advanced model aircraft that demand more skill from their pilots to keep them in the air and out of the woods. He said that although drone technology is “pretty amazing … they can get a little boring.”
Leesburg Police DepartmentMaster Police Officer Kevin Zodrow is on the other end of that debate. Owning two DJI drones of his own, Zodrow said that stabilization features still require a good amount of training for operators.
Aside from the sometimes-droning nature of drones, Salmon said there’s other factors that could push current, and keep future, drone users away from the culture in the coming years—reports that the Federal Aviation Administration could soon require all model aircraft users to pass a licensing exam. “That might just have to be one of the requirements to stay in the hobby,” he said.
But Pavese said that could be good for the culture, since flighty drone users sometimes ruin the fun for avid pilots when they outright disobey FAA regulations and fly around as they please.
Flying Under FAA Rules
While there is no mandatory exam yet, the FAA heavily regulates the nation’s airspace, especially in the Special Flight Rules Area—a 30-mile radius ring around Ronald Reagan National Airport that allows drone users to fly within the outer 15 miles under a list of conditions but prohibits them from flying within the inner 15 miles without FAA authorization.
Within the outer 15-mile airspace, where Loudoun sits, drones of up to 55 pounds in weight are limited to flying below 400 feet in altitude and are required to notify air traffic control if they fly within five miles of an airport. While the aeromodelers association’s flying field is only four miles southwest of the Leesburg Executive Airport, situated in a 17-acre cutout at the Banshee Reeks Nature Preserve, an agreement between the association, the FAA and airport allows club members to fly there without notifying the tower.
Drone users in the outer 15-mile ring also must fly their drones within their own line of sight, meaning they can’t use sensors and cameras attached to the drones to fly in first-person view. And that might just be a good thing for everyone. Pavese said that while the sensors on drones provide users with reliability, they aren’t nearly as telling as line-of-sight flying.
“The number one sensor is in front of your face—your eyes are really all you need,” he said. “You have to practice, practice, practice.”
When it comes to interacting with manned aircraft, aeromodelers association members are essentially never affected, since Leesburg air traffic typically flies a few hundred feet higher than drones and other remote-controlled aircraft. On the rare occasion when they’re flying lower than normal, members are taught to make way for the manned planes, since they have the right of way in all situations.
The only time Loudoun’s drone users might be entirely restricted from taking off is when the FAA issues formal Notices to Airmen that temporarily close the region’s airspace to all non-emergency and non-regularly scheduled commercial flights.
While some drone users might see the FAA’s regulations as a bit overbearing at times, most of them see the rules as commonsense safety measures that protect the general public.
Pavese said the regulation restricting drone users from flying over pedestrians protects them against malfunctioning drones that can turn into projectiles in an instant. “You could kill someone [if a drone flies into someone],” he said.
The FAA also backed off its regulations for drone users a bit in 2017 when a federal appeals court found that the 2015 Registration Rule, which required all recreational drone users to register with the FAA, was a violation of the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which prohibits the FAA from setting rules to regulate model aircraft use.
Copters for Cops
The FAA’s Special Flight Rules Area limitations apply not only to recreational and commercial drone users, but also to law enforcement agencies. But the county Sheriff’s Office has authorization from the FAA to fly in class B airspace, which allows it to get a bit closer to airports, like Dulles, if needed.
The Sheriff’s Office’s Lockheed Martin Indago 2 drone cost $45,000 to purchase and tens of thousands more to outfit with a 10x zoom thermal camera and a 30x zoom daylight camera, among other upgrades.
Made from plastic and carbon fiber with a Kevlar skeleton and now valued at $94,000, the drone was put into service in 2017 as one of six in the U.S. at the time to feature a Project Lifesaver antenna. That feature allows the Sheriff’s Office to locate any one of its 127 Project Lifesaver clients—residents with Down Syndrome, Alzheimer’s, Dementia or Autism who are prone to wandering off and getting lost.
The Sheriff’s Office’s drone also is a key tool in search and rescue missions. It’s capable of flying in up to 40 mph winds in driving rain or snow nearly 10 miles away from its pilot and has a battery life of almost an hour, unlike most commercial drones that can fly in winds of up to only 20 mph, are generally parked when it rains and have a battery life of half that. “It’s a game changer for us,” said Master Deputy Matt Devaney, who developed the Sheriff’s Office’s drone program.
Those features allowed the Sheriff’s Office to locate a missing man in Shenandoah County just 20 minutes after launching the drone, more than 24 hours after the area’s police agencies had initiated the search.
The Leesburg Police Department in November debuted its own $11,000 drone. That DJI 210 Quadcopter can fly up to 50 mph and constantly projects live imagery recorded in 4k at 60 frames per second.
While the department has yet to use the drone for any of the operational uses for which it was purchased, such as locating a missing person or taking measurements at a car crash scene, the department is looking to help other jurisdictions and Loudoun agencies.
Zodrow, one of three officers certified to fly the drone, said the department could use the quadcopter for damage assessment or to give firefighters an aerial view of a fire to help them make more informed decisions on how to deploy their equipment and crews.
“That might not be in our bailiwick, but our equipment is certainly good enough to do that,” he said. “This technology should benefit more than just us chasing bad guys.”
A Drone for Every Desire
And catching law breakers and assessing flood and fire damage is exactly what drones are doing, as more people of different backgrounds head online and into stores each day to find unmanned aerial systems that suit their wants and wallets.
On Amazon.com, drones can be found from as little as $13 at 2 inches wide with auto-hovering features to as much as $15,000 at more than two feet wide with cameras that record in 4k.
According to PC Magazineand Digital Trends, the best drone on the market is currently the DJI Mavic 2 Pro—the same one Pavese pilots. That drone goes for a base rate of $1,500 and has a 1080p live video feed and a multitude of other advanced functions. But another drone model could break onto the scene this year that might revolutionize the industry in one fell swoop.
“I don’t know of a technology that’s taken off faster,” Zodrow said.