Climate activists plan to use drones to shut down Heathrow Airport next month – gpgmail


A UK group of climate activists is planning to fly drones close to Heathrow Airport next month in a direct action they hope will shut down the country’s largest airport for days or even longer.

The planned action is in protest at the government’s decision to green-light a third runway at Heathrow.

They plan to use small, lightweight “toy” drones, flown at head high (6ft) within a 5km drone ‘no fly’ zone around the airport — but not within flight paths. The illegal drone flights will also be made in the early morning at a time when there would not be any scheduled flights in the air space to avoid any risk of posing a threat to aircraft.

The activists point out that the government recently declared a climate emergency — when it also pledged to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 — arguing there is no chance of meeting that target if the UK expands current airport capacity.

A press spokesman for the group, which is calling itself Heathrow Pause, told gpgmail: “Over a thousand child are dying as a result of climate change and ecological collapse — already, every single day. That figure is set to significantly worsen. The government has committed to not just reducing carbon emissions but reducing them to net zero — that is clearly empirically impossible if they build another runway.”

The type of drones they plan to use for the protest are budget models which they say can be bought cheaply at UK retailer Argos — which, for example, sells the Sky Viper Stunt Drone for £30; the Revell GO! Stunt Quadcopter Drone for £40; and the Revell Spot 2.0 Quadcopter (which comes with a HD camera) for £50.

The aim for the protest is to exploit what the group dubs a loophole in Heathrow’s health and safety protocol around nearby drone flights to force it to close down runways and ground flights.

Late last year a spate of drone sightings near the UK’s second busiest airport, Gatwick, led to massive disruption for travellers just before Christmas after the airport responded by grounding flights.

At the time, the government was sharply criticized for having failed to foresee weaknesses in the regulatory framework around drone flights near sensitive sites like airports.

In the following months it responded by beefing up what was then a 1km airport exclusion zone to 5km — with that expanded ‘no fly’ zone coming into force in March. However a wider government plan to table a comprehensive drones bill has faced a number of delays.

It’s the larger 5km ‘no fly’ zone that the Heathrow Pause activists are targeting in a way they hope will safely trigger the airport’s health & safety protocol and shut down the airspace and business as usual.

Whether the strategy to use drones as a protest tool to force the closure of the UK’s largest airport will fly remains to be seen.

A spokeswoman for Heathrow airport told us it’s confident it has “robust plans” in place to ensure the group’s protest does not result in any disruption to flights. However she would not provide any details on the steps it will take to avoid having to close runways and ground flights, per its safety protocol.

When we put the airport’s claim of zero disruption from intended action back to Heathrow Pause, its spokesman told us: “Our understanding is that the airport’s own health and safety protocols dictate that they have to ground airplanes if there are any drones of any size flying at any height anywhere within 5km of the airport.

“Our position would be that it’s entirely up to them what they do. That the action that we’re taking does not pose a threat to anybody and that’s very deliberately the case. Having said that I’d be surprised to hear that they’re going to disregard their own protocols even if those are — in our view — excessive. It would still come as a surprise if they weren’t going to follow them.”

“We won’t be grounding any flights in any circumstances,” he added. “It’s not within our power to do so. All of the actions that have been planned have been meticulously planned so as not to pose any threat to anybody. We don’t actually see that there need to be flights grounded either. Having said that clearly it would be great if Heathrow decided to ground flights. Every flight that’s grounded is that much less greenhouse gas pumped into the atmosphere. And it directly saves lives.

“The fewer flights there are the better. But if there are no flights cancelled we’d still consider the action to be an enormous success — purely upon the basis of people being arrested.”

The current plan for the protest is to start illegally flying drones near Heathrow on September 13 — and continue for what the spokesman said could be as long as “weeks”, depending on how many volunteer pilots it can sign up. He says they “anticipate” having between 50 to 200 people willing to risk arrest by breaching drone flight law.

The intention is to keep flying drones for as long as people are willing to join the protest. “We are hoping to go for over a week,” he told us.

Given the plan has been directly communicated to police the spokesman conceded there is a possibility that the activists could face arrest before they are able to carry out the protest — which he suggested might be what Heathrow is banking on.

Anyone who flies a drone in an airport’s ‘no fly’ zone is certainly risking arrest and prosecution under UK law. Penalties for the offence range from fines to life imprisonment if a drone is intentionally used to cause violence. But the group is clearly taking pains to avoid accusations the protest poses a safety risk or threatens violence — including by publishing extensive details of their plan online, as well as communicating it to police and airport authorities.

A detailed protocol on their website sets out the various safety measures and conditions the activists are attaching to the drone action — “to ensure no living being is harmed”. Such as only using drones lighter than 7kg, and giving the airport an hour’s advance notice ahead of each drone flight.

They also say they have a protocol to shut down the protest in the event of an emergency — and will have a dedicated line of communication open to Heathrow for this purposes.

Some of the activists are scheduled to meet with police and airport authorities  tomorrow, face to face, at a London police station to discuss the planned action.

The group says it will only call off the action if the Heathrow third runway expansion is cancelled.

In an emailed statement in response to the protest, Heathrow Airport told us:

We agree with the need to act on climate change. This is a global issue that requires constructive engagement and action. Committing criminal offences and disrupting passengers is counterproductive.

Flying of any form of drone near Heathrow is illegal and any persons found doing so will be subject to the full force of the law. We are working closely with the Met Police and will use our own drone detection capability to mitigate the operational impact of any illegal use of drones near the airport.

Asked why the environmental activists have selected drones as their tool of choice for this protest, rather than deploying more traditional peaceful direct action strategies, such as trespassing on airport grounds or chaining themselves to fixed infrastructure, the Heathrow Pause spokesman told us: “Those kind of actions have been done in the past and they tend to result in very short duration of time during which very few flights are cancelled. What we are seeking to do is unprecedented in terms of the duration and the extent of the disruption that we would hope to cause.

“The reason for drones is in order to exploit this loophole in the health and safety protocols that have been presented to us — that it’s possible for a person with a toy drone that you can purchase for a couple of quid, miles away from any planes, to cause an entire airport to stop having flights. It is quite an amazing situation — and once it became apparent that that was really a possibility it almost seemed criminal not to do it.”

He added that drone technology, and the current law in the UK around how drones can be legally used, present an opportunity for activists to level up their environmental protest — “to cause so much disruption with so few people and so little effort” — that it’s simply “a no brainer”.

During last year’s Gatwick drone debacle the spokesman said he received many enquiries from journalists asking if the group was responsible for that. They weren’t — but the mass chaos caused by the spectre of a few drones being flown near Gatwick provided inspiration for using drone technology for an environmental protest.

The group’s website is hosting video interviews with some of the volunteer drone pilots who are willing to risk arrest to protest against the expansion of Heathrow Airport on environmental grounds.

In a statement there, one of them, a 64-year-old writer called Valerie Milner-Brown, said: “We are in the middle of a climate and ecological emergency. I am a law-abiding citizen — a mother and a grandmother too. I don’t want to break the law, I don’t want to go to prison, but right now we, as a species, are walking off the edge of a cliff. Life on Earth is dying. Fires are ravaging the Amazon. Our planet’s lungs are quite literally on fire. Hundreds of species are going extinct every day. We are experiencing hottest day after hottest day, and the Arctic is melting faster than scientists’ worst predictions.

“All of this means that we have to cut emissions right now, or face widespread catastrophe on an increasingly uninhabitable planet. Heathrow Airport emits 18 million tons of CO2 a year. That’s more than most countries. A third runway will produce a further 7.3 million tons of CO2. For all Life — now and in the future — we have to take action. I’m terrified but if this is what it will take to make politicians, business leaders and the media wake up, then I’m prepared to take this action and to face the consequences.”


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FAA: Weaponized Drones Are Illegal


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The cost of consumer drones has come down considerably in the past few years, and some owners have fancied the idea of outfitting their unmanned vehicles with weapons. Some recent videos have surfaced showing people doing just that. Well, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is here to remind everyone that, no, you can’t equip a drone with weapons. It’s highly illegal, and the FAA is authorized to slap people with hefty fines. 

For several years, the proliferation of drone aircraft proceeded with very little regulation. The federal government slammed on the brakes when businesses started using drones at a time when there were no rules in place to ensure unmanned vehicles didn’t interfere with air traffic. Now, drones over a certain size and those used in business require a license. There are also restrictions about where you can fly drones, and of course, you’re not allowed to turn drones into flying weapons. 

Just recently, a company called ThrowFlame made headlines with its $1,500 “TF-19 Wasp” flamethrower attachment for drones. It works with most unmanned aircraft with a payload capacity of five pounds or more. Most of that weight is fuel — one gallon gets you 100 seconds of burning time. The TF-19 Wasp can bathe targets up to 25 feet away in fire. ThrowFlame insists this isn’t a weapon. 

The FAA has issued an official warning to the Ohio-based company. According to the FAA, any civilian operating a droneSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce with “guns, bombs, fireworks, flamethrowers, and other dangerous items” is subject to a fine of up to $25,000. ThrowFlame insists that flamethrowers are regulated as tools in the US, so they can’t be weapons. That’s reminiscent of the claims Elon Musk made in 2018 when The Boring Company sold 20,000 flamethrowers for $500 each. Of course, the company later changed the name to “Not a Flamethrower” just to be safe. 

This is certainly more of a gray area than some past drone experiments. In 2015, the FAA investigated an online video that showed a drone firing a handgun. Following the investigation, the agency issued a warning but decided against fines. 

ThrowFlame, which also sells handheld flamethrowers, seems defiant in the face of potential fines. The TF-19 Wasp remains for sale on the company’s site, and there are plenty of videos demonstrating its use. The FAA might call that “evidence.” This disagreement could be headed for court.

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FAA threatens $25,000 fine for weaponizing drones – gpgmail


It’s perfectly natural for a red-blooded American to, once they have procured their first real drone, experiment with attaching a flame thrower to it. But it turns out that this harmless hobby is frowned upon by the biggest buzzkills in the world… the feds.

Yes, the FAA has gone and published a notice that drones and weapons are “A Dangerous Mix.” Well, that’s arguable. But they’re the authority here, so we have to hear them out.

“Perhaps you’ve seen online photos and videos of drones with attached guns, bombs, fireworks, flamethrowers, and other dangerous items. Do not consider attaching any items such as these to a drone because operating a drone with such an item may result in significant harm to a person and to your bank account.”

They’re not joking around with the fines, either. You could be hit with one as big as $25,000 for violating the FAA rules. Especially if you put your attack drone on YouTube.

That’s the ThrowFlame TF-19, by the way. gpgmail in no way recommends or endorses this extremely awesome device.

Of course, you may consider yourself an exception — perhaps you are a defense contractor working on hunter-killers, or a filmmaker who has to simulate a nightmare drone-dominated future. Or maybe you just promise to be extra careful.

If so, you can apply to the FAA through the proper channels to receive authorization for your drone-weaponizing operation. Of course, as with all other victimless crimes, if no one sees it, did a crime really occur? The FAA would no doubt say yes, absolutely, no question. So yeah, probably you shouldn’t do that.


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Drone crash near kids leads Swiss Post and Matternet to suspend autonomous deliveries – gpgmail


A serious crash by a delivery drone in Switzerland have grounded the fleet and put a partnership on ice. Within a stone’s throw of a school, the incident raised grim possibilities for the possibilities of catastrophic failure of payload-bearing autonomous aerial vehicles.

The drones were operated by Matternet as part of a partnership with the Swiss Post (i.e. the postal service), which was using the craft to dispatch lab samples from one medical center for priority cases. As far as potential applications of drone delivery, it’s a home run — but twice now the craft have crashed, first with a soft landing and the second time a very hard one.

The first incident, in January, was the result of a GPS hardware error; the drone entered a planned failback state and deployed its emergency parachute, falling slowly to the ground. Measures were taken to improve the GPS systems.

The second failure in May, however, led to the drone attempting to deploy its parachute again, only to sever the line somehow and plummet to earth, crashing into the ground some 150 feet from a bunch of kindergartners. No one was hit but this narrowly avoided being a worst-case scenario for the service: not just a craft failing, but the emergency systems failing as well, and over not just a populated area but immediately over a bunch of children. The incident was documented last month but not widely reported.

Falling from a few hundred feet, the 12-kilogram (about 26 pounds) drone and payload could easily have seriously injured or even killed someone — this is why there are very strict regulations about flying over populated areas and crowds.

Obviously they grounded the fleet following this incident and will not spin up again until Matternet addresses the various issues involved. How was it even possible, for instance, that the parachute line was capable of being cut by something on the drone?

In a statement to IEEE Spectrum, which recently noted the news stateside, Matternet said that it “had never seen a failure like that in the past, neither in our expensive (sic) testing nor in commercial operations.” (Presumably they meant extensive.) The company issued a slightly different statement to gpgmail:

This is the first time ever that our vehicle parachute system has failed. As stated in the report, the flight termination system was triggered nominally per the drone’s specification, but the parachute cord was severed during the parachute deployment.

At Matternet, we take the safety of our technology and operations extremely seriously. A failure of the parachute safety mechanism system is unacceptable and we are taking all the appropriate measures to address it.

Swiss Post and Matternet reacted to the incident immediately by grounding all the operations involving this vehicle type. Our experts analyzed the incident and proposed the appropriate mitigations which are being evaluated by FOCA. We will restart operations once Matternet and Swiss Post, FOCA and our hospital customers in Switzerland are satisfied that the appropriate mitigations have been applied.

Drone delivery is a promising field, but situations like this one don’t do it any favors when regulators take a look. Despite sunny predictions from the industry, there is a huge amount of work yet to be done in terms of flight proving the technology, and although 2 failures out of some 3,000 may not sound like a lot, if one of those failures is an uncontrolled fall that nearly takes out some kids, that could set the entire industry back.


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DIY Top Gun: Add an FT Aviator to Your Drone Flying Toolkit


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Unless you’re a veteran gamer or RC airplane pilot, controlling a drone using two joysticks probably doesn’t come naturally. Startup Fluidity is trying to address that issue with a purpose-built joystick for drone pilots. In design, it is fairly similar to high-end joysticks from companies like Thrustmaster that are designed for flight simulation games. In this case, though, Fluidity’s FT Aviator acts as a Bluetooth peripheral to your phone. It works in conjunction with the company’s flight app to allow you to control your drone either from DJI’s remote or the Aviator joystick. The FT Aviator comes with an excellent pedigree, with founder Scott Parazynski a former NASA astronaut.

Setting Up the FT Aviator

The Aviator doesn’t replace your DJI remote. Instead, you need to connect your remote to your drone and your drone to your phone like you normally would. Fluidity does warn that the Aviator doesn’t work with DJI’s Smart Controller. In addition, you use the FT Aviator app to pair your phone with the Aviator joystick. (Don’t try to do it using your phone’s Bluetooth settings; let the app do it.) The Aviator comes with a holder for your phone that you can clip on to either the left or right side, depending on your preference. There is also a lanyard and small strap so that you can hang your DJI remote around your neck.

Once you get the hang of it, the process of setting up the Aviator is pretty simple, but it does mean traveling with and using more pieces of gear. Once you have the Aviator paired with the app, and the remote and phone suitably positioned, you use the app to fly your drone.SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce

The app is a competent simulacrum of DJI’s own app, but in testing, I found a few things that bothered me. Unlike with DJI or Litchi, tapping on the map didn’t make it full screen, so you’re always looking at the first-person view. I also found the flight statistics to be quite small and hard to read. Plus, speed was in feet per second, which I’m not used to translating. I didn’t find a way to change any of this, but certainly, these are relatively small issues that could be sorted out in a software update.

A Look at the FT Aviator

Like dedicated flight simulator joysticks, the Aviator is full of controls, so it takes a little practice to get used to finding them without looking. Fortunately for while you’re learning your way around, they are well labeled. The main flight control is, of course, the stick itself. Forward, back, left, and right move the drone in that direction. Twisting the stick spins the drone.

The only behavior that took a little getting used to is that pulling the trigger sends the drone up, and pushing it back the other way sends it down. There is a rocker to control the camera gimbal, a dial for how responsive you want the drone to be, and buttons for photo and video. There is also a Takeoff button (which requires confirmation in the app), and a Return to Home button. It charges over USB, and as we mentioned has a snap-on (with a lot of force in the one I reviewed) holder for a phone.

Flying With the FT Aviator

Flying with the FT AviatorOkay, the big question is what is it like to fly using the Aviator? In short, it’s pretty fun. The flight control system on my Mavic Pro drones isn’t fast enough for the real-time feedback needed for racing or crazy maneuvers, but the Aviator definitely still felt much more intuitive than remembering how to translate the motion I wanted into what to do with the two joysticks on the DJI controller. The only downside is it’s pretty tricky to go back and forth between the two solutions. More than once I started to do the wrong thing after I switched controllers between DJI and Aviator.

One helpful feature is the “Tortoise to Hare” dial. You can set the responsiveness of the drone to movements of the joystick from 1 to 5. At one, you’re not quite down at Tripod mode, but you can pretty safely experiment with moving around. Five gives you the full response of the drone in P mode. The Aviator doesn’t work in Sport mode, though, so I don’t think it’s a solution for drone racers.

Price and Availability

You can order an FT Aviator directly from Fluidity for $350, although they are on backorder until sometime in August. The Android version of the app that I tested still has some bugs, although none that crashed it while I was actually flying, so hopefully those will get resolved at about the same time the unit is back in stock. If you’re willing to deal with the cost and complexity of an added piece of hardware in your flying kit, the FT Aviator definitely provides a superior navigation experience compared with the standard DJI remote control.

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FAA Allows Hobbyist Drone Pilots to Get Automated Airspace Approvals


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Hobbyist drone flyers must abide by a large and sometimes confusing set of rules about where they can and can’t fly. Applications like Airmap and Kittyhawk have become indispensable tools for planning legal flight paths. However, flying near airports and many other types of infrastructure has required a cumbersome process of notification by telephone or manual requests for approval — until now. As of this week, the FAA has opened up the LAANC system (Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability) to recreational flyers. Currently, 591 US airports support LAANC, with more being added.

The need for extending the LAANC system to hobbyists was made more critical with the recent changes to FAA regulations, which now require active approval in cases that before only required notification. If nothing else, swamping air traffic controllers and airport personnel with phone calls every time someone wants to fly a droneSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce nearby isn’t an efficient use of anyone’s time.

Requesting Authorization Using LAANC

The process for getting authorization starts by creating a flight plan in an app like Airmap or Kittyhawk; both are free to recreational users, and both also offer a web interface in addition to mobile apps. If the flight plan includes flying near an airport that supports LAANC, you’ll be offered the option to request clearance when you finalize the flight.

You’ll need to supply the make, model, and weight of your drone, along with the altitude you’re planning, your name, and a phone number where the airport can send you a text message if they need to. Altitude does matter, as depending on where you want to fly, automated approval may only be available at lower altitudes than the maximum 400 feet.

Once you've submitted all your information you'll receive an automated response via text message

Once you’ve submitted all your information you’ll receive an automated response via text message

Being a bit skeptical after a lot of previous promises of this type of capability, I decided to try it for myself. I created a simple flight plan near San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in Airmap on the web. The first time I submitted it was rejected as I hadn’t realized I needed to add a phone number. Once I added that, the request was approved nearly instantaneously. I picked SFO because our smaller, local airports show that they don’t yet have an automated approval system in place.

A Note About Drone Flight Planning

Using a map that shows airspace restrictions is an essential part of responsible drone flying. Even if you know you’re aren’t near an airport, power plant, or other critical infrastructure, an app like Airmap or Kittyhawk will alert you to Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) caused by emergency responders, fires, police actions, or other transient events. Personally, I’ve found Airmap supports detailed maps not just here in the US, but when I’ve been flying my drone overseas as well.

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