It was my dream to do something like this since my first burn in 2002 (you can read my BM reports here: http://marc.merlins.org/perso/bm/ ), and it was only this year that I was able to get the gear to make it happen and be satisfied that it was sufficiently safe to use (I had plans to do so last year, but ultimately didn't deem my equipment safe/tested/ready enough).
My full report on burning man 2015 with pictures from the ground is here.
This year was also tough due to high winds and whiteout conditions most days, so finding safe flying times took patience. Then unfortunately as I found out while there, BMorg changed their rules a bit late this year, and the FAA is trying to prevent beyond line of sight flights for hobbyists, even though there can be made safely with proper equipment and training. As a result, I ended up having another pilot do the flights in these videos (more details below).
For those who didn't know, BMorg virtually outlawed any RC flying except for around 30 or so pre-selected pilots, and this was not well announced, and not mentioned anywhere in the rules I got with my ticket. I know that they are worried about all the quadcopters flying around, many from questionable pilots (sorry to say it, but it's true), and unfortunately it looks like they may have over-reacted a little bit, maybe pressed by time.
I'm hopeful that this page will help BMorg consider adjusting some of their RC rules in the future, starting by allowing very small models like micro quadcopters, and foam planes under some conditions, and more qualified responsible RC pilots (I've already reached out to them to discuss, waiting to hear back).
Pictures from the sky
Here are a few day snapshots. The first flight was done where a dust storm was happening on half the playa (but not the takeoff/landing point):
Man, being dusted
dust being blown away from BRC
temple of promise also being dusted
this is how half BRC can be in a dust storm, and the other half clear
temple of promise
center camp, getting its street watered down
Trebuchet about to be used
And here are some night snapshots. Note that the camera (mobius) isn't exactly a night camera, so the night stills aren't super sharp, sorry:
man burnt in the middle, with the sea of art carts around it
art carts like vultures around the next thing to burn :)
Best Of Day and Night Videos
Here are 2 summary videos (there longer ones below after the Q&A, including a version without music but wind and RC sounds):
(note that videos are HD, 1920x1080, so you should play them full screen for better details))
Questions and Answers
Q: Tell me more about the RC plane you used
A: It's a BFG2600/Diamond 2500 with pixhawk auto pilot. It had differential flaps and ailerons for tight landings (crow flaps), rudder, elevator and an 800W motor for easy takeoffs. The autopilot is fully capable of flying the plane from takeoff to landing without any pilot input, but was flown manually to satisfy the see and avoid requirements. There are 3 onboard cameras all visible during the flight for video piloting, 2 front facing and one very wide angle for a very good forward view (again for see and avoid). The entire plane is foam with one rubber wheel for landing, and a small aluminum nose cone with the propeller. The propeller is not used for landing and the aircraft can fly about 45 to 60mn on a single battery charge, or longer if the air has thermals. Outside of the nose cone, every other part of the aircraft destroys itself if there is a collision, lessening the impact for the other side. Stall speed, and typical gliding speed if the aircraft comes down uncontrollably, is typically around 20mph horizontal speed and 2mph vertical speed vs up to 100mph+ vertical speed for a free falling quadcopter.
I have a FrSky Taranis on 2.4Ghz for the RC controller, using a 8dbi omni antenna for better range. Actual range was a bit beyond 2km at burning man which was more than enough. The video transmitter onboard was only 600mW at the higher end of the 5Ghz range (above Wi-Fi so as not to be jammed or jam others) and could reach just about 2km, which again was enough to fly from a distance equivalent from center camp to the temple. If needed, I had a 2W video transmitter and a long range 1W 433Mhz OpenLRS RC controller system, but those turned out not be needed and required an amateur radio license which I have, but the other pilot did not (more or that later).
Q: Wait, I thought flying RC was not allowed at BM anymore?
A: Sadly, that's what I found out after starting to fly. This was written nowhere in the booklet I got with my tickets, which arguably is a contract of what we agree to abide by when we agreed to buy the tickets. Clearly BMorg added this rule after the fact, and I was very disappointed that they then made it a BLM federal law passible of fines after selling tickets.
I spent over a year building and testing FPV RC planes, and auto pilots with the goal of taking footage at burning man, and didn't bring one last year because I didn't have one I felt was ready and safe enough. I cannot say how bad it was to be then told a year later that what I had spent so long to prepare and make sure was safe, was suddenly illegal, and mostly because of irresponsible quadcopter/multirotor pilots.
I should add that the rules really seemed targeted at what people call irresponsible drone pilots, which typically are quadcopter pilots who aren't skilled pilots (some multirotor pilots are quite capable and responsible thankfully, but they are far outweighed by those who are not).
Q: And what makes your plane safer than a quadcopter/multirotor, isn't your foam plane too big?
A: Multirotors are a lot less safe than my foam motor glider. If they fall, my glider will likely descend in a glide and have a low speed impact with foam that does destroy itself on impact (I know from prior crashes), taking most of the impact energy and bouncing off most hard structures or even people. The propellor if it were turning wouldn't be ideal to hit someone in the face with, but it's often off, it folds back, and is made out of plastic, not carbon fiber or some other super hard material.
Quadcopters are typically made out of metal, or carbon fiber, or some other non impact absorbing material. When they fall due to some critical failure, they can have very high impact speeds multiplied by a heavy weight over a relatively small impact zone (i.e more impact energy per unit of surface). Needless to say that any quadcopter bigger than the small plastic toys that wouldn't hurt anyone, are not something you want falling on you, or even your car.
They do however have the advantage of being able to take off and land just about anywhere, as well as hover with a gimball to take nice stable footage. Planes can't do this, but they are more capable and safer aircraft.
As for the size, in this case bigger can be better because it's easier for others to see and avoid, easier to fly in wind and glide back from a long distance without a working motor (a small plane carrying the same equipment would need constant power, would be more noisy and not glide far), it can fly slower without stalling (safer for landing and easier to avoid an impact with), and if there is to be an impact, the foam will just destroy itself to absorb the Gs regardless of size.
Q: And you think you're a better RC pilot?
A: Ok, that's a trick question :) There are better trick RC pilots than me out there, but I have 8 years of experience flying RC, more than 10 years and over 600 hours of flying full size planes. As a full scale pilot I know where big planes are allowed to fly, so I can stay clear of them with my RC gear. I also know that I wouldn't want an RC aircraft hitting me when I fly a big plane, so I keep that in mind when I fly RC.
If that counts for anything, I also had an actual engine failure in the full size plane I flew with and was able to land uneventfully at the BRC airport, and 2 days later I had a motor failure during a test flight of my glider, and glided it back to my feet without problems.
The other RC pilot who flew the FPV flights I'm showing had similar qualifications to mine (minus the amateur radio license, but I didn't use any gear that required it on those flights), which is why I trusted him to fly my gear I spent so much time and money to build.
All that said, I also know how to fly quadcopters, but I would never fly one at burning man, they just deem them too dangerous if they're not equipped with a fully redundant dual flight controller with 8 props, dual battery setup, or a BRS parachute equivalent (more on that below). Unfortunately I feel like RC flying was mostly banned exactly due to the inherent higher danger from multirotors, not counting the inexperience of many of their pilots.
Q: But doesn't the FAA disallow flights beyond line of sight/FPV flying?
A: Sadly, it's their current opinion although as far as I understand, this is not legally binding for hobby RC pilots yet, and I sure hope it will not become so. These flights were not illegal by actual FAA binding regulations, and in my experience the FAA is mainly interested in going after people who fly without a clue and wrecklessly, I don't blame them for that. Nonetheless, to avoid personal troubles (and I hate that this was a worry), I chose to have another RC pilot do the FPV flights. I met this pilot on the playa and do not have his contact info, I just got the sdcards after the flights and after the videos had been trimmed a bit.
That pilot did most of the flying in manual mode instead of using ardupilot's cruise mode, which would have been more stable and less jerky for the video (sorry for the viewers).
Back to FPV vs safety, my position is that FPV with an autopilot that can take over if RC or video link are lost, and can bring the aircraft back, can be safer than manual flying line of sight. This is because in LOS flying, it's easy to lose track of orientation and crash if you go a bit too far or get taken by the wind (I lost a plane many years ago after the wind took it and I could not see the plane when I turned it to fly back towards me. Autopilot and FPV would have saved it).
I'm hopeful that both the FAA and BMorg will realize that proper FPV flying can be safe, especially in the case of a plane that can easily come back from longer distances without running out of batteries (for a quadcopter, if you go too far, you can crash or land uncontrollably on the way back if you're lacking battery capacity due to poor planning and/or heavy wind) while being at an altitude below where full size aircraft fly.
On the flipside, if you are flying FPV beyond line of sight or without a spotter, and if you don't have a capable autopilot that you know how to use instantly and that you have tested to work in all possible kinds of emergencies (including engine out, and unusual attitude recovery), you should not be flying FPV at all, and definitely not over people or things and you should be below altidudes where full size aircraft are allowed to fly. Not following those safety rules is what will continue to make the FAA and BMorg think that FPV beyond LOS is too unsafe to be allowed. I also fully support an RC pilot's license which would allow hobbyists to prove that they are competent RC fliers that have learned about national airspace rules, and in return they would get extra privileges like flying beyond LOS in areas deemed safe for behind out of the way of full size aircraft. Those licensed RC pilots would get a registration linked with liability for them if they screw up and endanger others. I've tried to reach out to the FAA to discuss safe hobbyists beyond LOS operations, but am waiting for them to get back to me. Rich from the AMA however told me that he had tried to work this out with them, but they haven't been receptive as of yet.
Q: How about the 400ft altitude limit?
A: That's also a good question. It's both an AMA and FAA guideline within 3 miles of an airport because full size aircraft are allowed to fly as low as 500ft over non congested areas and to avoid conflicts with landing and departing aircraft. Over congested areas (which burning man is), they have to fly over 1000ft, so it would be safe for RC to fly up to 800-900ft outside of takeoff/landing areas. However in the case of BRC inside the trash fence, it's actually a no fly zone for many thousands of feet of altitude, which means you can fly RC quite high if you remain well within the trash fence.
All flights were however kept well below 1000ft, and the extra altitude actually makes the RC flight safer since you can recover from flying mistakes, or come back to land without motor power as well as not unnecessary buzz people and scare them by flying too low over them. One flight even included an unexpected motor shutdown and the glider was able to easily glide back to its takeoff spot without motor help thanks to its altitude.
The FAA may change to setting a basic 400-500ft limit for all hobbyists RC operations. While this makes sense in the common case of RC pilots who know nothing about full scale aircraft airspace, but it shouldn't be set in stone for everywhere, especially in places where those aircraft are not allowed to fly under 1000ft outside of takeoff and landing (congested areas), or places like Burning Man that were a no fly zone for many thousand feet of altitude.
Q: Isn't it dangerous to fly over people?
A: For a multirotor/quadcopter, absolutely. For a plane, it's more tricky: if you are over something and some bad failure happens, you're going to land or crash just about anywhere except what you're currently over. Depending on the failure you may have uncontrolled turns that can take you towards something you were flying away from and more generally you could conceivably land over a mile away from where you lost control. Long story short, it's impossible to guarantee that you can't crash on something unless it's out of battery range (which for my plane is maybe 50km radius or so). But, if you have an autopilot that takes over in case of RC or video failure, and you have enough altitude to continue to fly the plane without power if you make a fatal mistake and run out of batteries or your motor fails, you have many ways to land or crash in a safe place. My plane can even lose 3 out of its 4 ailerons and flaps and still be controllable. The only critical non redundant control surface is the elevator control (up and down), everything else can be lost or fail and you can keep control of the aircraft.
If the pilot manages to run the battery low, the motor will stop working first (with reserve emergency power if need be), but the rest of the plane will still be fully controllable for a nice gliding landing.
The autopilot is also smart enough to continue flying after a GPS or compass failure (there are 2 compasses inside), and it uses gyros as well as accelerators to pilot in addition to the barometer and compass so that the failure of any of them does not impact basic flight capabilities (for comparison, if a quadcopter loses its gyro, it will typically tip over and crash uncontrollably, possibly at high speed with the propellers running).
Q: Ok, so you just hate quadcopters, right?
A: I'm also a quadcopter pilot, but as mentioned earlier, I do not deem them safe over crowds unless you have a very fancy (and expensive, and heavy, making things worse) hexa/octocopter which can keep flying with a broken motor, and ideally has a 2nd battery just for emergency landings in case the main battery fails (I've had this happen, and it was a high speed crash I could do nothing to stop despite the battery being almost new and having been fully charged before the flight). I would personally also like all those aircraft to have a recovery parachute in case their flight controller or a critical piece like a gyro or more than one motor, or the battery fail.
The other big problem is that most quadcopter pilots are inexperienced and enough exhibit poor judgement that they end up in the news and give a bad image of RC flying for everyone else. I know there are skilled quadcopter/multirotor pilots with safer equipment and good safety practises, but they are by far a minority unfortunately. Let's also be honest that flying in only 100% safe conditions for a multirotor is a lot less fun as it removes a lot of flying opportunities. This is one of the reasons why I prefer foam planes as they are safer and allow to fly in places where I'd never feel comfortable flying a multirotor.
You can fly multirotors safely if you stay over a point and have the area cleared since if they fail they'll mostly just fall down and won't hit anyone in the cleared area.
Q: What about privacy and BMorg filming rules?
A: As should be obvious from the videos, the altitude was too high and resolution too low to recognize anyone, or even tell if people were male or female.
Q: Isn't it unsafe to fly at night?
A: Night flying is somewhat less safe no matter what, but if you are using FPV and an autopilot and you know how to fly using just instruments, it's almost as easy to fly at night as during the day since you don't rely on being able to see your aircraft from the ground, and more importantly which way it's pointing.
Both myself and the other pilot are IFR/instrument and night rated, so flying FPV only by using instruments was not a specific challenge. However for someone who does not have IFR/night flying training, I don't recommend such flights anywhere you can crash on anyone or anything, it's harder than you think and requires many hours of training for full scale pilots.
Here is what the pilot sees. Artificial horizon (useful when you select the bottom camera that gives you false horizon), nose angle (13 degrees up), climb of 80 meters per minute, 116 meters above the ground, tailwind of 6km/h, 95% strength on RC signal, and the top center arrow shows where to turn left to return to the takeoff point which is 793 meters away. It's a lot of information and can be overwhelming if you're not a trained instrument pilot:
Tips and recommendations for RC flyers
I have contacted Gabe, security officer for BMorg to discuss RC flying rules, and hope they will consider allowing them in the future for capable equipment and pilots who can demonstrate financial liability if they make a mistake and impact others since a crash is always possible, like a crash in your car and the car insurance you're required to carry. Unfortunately I have yet to hear back from them as of yet. Unfortunately after 2 weeks, I haven't heard back from Gabe.
I beg non expert pilots not to fly at burning man without proper training and permission (with the hope that the worthy ones will be able to get permission next year). _BM is not a place for you to learn to fly or get to try this new toy you just bought and didn't spend weeks or months building and testing yourself (including its failure modes like low battery, RF being shutoff and so forth).
If you don't have skin in the game and blood sweat and tears building your aircraft, you should even more so ask yourself if you are capable of doing the flight you'd like to do and be confident enough that short of risking crashing your weeks or months of work, you aren't at least risking to injure others or damage their property too much if you do your flight._
keep in mind is that your aircraft must be able to fly twice as fast as the highest predicted wind so that you have enough power to fly back against heavy wind if needed. That means ideally your aircraft can fly at least 50mph if needed should you get caught in some heavy winds that are taking you away. Obviously you must also have enough battery left to do so, therefore starting a flight downwind in a heavy wind should be usually avoided or done very carefully (has had to be done in one BM flight where the flying zone required flying downwind).
flying at high density altitude like burning man, noticeably reduces the performance of your propeller and airfoil due to the density altitude as well as well increase your speed above the ground to keep the same airspeed (which is what keeps your wings from stalling). Burning Man on a hot day can have density altitudes up to 10,000ft which will cause problems for aircraft that do not have spare power and lift since the air will be about 33% thinner than sea level on a standard day. This impacts multirotors even more than planes.
places like Burning Man are hell for radio waves, so you have to expect that your RC communications or video link will get jammed. If your RC system isn't capable of detecting corruption, or is analog, please do not fly. Similarly, if your aircraft does not have a fully tested autopilot that can bring the aircraft back if your RC gets jammed, again, please do not fly (except if it's really a small toy that wouldn't hurt anyone if they landed in their head).
last, but not least, if you don't have your full contact info on your aircraft because you're scared of what might happen if you crash and someone else finds it, please don't fly. Thank you :)
If you'd like the original bestof bits with real RC sounds, or longer unedited videos, there you go:
If you have generic questions on how to fly RC, build your plane, fly FPV, or anything else, please undertand that I get hundreds of Emails per day and can't offer 1-1 help. There are many RC boards on the internet, I recommend you go there for help (start with google for your problem, and work from there).
If you have other comments or questions not addressed here, let's centralize them on my G+ post: