A Drone Double Play
RotorDrone|August/ September 2021
Beach cleanup and a historic bridge
PATRICK SHERMAN

QUICK SPECS

Mission Type: Aerial Mapping and Videography

Location: Cathedral Park, Portland, Oregon (N46°10'00” W126°05’10”)

Client: Human Access Project (HAP)

Airspace: Class G to 700 ft. AGL Clearance: None Required

Monitored Frequency: 123.075 MHz (Portland Downtown Heliport)

METAR Text: KPDX 152153Z 290107KT 10SM FEW050 23/01 A3005

Platform: DJI Phantom 4 Pro+, Skydio 2 (backup)

Remote Pilot in Command: Patrick Sherman, Roswell Flight Test Crew

PILOT REPORT

People believe what they see—so if you want them to acknowledge what you’ve done, or maybe even help you do it, they need to see it. Making that happen was the purpose of my mission on behalf of a non-profit group that recruited me to help document a beach cleanup this spring.

The mission was conducted over two nonconsecutive days, which I suppose makes it two separate missions—but they occurred at the same location and were launched for a common purpose, so we’ll treat them as one. I also learned a few things on my first outing that, as it turns out, were critically important to the safety and success of my second operation.

First, a little background: I’ve been working with the Human Access Project (HAP) for years now, although that name still makes me think of a clandestine government program run out of Area 51 to provide alien visitors with psychic access to unwitting human subjects. I suppose that says more about me than it does the organization, which serves much less sinister and more beneficial purpose: providing the citizens of Portland, Oregon, with access to the Willamette River, which runs through the middle of downtown.

The barrier preventing that access in this particular instance are primarily jagged chunks of concrete that have littered the shore for decades: a significant disincentive to any would-be waders or swimmers who might otherwise take the plunge. This was one in a long line of “Unrock the Beach” events HAP has organized over the years. At another beach, they had removed 27 tons of rocky debris through several years of similar volunteer efforts.

The site of this event is the aptly named Cathedral Park. The name is not apt because there is an actual cathedral located anywhere in the vicinity. Rather, the park lies beneath the historic St. Johns Bridge, with its deck supported 200 feet overhead by concrete Gothic arches that evoke nothing so much as the structure of a medieval European cathedral.

Both literally and metaphorically, this bridge would hang over the entire mission, influencing the choices I would make in terms of operations, safety and even the software

Marked on the Seattle Sectional Chart by a pair of 403-foot towers astride the Willamette River in downtown Portland, the St. Johns Bridge stands in Class G airspace, beneath a shelf of Class C airspace that extends from nearby Portland International Airport (PDX). I selected to create an orthomosaic map of the site.

SHOW ME THE AIRSPACE!

Of course, successful small uncrewed aircraft systems (sUAS) operations begin long before you arrive at the site or spin up your propellers. Rather, they begin when you conduct an initial survey of the site using a current sectional chart, the FAA’s UAS Facility Maps and recent satellite imagery from sources like Google Earth.

Even before I pulled out my sectional, I was expecting trouble. The airspace over North Portland is a hot mess, and the FAA doesn’t care who knows it. Actually, they want to make sure that everyone knows it—and they want it so badly that there is actually a section in the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) devoted specifically to this one small patch of sky. Don’t believe me? Lookit up: 14 CFR Part 93, Subpart N, Section 91.63.

The cause of all this Sturm und Drang is Pearson Field Airport. Located in Vancouver, Washington— just across the river from Portland—it hosts a single, 3,275-foot paved runway and caters primarily to student pilots. This otherwise unremarkable facility might not even warrant a controlled airspace designation, much less its own entry in the FARs, except that it is located about a mile and a half from Portland International Airport (PDX) and lies directly in line with runway 10L.

This, in short, is not a place anybody chooses to fly drones unless there is no way to avoid it, and much of the area is a hard no-go zone for sUAS. Of course, given my mission parameters, there was no way to avoid it.

Sure enough, when I pulled up the UAS Facility Maps for the area, I found the St. Johns Bridge and Cathedral Park were covered by a grid square within the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system, so I anticipated needing authorization to fly there. However, the ceiling was 400 feet above ground level (AGL), the maximum allowed under LAANC, so I did not anticipate it would create an undue burden for my operations.

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