By Jack Riewe
Drones turn inexperienced pilots into suburban quadcopter wielders with the ability to put an eye in the sky with a high-definition camera controlled from a smart phone. Even though drones can do amazing things, those abilities have to be regulated in order to prevent a breach in privacy or interfering with certain airspace.Drones can do amazing things. They are an exciting, futuristic, mysterious, somewhat scary, and militaristic technology that has flown into civilian life. It’s not impossible to imagine walking down the street and seeing each of your neighbor’s personal drones hovering above their lawns surveying for anthills. Just how popular they are is hard to pin down. An article in “The Economist” headlined “Welcome to the Drone Age” notes that in 2010, the Federal Aviation Authority estimated that by 2020 as many as 15,000 small, civilian drones would be in the country. The September 2015 article further reports that number now represents how many drones are being sold in the U.S. every month.
Kyle DeWitt, managing partner at Insite Printing & Graphic Services, uses his DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ for activities such as checking his chimney for birds’ nests and taking photos for advertisements for INSITE magazine. “It’s my favorite man toy,” he says discussing his part-time hobby of drone flying.
The DJI drone can travel up to 33 mph and is equipped with a 14-megapixel camera that can take pictures and record high-definition videos. The mobile app that comes with the drone is called FPV Booster and maps where the drone is in the sky and can set waypoints for destinations.
However, the app also gives alerts for breaking any regulations set by The FAA, like flying within 5 miles of an airport or above 400 feet. The FAA requires any U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident above the age of 13 to register an unmanned aircraft that weighs more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds via their website. If the aircraft is bigger, the owner must register by paper and it is not considered a recreational drone. The FAA also requires the recreational user to keep a visual of the aircraft at all times, to prevent interfering with manned aircraft operations, and to not fly near people … or stadiums like an infamous Texas A&M fan did illegally last year.
Texas has specific laws including prohibiting unmanned aircraft from flying over certain facilities (telecommunications centers, power plants, dams, etc.). It is only lawful to capture an image for professional or scholarly purposes (even though there are 38 exceptions), and drones are prohibited in the Capitol Complex in Austin.
Because drones can be operated from anywhere and are mobile, airport and law enforcement officials are struggling to find the necessary ability to enforce drone regulations. Coulter Airfield Airport Manager James Brown says, “It’s not something we deal with on an everyday basis. I really have no way of enforcing drone regulations and there are no special regulations that we have.” Even though Coulter Airfield doesn’t have a control tower, Brown says he has gotten calls from multiple safety-conscious drone users flying their unmanned aircraft, yet the only thing he can tell them is, “Don’t be stupid.”
The overzealous Texas A&M fan who flew over Kyle Field to leak footage of the renovated stadium could have been fined up to $10,000 if found because he was flying within 3 miles of the Easterwood Airport, according to FAA guidelines. Reporting on the incident, “The Houston Chronicle” cited a disgruntled press release issued by Texas A&M University: “The A&M System appreciates the benefits of the UAS technology; however, the safety of the public and workers within the Kyle Field Redevelopment zone are its primary concern.”
As personal drones increase in popularity, price points to enter the hobby market have fallen with smaller drones starting in the $400 to $600 price range. At the higher end of the spectrum, the sky remains the limit with the popular DJI Phantom 3 Pro with backpack retailing online for around $1,600.
For drone and man to truly live harmoniously, there must be cautious pilots performing safe flights. Don’t go rouge with your drone and ruin it for the whole neighborhood.