(TNS) — FORT WALTON BEACH — Get a drone for Christmas?
Surprised when it didn't take off swooping into the sky?
Don't be, if you live along much of the Northwest Florida coast. Flight restrictions imposed on drones by the presence of military bases and airports impose significant limits on where and how they can be operated locally.
Just a few years ago, in the early days of the drone craze, the story was somewhat different. Restrictions were in place, but their enforcement relied almost entirely on drone users, both recreational and professional, knowing the restrictions and abiding by the rules.
More recently, however, most serious drones — not the ones available at your local big-box store for $100 or so, with limited range and short battery life, which aren't regulated — come equipped with Global Positioning System software.
The software, programmed to recognize when a drone is located within restricted airspace, won't allow the drone to operate as long as it is in that space.
This "geofencing" function can be confusing and frustrating for drone neophytes, according to Matthew Gillum, who operated a drone commercially in this area before a recent move to South Carolina. Like many other commercial drone operators, Gillum worked with insurance firms and other clients needing birds'-eye-view video or other aerial services
Often, Gillum said, friends and acquaintances who ran into the GPS-initiated lockdown of their drones would call him to troubleshoot, believing something was wrong with their aerial vehicles. In many cases, they had simply been unaware of their drone's "geofencing" function, Gillum said.
"They don't pay attention," he said. "Every area down there on the coast is restricted."
Data from China-based DJI, which holds half of the U.S. drone market, show that Gillum isn't speaking too hyperbolically. In connection with its "geofencing" technology, DJI devotes a section of its website to outlining areas across the world where various restrictions on drone operation are in place.
For Northwest Florida, the map is peppered with zones where drone usage is restricted around military installations and civilian airports. Between Pensacola and Panama City, the DJI FlySafe data denote nearly two dozen military installations, civilian airports — and interestingly, correctional institutions — where drone operation is not allowed.
Other resources for drone owners concerned about where they can fly their vehicles include B4UFLY, a smartphone app from the FAA, and UAV Forecast, a privately developed app that details no-fly zones.
The operation of drones has become a wide concern for military bases and commercial airports as sales of the vehicles have expanded rapidly in recent years. According to various media sources, drone sales have been in the hundreds of thousands each year for the past three or four years. In March, the FAA released data projecting there would be as many as 2.31 million hobbyist drones subject to its regulation in operation by the end of 2017, more than double the agency's numbers for drones as of the end of 2016. The FAA goes on to project that by 2021, there will be more than 4.4 million hobbyist drones in the United States.
The numbers for commercial drones are on a similar track, with FAA data showing their number increasing from 42,000 in 2016 to 235,000 in 2017, and increasing to more than 1.6 million by 2021.
That proliferation has been accompanied by sets of government regulation and restrictions that have been confusing even for people like Gillum.
"It's kind of a complicated system," he said.
That may help explain why officials at Hurlburt Field, the U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command headquarters just outside Fort Walton Beach, recently used their Facebook page to address new drone owners. A variety of military aircraft fly regularly into and out of Hurlburt Field, and officials there clearly are worried about the potential for collisions with drones.
Phone calls to Hurlburt Field seeking comment on the base's concerns about drones weren't immediately returned, but in the Facebook post, officials note that "Federal Aviation Administration statistics show a surge in 'close call with drone' reports by military and civilian pilots: nearly 700 incidents in 2015, roughly triple the amount recorded in 2014."
The Dec. 20 post, headlined "Did you ask Santa for a drone this year? Know the rules first!" goes on to provide a general overview of drone regulations, reminding owners that before flying a drone with five miles of any military airfield, they must contact the airfield's operations office. In many instances, including Hurlburt Field, drones cannot be flown at all within five miles of the installation, the Facebook post notes.
For its part, Eglin Air Force Base acknowledged drone-related concerns two years ago, issuing on-base guidance for their use that restricted even some operation of toy drones within the base's housing areas.
Adding to the confusion over drone regulation is that there are separate rules for commercial operators, who can apply for permission to use drones for business purposes in areas that would otherwise be restricted. With proper authorization, drone manufacturers can disable any "geofencing" features, allowing the drone into restricted airspace.
Among the people who have run into those rules is Cole Thurmon, the 17-year-old Destin teen who got a drone for Christmas last year and subsequently turned it into a business. Thurmon's Destin Drone Solutions provides aerial services for real estate, concerts and other events, damage assessments and agricultural uses.
Once he decided to use his drone for commercial purposes, Thurmon was required to get an FAA-issued remote pilot certificate, proving his knowledge of unmanned aerial vehicle operation. Getting the certificate cost him $150, Thurmon said.
Even with his certificate, Thurmon, like other commercial drone operators, must go through what can be a lengthy process of getting permission to operate within otherwise restricted areas. The process can take weeks, Thurmon said, meaning that he'll sometimes miss out on business if he can't get the required permission within a client's deadline.
And while following the regulations for commercial drone operations gives Thurmon's business real legitimacy, he — along with his mom, Deborah — is keenly aware that he's likely losing business to drone operators willing to skirt the rules.
"A lot of people think they can just go out there and fly their drones," Cole Thurmon said.
Still, Cole retains a positive attitude about his future as a commercial drone operator.
"It can be done," he said. "There's just a few hurdles."
©2018 the Northwest Florida Daily News (Fort Walton Beach, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.