The Drone Age

The drone revolution isn't coming; it's hovering overhead — and the Federal Aviation Administration is playing catch-up.

by William Cole - The Honolulu Star-Advertiser / December 12, 2014

(TNS) Dec. 08--The drone revolution isn't coming; it's hovering overhead -- and the Federal Aviation Administration is playing catch-up with new technology that has rapidly outpaced regulations and is flying off retailers' shelves for Christmas.

Hobbyist to commercial-grade "multi-rotors" and other unmanned aerial systems with video cameras are being flown at parks; over surfers, humpback whales and homes for sale; in neighborhoods; mapping the Puna lava flow; and surveying endangered Hawaiian monk seals, to name a few uses.

"Amazing" is how Hono­lulu attorney and North Shore surfer Jeff Harris describes some of the drone surf video he's seen.

"Given Hawaii's beauty, with the mountains and water, there are a lot of them," said Jenly Chen, a 28-year-old from the Salt Lake area who flies a $1,300 hexacopter (a six-rotor craft).

"Usually when you go to like bigger functions, you'll always generally see one flying up there," Chen said.

But with a rapid advance in drone capability and affordability has come alarm.

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., recently urged the FAA to expedite rule-making for drones.

On Nov. 23 Schumer cited three near-misses between drones and commercial flights at John F. Kennedy Airport outside New York City in calling for the release of regulations that "have been stuck in federal bureaucracy for far too long."

"Drones are an important technology for business, law enforcement, agriculture and more, but the lack of clear rules about small drones, the difference between commercial and a hobby drone, and how and where they can be used, is creating a serious threat to New Yorkers' safety," Schumer said in a news release.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta noting the agency did not meet an August deadline for new rules on small unmanned aircraft.

"I urge you to take immediate action by issuing an emergency rulemaking, such as an interim final rule, that would adequately address safety concerns and potential security risks," Schatz said in the Nov. 24 letter.

Proponents of commercial drone use, meanwhile, already are bemoaning the anticipated FAA rules. The Wall Street Journal said commercial operators might be required to have lower-level pilot certifications and actual airplane cockpit time to fly a drone that can weigh a few pounds.

Such training could be costly.

"If you want to prohibit drones, this is a good way to do it," said Larry Osborn, Hawaii-based chief strategy officer with DreamHammer Inc., a developer of common control software for unmanned systems.

The FAA estimates as many as 7,500 small commercial drones could be in use by 2018. The FAA has been told to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the nation's airspace by 2015, an effort that's behind schedule.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicted last year that the integration would have a $13.6 billion economic impact and create more than 70,000 jobs in the first three years.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the FAA's new small-drone rules -- expected to be released this month for public comment -- won't address privacy concerns. Flights would be limited to 400 feet in altitude.

The new rules could lump together all small drones under 55 pounds, dealing a blow to operators of the smallest multi-rotors, who had hoped for fewer regulations.

"We expect to propose a rule for small (unmanned aerial systems) by the end of the year," said FAA spokes­woman Alison Duquette. "The rule will address the largest area of interest: small UAS, weighing less than 55 pounds. It's expected that this will open the door to many commercial operations that are not authorized today."

Basic hobbyist quadcopters (four-rotor craft) with cameras can be purchased for $50 to $75 on Amazon. One of the most popular systems, China's DJI Phantom 2 line, costs about $570 to $1,300, depending on camera arrangement.

Battery-powered DJI drones weigh less than 3 pounds, are extremely maneuverable, can fly for 25 minutes and can be fitted with high-resolution GoPro cameras.

Drones recently made it into Google's top "autofill" responses when users typed in, "I want to buy ..."

The remote-controlled aircraft "are likely to be this Christmas's big present for boys, big and small, and next year's biggest suburban annoyance," the Guardian, a British newspaper, reported.

The FAA generally limits operations of "model aircraft" (drones) for hobbyists to below 400 feet, away from airports and air traffic, and within sight of the operator. For that type of flight, no permit is needed.

The only way to get FAA approval to operate an unmanned system for business is to obtain an experimental airworthiness certificate for research, or by obtaining a certificate of waiver or authorization. Routine operation of unmanned systems over densely populated areas is prohibited.

In September the FAA announced regulatory exemptions for six aerial and video production companies working in the film and TV industry to fly unmanned systems in national airspace.

The University of Hawaii at Hilo obtained permission from the FAA to use a Sensefly SwingletCAM drone to map the Puna lava flow.

"Now they've got every industry applying individually for a waiver to be able to fly, and that's going to create a bureaucratic nightmare because they have thousands of these applications to work on," said Osborn of DreamHammer.

Hobbyists, meanwhile, are turning out stunning aerial footage with a relatively small investment. Soaring bird's-eye-view videos are all over YouTube.

The temptation is to sell pictures and video, now prohibited by the FAA.

"The problem right now is that all these little quadcopters and stuff are all fine for hobbyists, and there are some rules -- not near an airport, below 400 feet and below a certain weight and everything and basically good, common sense about where you fly them," Osborn said. "You can do that as a hobbyist. As soon as I, let's say, take a video and sell it to somebody, I'm now a commercial operator, and that's all outside the regulations."

There's such a low barrier to entry, and there's such a demand for paid services, "that they (the FAA) are making a lot of people lawbreakers," Osborn said.

Drone flier Raphael Pirker was fined $10,000 by the FAA for alleged "careless or reckless operation" of a small Rite­wing Zephyr around the University of Virginia campus, a sanction he contested.

Pirker was paid by a third party for aerial photos and video, according to court filings.

Some real estate agents have gone ahead and used drones for home listings despite the prohibitions.

The FAA has sent out cease-and-desist letters to some drone fliers who advertise or use the aircraft for commercial services, although a Texas-based group that searches for missing persons successfully challenged the warning in court and said in July it would resume using a drone.

Eric Sterman, who was born and raised on the North Shore and has received acclaim for his ocean videos using a drone, has a "Sterman Aerials" website.

"I totally agree that there should be an FAA regulation," said Sterman, 24. There should be some type of licensing but "not a pilot's license," he said, adding, "I don't agree with that, but some sort of license that says, 'Hey, I'm allowed to film with a drone commercially, and I'm certified.'"

Estin Ma, another drone flier, who has a $1,200 Phantom 2 Vision Plus, said there should be some regulation for recreational fliers as well as allowing small commercial drone operation.

"I think we're at that point where you can't deny the technology. It's there," the 29-year-old said. "It has proven that it can be useful given the right circumstances. It also has proven, unfortunately, that it can be used in the wrong ways -- I mean, getting into the flight paths of incoming aircraft."

The Kaimuki man already set up "Flying Hi" as a future business.

"I haven't actually taken any jobs, and the reasoning for that is because the FAA hasn't cleared it yet," he said. "However, when that time comes, I have it set up and ready to go."

Canada, meanwhile, relaxed regulations last month on the use of commercial drones weighing less than 5 pounds. Drone advocates say the United States is lagging behind a number of countries in commercial use.

The FAA said that's a flawed comparison.

"The United States has the busiest, most complex airspace in the world," the FAA said on its website, adding that "developing all the rules and standards we need is a very complex task, and we want to make sure we get it right the first time."

To be sure, much concern remains over safety and privacy. The National Park Service in June banned drones in all of its parks.

State Sen. Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head-Kahala-Hawaii Kai), who has proposed drone regulations in the past, said his office has been deluged with complaints about drone use. Privacy is the No. 1 concern, he said.

People are concerned about "the greater widespread use of drones," Slom said, adding, "Nobody seems to know what the boundaries are."

Chen, one of the drone fliers, said he realizes that cities and states as well as the FAA can regulate drones. Balance is needed, he said.

"I know that regulation is coming (for hobbyists), given the popularity and explosion of this industry," he said.

He agrees that some rules should be in place, but at the same time, "I don't want them to be so draconian that we can't fly at all."

The same goes for commercial uses.

"Allow them to use these because there are a lot of things that you can do with multi-rotors -- science applications and business, agriculture, everything," he said. "Allow us to use these in a responsible and safe manner."


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