Drones’ use up in the air

The Federal Aviation Administration has begun to enforce its longstanding ban on the commercial use of small-drone technology, creating confusion among operators who are trying to use the new technology for profit.

Questions are also being raised about the FAA’s legal authority to stop drone use for commercial purposes while the agency crafts a new set of regulations to govern them.

As more businesses explore how to use small-drone technology in real estate, commercial photography, crop management and product delivery, the FAA is stepping up enforcement of its rules that require commercial operators to get an OK from the FAA to fly their drones.

As more objects take to the sky, the FAA is becoming more concerned about safety and privacy.
In Colorado, at least a half dozen companies are ramping up the manufacture of unmanned aerial vehicles, and countless others are using them for commercial purposes.

Tim Ray, a commercial pilot and owner of Fort Collins-based Vantage Point Imagery, in 2007 was one of the first in Colorado to use a small radio-controlled helicopter for commercial photography.

While he believes the FAA doesn’t yet have the power to levy fines, he’s put his drone on the shelf until the regulatory dust has settled. With increased use of drones, he said, safety should be addressed.
However, it remains unclear whether the government agency has the power to enforce its ban as it formulates new rules.

The federal government asked the FAA in 2012 to create a set of drone regulations by September 2015. The FAA expects to publish a proposed rule for small unmanned aircraft – under about 55 pounds – later this year. That proposed rule likely will include provisions for commercial operations.
The FAA’s recent attempts to levy fines and issue cease-and-desist letters has many who use small drones for commercial use looking over their shoulders.

The FAA unsuccessfully tried last month to impose a $10,000 fine on Ralphael Pirkner in Virginia for using a drone to shoot a promotional video. The FAA accused Pirkner of “reckless flying,” according to court documents.

The FAA said Pirkner flew his aircraft under bridges, near statues and over pedestrians, as documented on the video he shot at the University of Virginia in 2011. However, an administrative law judge with the National Transportation Safety Board last month determined the FAA had no authority over small unmanned aircraft. The FAA has appealed the ruling.

The FAA has been sending cease-and-desist orders to those it believes are operating in violation of the ban. According to a recent articles in the Wall Street Journal, most of the letters have gone to aerial photographers, journalism professors and tornado researchers.

Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman for the FAA, said he doesn’t know how many letters have been sent out in Colorado, “but we have sent out quite a few across the nation.”

Commercial operations are only authorized on a case-by-case basis, according to Lunsford. The FAA’s stance, he said, is that a commercial flight – manned or unmanned – requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval.

To date, the FAA has approved only one operation. It used Insitu’s ScanEagle, and the fly zone was limited to the Arctic.

Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft – manned or unmanned – in U.S. airspace needs some level of authorization from the FAA.

The FAA wants operators who use drones for commercial gain – including unmanned radio-controlled aircraft – to apply for authorization through the agency. The FAA has yet to determine a cost for applying.

The FFA, however, is not requiring people using drones for fun to apply for authorization, just that they follow safety guidelines.

That has some people scratching their heads because it appears the FAA is singling out commercial users who often use the same type of hobby-class aircraft that recreationalists use.

Christine Humphreys, a wildlife and real estate photographer in Louisville, attaches a Go-Pro camera to a two-pound DJ1 Phantom to take aerial video and photographs of large parcels of real estate for clients. She said the radio-controlled mini-chopper can give a better perspective of a sprawling ranch property, and saves time and money. “It’s another tool to use to help market a property,” she said.

“It is less expensive than renting or operating a small plane or helicopter from which to shoot photographs,” she said, “and it’s easier than attaching a camera and operating an 80-foot-long pole cam.”

On a few occasions, she admitted, neighbors of her clients have questioned what she is doing flying a mini-chopper with a camera attached near their homes.

“That’s understandable,” she said. “I might ask the same question.”

The main purpose of the new regulations, the government said, is to address safety and privacy. Right now, the FAA is operating on safety guidelines created in 1981. Those guidelines include not operating near an airport or heavily populated area and staying below an altitude of 400 feet. Humphreys believes those rules are good.

“People exercising common sense can adhere to those,” she said. “I use my little drone to video or photograph large expanses of private property.”
Doug Storum can be reached at 303-630-1959 or dstorum@bcbr.com.

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