Growing recreational drone use giving rise to more rules, responsibility
The buzz over drones is becoming louder.
The popular, sleek quadcopters are on the wish lists of hobbyists, private companies, entrepreneurs and even government entities. While many see the fun side of unmanned aircraft systems, even the smallest drones can go beyond recreation.
At the extreme, military agencies around the world are using such devices for surveillance and unmanned air strikes. At a less intimidating level, companies and other agencies are using drones for surveying land, security uses and protection of natural resources. And, although it can be rare, some private users are abusing their drone privileges and pushing the lines of trespassing and privacy.
A panel of unmanned aircraft experts gathered this week in Colorado Springs at the Colorado Counties, Inc. winter conference to discuss current regulations and potential need for local guidelines as drones become more widely used.
"Do we need to have more rules?" asked El Paso County District 5 Commissioner Peggy Littleton, who served as moderator of the discussion. "And, if so, what is that going to look like?"
So far, El Paso County has let the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) handle almost all regulation of drones. The only rule that the county has put into place is a ban on launching unmanned aircraft systems in parks. Monday's panelists - Constantine Diehl of UAS Colorado, aviation consultant David Couch and Chaffee County's Director of Economic Development Wendell Pryor - each said FAA rules are enough, for now.
"At this point, the FAA is really the only agency that is writing laws or guidelines for enforcement of the use of these drones," said El Paso County Undersheriff Joe Breister.
While the FAA requires people using drones weighing less than 55 pounds to have a remote pilot airman certificate or be under the supervision of someone who does, the FAA restrictions for use are limited. Operating requirements mandate that drone users avoid manned aircraft, never operate in a reckless manner, keep their drones within "unaided sight," avoid flying the craft more than 400 feet off the ground and not fly their quadcopters or planes at more than 100 miles per hour.
The FAA's rules for unmanned aircraft less than 55 pounds became active this year and prompted counties in Colorado to begin "sticking their toes in the water in the public safety arena," Pryor said. Chaffee County is one of the leaders with its UAS Advisory Board designed to "promote and help facilitate the successful execution" of drone certificates.
"Drones are the here and now," Pryor said, noting that the new rules have made "the barrier of entry much, much lower."
"I predict that in five years, drone parks will be as common as skate parks," he said.
And with the upcoming holiday season, more and more hobbyists and even kids could be adding to the ever growing drone community.
A quick Internet search reveals that parents can find small, short-range unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) to wow their kids for less than $100 while more high-tech, GPS-capable, high-definition camera-ready drones can be found from a few hundred bucks to a little more than a grand and potentially bring more adult enthusiasts into the fray.
And that possible increase in recreational use could lead to safety and trespassing concerns. Imagine one of these small unmanned aircraft with four spinning blades hovering over your backyard while your kids play below, zipping past your vehicle and causing a distraction as you cruise down the Interstate, or even crashing into the windshield of an airplane.
Ken Hanes, owner of AGL Drone Services, demonstrated a pair of small quadcopters in western Colorado Springs on Thursday, showing off their range and seemingly endless capabilities while pausing and bringing his aircraft to a safe position whenever a manned airplane or helicopter flew overhead. Hanes noted that even the smallest drones require certification for use.
"These are aircraft," he said. "Which puts them in a different category than toys. That is the biggest point that people miss. It's a totally different animal."
On Monday at the CCI conference, Couch said recreational users, companies and the counties must constantly ask themselves questions like what can each drone do? What obstacles might be nearby? And who is at the controls?
"A lot of what it's going to come down to is education," he said. "Because the technology is so new, we've got to start teaching from the oldest person all the way down to the youngest."
Breister said complaints about drones are "very, very, very rare," noting that the El Paso County Sheriff's Office has had less than five complaints since the beginning of 2016. He said most inquiries his office gets come from drone users who want to be responsible.
"The biggest number of calls we get are from the people who have bought a drone or are anticipating buying one," Breister said. "It is safe to say that they don't want to infringe on other people's rights."
If there is a surge in drone ownership after the holiday season, the county expects to see more calls involving less-expensive aircraft that kids might use. He expects cases of those simple aircraft that lack long-range capability crashing in neighbors' yards, flying out into traffic or causing injuries.
Breister and the unmanned aircraft experts simply ask that anyone using drones of any type make sure they self-educate before and during use. The FAA even offers a smart-phone app called "B4UFLY" to encourage location specific situational awareness and provide up-to-date local flight restrictions for model aircraft.
"Use them (drones), just make sure you do it right," Hanes said.
ON THE WEB
Here is a list of helpful links to help learn more about drone regulations and use.
SOURCE: David Couch (Red Scarf Enterprises)
TIPS FOR DRONE USE
Owner of AGL Drone Services and licensed unmanned aircraft pilot Ken Hanes shared some advice for drone use.
- Know your potential liability
No flying where people could get hurt
- Know the federal rules
No flying in national parks
No flying near military facilities or operations
No flying near airports or aircraft
No flying over or near wildfires
No flying in temporary flight restrictions
- Know The State Rules
No flying in state parks (Pueblo Reservoir, Chatfield Reservoir, etc)
- Know The Local Rules
No flying in city parks in Colorado Springs (Garden Of The Gods, Pikes Peak Highway, All city parks)
- Know some common sense
No flying where people don't want you flying (Power Plants, Prisons, Water Treatment Facilities, over neighbors property)