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Drone enthusiasts cope with complicated regulations

By Stephen Cameron

So what is legal for private drone operators?

Seems like a fairly straightforward question — but nothing could be further from the truth.

Ed McNamara, the Manhattan resident who regularly flies a three-pound, six-propeller unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to shoot photographs around Riley County, thinks he has an idea what he’s permitted to do by the Federal Aviation Association, yet he admits that in the hazy world of drone regulation…

Well, nothing is written in stone. Or anywhere else, in fact.

“UAVs are going to be all over the place,” he said. “They’re popping up everywhere already. We honestly need rules and guidelines, for the sake of operators and for public safety.

“But so far, there are just mixed signals, a promise that the FAA will publish regulations sometime in 2015 – and meanwhile, thousands of people are flying these things everywhere, and for every purpose.

“The FAA is coming around to this a little late.”

McNamara isn’t kidding about the proliferation of drones: large and small, relatively inexpensive up to rich folks’ toys, private and government owners, and so on.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) is planning its annual trade show for mid-May at the Orange County Convention Center outside Orlando.

Registrations are expected to break all records, and last year’s event in Washington, D.C. drew 600 exhibitors, including everyone from big aviation companies like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin to startups like Bird Aerospace.

And for context, understand that the place was crawling with defense industry experts and analysts as well as hobbyists like McNamara — and presumably, the FAA.

Here’s a snippet from the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of the 2013 event:

“In the giant hall, passersby had their body heat invisibly scanned by infrared sensors, were invited to operate simulators to send drones screaming over the Hindu Kush, and watched toy-sized helicopters flutter and take pictures in front of home-sized windows.

“Barkers from Ohio, Florida, North Dakota and other states were pitching drone testing sites.”

Perhaps McNamara’s guess that drones of all types eventually will be as common as cell phones isn’t that far wide of the mark.

So what exactly is the FAA doing about all this current buzzing in the skies — while owners and operators who should be waiting until next year for official guidance are simply taking off at will?

That’s what Raphael Pirker wanted to find out.

Pirker was fined $10,000 for flying a drone recklessly while filming a commercial for the University of Virginia’s medical school, and promptly sued the FAA.

Then earlier this month Patrick Geraghty, an administrative law judge for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), ruled in Pirker’s favor — effectively slapping down the FAA’s right to enforce arbitrary discipline on drone operators with no specific regulations in place.

The only FAA regs that even exist were written decades ago for model planes: 400-foot limit, no craft weighing more than four pounds, vehicle to remain in line of sight and no flights near any airport or otherwise restricted airspace.

Basically, Geraghty was telling the FAA that until it published a new set of regulations addressed specifically for UAVs, everyone is free to use those model airplane rules.

Steve Klindworth, chief executive of the drone retailer UAV Direct, told the Wall Street Journal that after Geraghty’s decision, sales have surged up 25 percent to about $10,000 per day.

Klindworth said he’s receiving non-stop inquires from “photographers, real estate agents and roof inspectors.”

Forcing a court judgment, it turns out, was no accident.

“(Pirker) was part of a group called the Black Sheep Squadron, and they’ve been pushing limits because they wanted to get a case into court,” McNamara said. “They just kept taking more and more chances until finally the FAA almost had to fine somebody. That was the goal.”

So far, the FAA has made no comment on whether it will appeal the judgment, but the agency certainly hasn’t stopped trying to police the world of UAVs.

The ink was barely dry on Geraghty’s ruling when the FAA issued a cease-and-desist order to Texas EquuSearch, a group that has been using small drones since 2006 to help search for injured or missing persons.

EquuSearch was founded by Tim Miller, whose daughter was abducted in 2000. Miller has told several media sources that drones have helped locate several missing persons who otherwise might not have been discovered alive.

The FAA, however, remained unmoved. And yes, just like Pirker, Texas EquuSearch intends to sue.

The organization’s lawyer, Brendan Shulman (a drone enthusiast himself) wrote this in the March 17 letter to the FAA: “There is no basis whatsoever, in law, in policy or in common sense to prohibit the operation of a model aircraft for volunteer search and rescue activities.”

Clearly on the defensive, the FAA has appealed to the full board of the NTSB for help.

A statement from the FAA seemed to indicate no flexibility whatsoever: “Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft — manned or unmanned — in U.S. airspace needs some level of authorization from the (FAA).”

That sort of black-and-white edict surely cannot be enforced, because as the attorney Schulman pointed out, it would cover everything down to a child’s balsa-wood glider.

And with literally thousands of UAVs already in commercial use, it would seem the FAA will have to speed up whatever regulation process can be used to separate McNamara’s little photo-drone from giant, possibly lethal unmanned craft.

The FAA insists that it has issued permits for UAVs to universities, law enforcement and other public agencies since 2007 – 1,428 overall with 327 still in force, according to FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

It’s hard to imagine the agency can offer such a response without adding a “smiley face.”

It’s impossible to get an accurate count, but it’s very likely there are more than 327 UAVs zipping around Kansas alone every day — particularly since the ranching and agricultural industries are among those who most benefit from the use of aerial surveillance.

Meanwhile, powerful lobbying groups like the National Football League and the motion picture industry are hammering away, trying to hurry the regulating process since they have multiple projects on drawing boards — waiting only for a nod from the FAA.

“Of course there are a lot of questions, and valid ones,” McNamara said. “Obviously, it isn’t simple because there are so many different uses. Public safety is the No. 1 issue, but basically, you don’t want UAVs flying all over the place and banging into one another.

“That’s more of a threat than all the worry about privacy. I think the privacy issue is simple. It should be the same as with railroads or regular aircraft.

“People are entitled to an expectance of privacy in their homes or offices. On a public street, it would be no different than any CCTV camera. You can’t expect privacy walking on a street in downtown Manhattan.”

Like Schulman and the thousands of enthusiasts who will descend on the AUVSI show in Orlando next month, McNamara is hoping for one simple thing from the FAA.

“In the end, it should just come down to common sense,” he said. “We definitely do need regulation and guidance.

“The situation now is pretty ridiculous.”

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