Balancing act for public safety when pilots fly drones

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Aaron Yates of KerrvillePhoto.com found himself in the middle of a possibly dangerous drone-flight situation on July 4 and tried to help Kerrville police to defuse the problem.

He posted this self-described “rant” shortly after completing his job recording the “Fourth on the River” event, including the fireworks.

“We need to clear the air about something – literally and figuratively.

“This is a drone photo I captured at Kerrville’s Fourth on the River. My aerial photos were requested by, sanctioned by, and supervised by the event organizers, following all state and federal laws regarding commercial drone operations.

“If you were there, you saw at least three other drones that weren’t mine. Those three were flying dangerously above the crowd, and at one point, the organizers even had to ask folks to stop flying their drones over the audience.

“Birds were swarming over the crowd, too, and if one of those drones would have contacted a bird, the drone could fall, strike someone in the crowd, start a chemical fire due to the type of batteries they use, and do some damage.

“Two others were launching from the area near the mall, and we assisted Kerrville Police Department in trying to locate those operators, too.

“As an FAA-certificated sUAS pilot, I can’t legally fly over the crowd, nor would I want to, due to safety reasons. Unfortunately, the laws are a little gray for hobbyists and individuals not flying commercially.

“But please use common sense and don’t fly dangerously. Drones are a great hobby and can be lots of fun, but also can be very dangerous. Please leave the flying to trained professionals when near large groups. Leave the drones at home and enjoy the music!

“End of rant.”

He said he and event organizers saw the other drones operating in Louise Hays Park that evening, including flying too low over the heads of people attending, and later at least one being flown more directly in the path of the fireworks as they were shot off from the ground, Apparently the operators were trying to get more spectacular photos from being in the middle of the fireworks show.

Hobbyists vs. commercial use

Last week Yates said the Fourth on the River situation was an example of problems he sees comparing hobbyists’ use, and commercial pilots’ use of sUAS or “drones,” or a business owner taking photos of his own business with one.

The acronym stands for “small unmanned aerial system.” “Small” under the rules means the aircraft weighs less than 55 pounds. Yates said hobby drones weigh between 1 and 2 up to 5 pounds.

“Commercial pilots are subject to Federal Aviation Administration rules in Part 107 of the federal rules. Since August of 2016, a license has been required under that part,” Yates said. “The rules generally require the person to fly the drone no higher than a maximum height of 400 feet and observe air space restrictions. One other big one is not to fly over people, but that part of the law is written vaguely.”

Local law can’t override federal law, so local law isn’t helpful, he said. The question becomes, is the drone’s flight endangering people or rising to “reckless endangerment?”

Yates said on July 4th he was at the east edge tree line from the main event stage and open area where vendors set up, and the most attendees gathered for the other bands and Robert Earl Keen’s show.

“The stage faced east, and the sun was going to set behind it, and the fireworks were shot off behind it on the other side of the bridge. But before that and while it was going on, at least three other drones were being flown over the crowd, really low,” he said. “I was on the main stage with event organizers at one point and those drones were only 10-20 feet off the ground, about even with where I was standing on the stage.”

Yates said those drones flew very close to the fireworks, too.

“The organizers asked my opinion, and I pointed out the possibility of one accidently striking a bird and the drone falling down on people,” he said. “I helped find one owner and asked him politely to stop; and he did. Kerrville police were actively looking for the others, but didn’t find them.”

He wants people to understand those other drone operators weren’t doing anything technically illegal.

“They were not breaking the law. But they were doing something unsafe,” he said.

The 2012 FAA Modernization & Reform Act was passed, saying the FAA cannot regulate any “model aircraft.”

“This goes back to the radio-controlled model airplanes and now drones fall under the same rule. The drones are flown with an ‘app,’ that includes GPS,” Yates said.

The equipment or toy is made of PVC hard plastic, with rotor blades that are spinning fast when turned on, and they can cut into a person’s flesh.

“If the drone has four blades, and one fails and it falls out of flight, the three other blades can still be spinning,” Yates said.

The craft is powered by Lithium-polymer batteries and those can cause a chemical fire or burns, he said.

They are “quadrocopters” when they have four blades, which makes it more stable. Most have four, six or eight blades. But they can have up to 12 blades, with the cost increasing exponentially.

Locally the popular aircraft is available online through Amazon and probably at Walmart. Yates said most are manufactured in China, and he bought his “DJI” brand through an Austin company. But he’s also seen versions of them in Radio Shack, a MiniMart, and in large “box stores.”

“You can go on Amazon and one of the most popular models costs $400-$700 for a complete kit, including batteries. And I’ve seen ‘micro-drones’ for about $20 that can be flown indoors,” he said.

Some of Yates’ clients have bought them for business purposes and also flown them with their children. There’s a possible five-figure fine for doing that.

Yates has larger models with price tags in four figures, and said most commercial drones are insured like vehicles. The “L-ion” battery pack alone costs more than $400.

Operating one commercially means Yates must maintain an FAA license after passing a test, so he can fly his drones like a pilot.

Flying hazards, especially in the Hill Country, include trees and power lines, and having one crash into a swimming pool or the Guadalupe River.

“They have all kinds of uses – examining power lines, crop health surveys, accident scene investigations, cell tower checks; and search and rescue, or ranch livestock or game counts, with heat-signature cameras,” he said. “It can be an alternative to renting a real helicopter with a pilot to do the same work.”

But for commercial use, there are restrictive laws, while there are no rules for the public.

“The hobby drones come with booklets that include safety instructions, as long as people read that. And I agree that we don’t want to over-regulate this as an industry.”

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