Technology

That buzz in the air? Drones of Christmas, coming to skies near you

When his drones aren’t flying, Hal Gottfried keeps them hanging on a wall at his house.
When his drones aren’t flying, Hal Gottfried keeps them hanging on a wall at his house. tljungblad@kcstar.com

Hal Gottfried of Olathe is a 42-year-old telephone communications engineer with a salt-and-pepper beard and a love for an activity that’s catching fire nationwide:

Flying drones.

“I like to go out as often as I can,” said Gottfried, sitting at his dining room table with his collection of 15 drones, or UAVs — unmanned aerial vehicles.

His four-propeller drones range from indoor models not much bigger than a dragonfly to a $1,200 DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ Quadcopter that can soar to altitudes of 800 feet or more, all while taking high-definition video of everything it sees.

Expect lots of people to be joining Gottfried in sending aircraft into our increasingly crowded skies. Some 400,000 recreational drones, generally priced between $50 and $1,600, are expected to fly off retailers’ shelves this holiday season. For the year, the Consumer Technology Association estimates that about 700,000 will be sold, up 30 percent from last year.

One problem:

You might have to forget about actually flying one outside your home. Forget about flying it over the trees and rooftops of your cul-de-sac, over your kids’ soccer games or perhaps even at the local park.

Drone enthusiast Hal Gottfried of Olathe talks about the challenges and restrictions being faced by operators of small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or sUVAs today. He also demonstrates AirMap, an app to help drone operators fly safely and legally.

And if you were one of the many drone operators who in November used their UAVs to capture video of the blue sea of 500,000 or more fans at the Kansas City Royals’ World Series parade, feel lucky that you weren’t slapped with a federal fine that could have cost you thousands.

Flying drones within 5 miles of Kansas City’s Wheeler Downtown Airport without seeking permission is against Federal Aviation Administration regulations, as is flying a drone outdoors within 5 miles of any major airport in the United States. In the Kansas City area, Kansas City International Airport, Wheeler Downtown Airport, Johnson County’s airports and others make significant swaths of the metro off-limits to drone flights without permission, even if you’re in your own front yard.

“Don’t tell the FAA,” Gottfried said, half joking, as he floated one of his drones barely 10 feet off the surface of his driveway within 5 miles of a Johnson County airport. He typically drives 20 to 30 minutes from home to fly.

And it’s not just the many no-fly zones that vex America’s drone enthusiasts. Concerns over privacy and safety are riding as high as the devices themselves.

At least 45 states, including Missouri and Kansas, this year considered legislation related to drones, with prime worries centered on photos or surveillance being done by anonymous eyes in the skies.

In Missouri, three bills have been drafted since 2013 attempting to ban the use of drones to take pictures of others without permission or a warrant.

Former Republican legislator Casey Guernsey of Bethany, Mo., called the prospect of warrantless surveillance a “nightmare scenario.” “It isn’t far-fetched that we could see government agencies deploy drones to spy on individuals and businesses around the state,” he said.

Shot in 4K on a DJI Inspire 1 quadcopter in Kansas City.

None of the Missouri bills or similar legislation in Kansas became law. But some 26 pieces of legislation in 20 states passed this year, including in California, where drone use by Hollywood paparazzi prompted lawmakers to make it illegal to enter anyone’s airspace to capture photos or video of that person engaging in private, personal or family activities without permission.

In West Virginia and New Hampshire, laws now prohibit using drones to scope wild game during hunting seasons. Tennessee banned drones from flying during fireworks displays or over prison yards.

Why prisons? Consider that this summer, a drone was used to air-deliver tobacco, marijuana and heroin to an Ohio prison. In August, two men were arrested in Maryland on suspicion of doing the same. Police caught them sitting in a truck outside a prison wall with a fair-size drone and quantities of the synthetic marijuana K2, the drug Suboxone, tobacco, pornographic DVDs and a disassembled handgun.

“I think what we’re seeing is lawmakers who are trying to strike a balance,” said Douglas Shinkle, a transportation policy expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures who, with colleague Amanda Essex, tracks drone legislation.

“The balance is between a technology that potentially can have a lot of private and public benefit along with some very real privacy and safety concerns.”

‘Highways and skyways’

To be sure, as long as drones have flown, controversy has tagged along for the ride.

When most people think of drones, experts say, they tend to think of them either of two fashions. They are toys or they are militarized high-fliers. They are equally praised as the technology used to patrol U.S. borders and to track al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden to his Pakistan hideout. They also are condemned as devices whose rockets and missiles inadvertently kill innocent civilians abroad.

But what few debate is that drones are far from a fad. Industry leaders and experts say that any predictive image of the future should surely include an American skyscape with a steady stream of unmanned aircraft coursing overhead.

“My vision of the sky in the next 20 years is a safe, integrated airspace system that looks like a series of highways and skyways that UAVs can travel,” said Casey Adams, 30, who founded the Kansas City Drone Co. in September 2014. He uses drones for precision photography and mapping in agriculture, real estate, insurance, construction and other industries.

A small sense of what drone traffic might look like came last week when Amazon, after two years of development, released a promotional video of its prototype drone package delivery system, Amazon Prime Air. It showed a drone rising up through an opening in the roof of a warehouse and then flying over neighborhoods to deliver a shoebox on a customer’s lawn miles away.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a nonprofit industry group that promotes the commercial use of unmanned robotic system, estimates that once UAVs, also known as UASs (Unmanned Aircraft Systems), safely integrate with airports and flyways for manned aircraft, they will spawn more than $80 billion of business by 2025.

Among the prime uses will be agriculture, with drones checking for yields, flying off to look for livestock, spraying crops and even performing spot irrigation. Other obvious uses include filmmaking, advertising, aerial news photography, and search and rescue, with drones used to check conditions of buildings in flames or peeling off to remote areas in deserts or mountains to deliver emergency medications or life-sustaining equipment.

Eric Johnson, an associate professor of avionics who studies drones at the Georgia Institute of Technology, predicts that in the next few years, “the use of aerial photography for real estate alone will probably be bigger than in law enforcement.”

Rules for safety

The goal, first, is to make flying safe for everyone. That’s where the FAA comes in.

“As a pilot, I’ve seen what a 2-pound duck can do when it goes through the windshield of an aircraft or goes through the engine of a jet,” said Larry Peet, deputy director of the Johnson County Airport Commission. “Here’s a drone. Some of them have metal parts.”

So the FAA has drafted drone regulations and is promoting them at knowbeforeyoufly.org. By the FAA’s definition, pretty much all drones, including many of those bought at electronics and toy stores, are considered aircraft.

In November, an agency task force made a recommendation that the FAA is soon expected to approve, requiring owners of consumer drones weighing anywhere between about half a pound and 55 pounds to register with the federal government.

While it is OK to fly a drone in your home, or a microdrone outside, the FAA’s regulations on flying drones currently include:

▪ No flying above 400 feet, so as to avoid manned aircraft.

▪ Always fly the drone within visual line of sight, meaning no flying the drone out of sight over housetops or trees.

▪ No flying over any other person not involved in the flights, which means no flying over strangers at the park or in a parade. Experts say the rule regards both privacy and safety, preventing drones from crashing on people’s heads.

▪ No flying faster than 100 mph.

▪ Never fly within 5 miles of an airport, unless one first alerts air traffic control or the airport authority.

Peet of the Johnson County Airport Commission said some drone operators have, indeed, been calling.

“I thank each one of them for that call,” he said. “But for every one that calls, I’m afraid that there are 50 out there that are flying.”

Such a fear is hardly unwarranted, as the FAA reports that the increase in drone sales coincides with an increased sighting of drones by commercial and general aviation pilots, up to about a 100 a month. In May, an airliner out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport reported narrowly missing a drone flying at 2,700 feet.

Tales of rogue drone flights continue to make headlines.

This year, a drone smashed into seats and spectators at the U.S. Open tennis tournament, while another in Cincinnati crashed high against a skyscraper. In Seattle, a 2-pound drone smacked a woman in the head so hard at a gay pride parade that she fell unconscious. Last year, aerial firefighters encountered one as they were attempting to douse raging wildfires.

When a Dutch tourist last year caused a drone to plummet into the hot springs at Yellowstone National Park, it not only led to a $3,000 fine, it also helped move the National Park Service to prohibit flying the devices on any park property.

“We have serious concerns about the negative impact that flying unmanned aircraft is having in parks,” the service said.

Concerns about safety, privacy and distraction in November prompted the Lee’s Summit Parks and Recreation Board to prohibit radio-controlled aircraft on its properties. At the University of Kansas, officials are considering what policy they might enact after drone use above a recent commencement.

Nationally, the Department of Homeland Security reported that since 2012, it had logged more than 500 incidents of drones hovering over “sensitive sites and critical installations,” including military bases and nuclear power plants.

Frustrations

As restrictive as the rules for recreational drone use may seem, they are even more so for businesses wanting to use drones to make money.

The FAA so far has kept a tight rein on the number of companies flying drones for commercial purposes. Companies not only must follow the same flight guidelines outlined for recreational use, but they also have to apply for special approval from the FAA.

Obtaining that approval can be difficult. Only about 2,500 companies have received it, although the pace is quickening.

One current requirement is that commercial drone operators possess an actual pilot’s certificate, the same needed for piloting a small fixed-wing aircraft. The requirement may soon change to one that instead asks commercial drone users to pass an aviation knowledge test.

When one of the companies that received FAA approval, SkyPan International, an aerial photography business out of Chicago, was judged to have gone awry, the FAA came down hard. In October, the agency proposed that the company be fined $1.9 million for flying its drones in a “careless or reckless manner so as to endanger lives or property.”

It holds that SkyPan conducted 65 flights over New York and Chicago to take photos or videos between March 21, 2012, and Dec. 15, 2014, with 43 of them over highly restricted New York airspace. In a statement on its website, SkyPan said it operates safely and is working with the FAA to resolve the matter.

Jeff Roberts, 55, of Blue Springs, understands the need for safety and rules, but he also find them frustrating.

“Do you know what it costs to get your pilot’s license?” he said, adding that he is currently enrolled in classes to do just that.

Until recently, Roberts had been a television news photographer for more than 30 years. He is also a lifelong model airplane hobbyist who last year, with Robert Haler, began Blue River Drones to do aerial photography for industry, government and individuals.

Particularity frustrating, Roberts said, was a November assignment that ended up falling through to possibly include aerial drone pictures of the Royals’ World Series celebration parade.

“It was going to be just one of, like, 10 cameras in the production,” said Roberts, who, because of safety, said he would have required a drone spotter to keep an eye on the device as well as landing pads. “Then, the night before, with the security meeting with Homeland Security and the FBI, they said no. No, we can’t have a drone.”

Roberts said he understood. Except when the parade went off, drones were seen still flying every which way. He even saw a snapshot of one landing on a girl’s head. Rules were being broken everywhere.

“I was probably the only guy in Kansas City who owns a drone who didn’t have a drone flying over that celebration,” he said.

Eric Adler: 816-234-4431, @eadler

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