Friday, June 20, 2014

City TV station to be responsible with flying eye in the sky

The city of Waco cable channel’s latest gizmo floats like a butterfly and buzzes like a hive of angry bees. It also captures sweeping vistas of Waco from 300 feet in the air.

The remote-controlled DJI Phantom 2 that the city bought this month looks like a flying tire tool with four propellers and a high-resolution video camera that transmits images back to the operator.

You can call it a “quadrocopter” or “cameracopter,” or an Unmanned Aircraft System, as the Federal Aviation Administration dubs it.

What municipal information director Larry Holze doesn’t want you to call it is a “drone.”

That term has scary connotations in the public’s mind as a weapon or surveillance device, said Holze, who oversees cable channel WCCC-10. He said it will not be used for spying or law enforcement.

“This is not a drone,” he said as the tiny aircraft sailed above Heritage Square for a demonstration this week. “We’re doing this for quality, beautiful images of our community. Ours was purchased for making our production one step better than anybody else’s.”

The cable channel bought the quadrocopter this month for $2,200, including gyroscopic stabilizers, camera and other add-ons. The money came from an agreement with cable companies to fund local programming, not from city tax dollars, Holze said.

Station producers have been collecting footage from parks and landmarks around town to use in feature programs about the community and for filler segments between programs. They also used it to help in the 21-hour search on June 13 search for a teenager who was swept into a flooded Flat Rock Creek.

The quadrocopter has already turned some prominent heads.

Earlier this month, Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr., Councilman Kyle Deaver and City Manager Dale Fisseler were meeting in Fisseler’s third-floor office at City Hall when the flying camera zipped past the window.

“Kyle said, ‘What is that outside your window? Is that a drone?’” Fisseler recalled.

Fisseler thought it belonged to a local company that has such a device, but when it flew closer, he decided to ask around and found out that Holze had purchased it.

“It’s really cool,” Fisseler said. “I was impressed. It offers us a lot of unique opportunities. But we’re also going to be using it with a great deal of caution.”

Holze said he requires his producers to submit a flight plan to him before using the camera, and he doesn’t allow it to be flown in high winds or around crowded areas.

Crews can’t fly the device over private property without permission from landowners and can’t fly it more than 300 feet in the air.

“We feel a very strong obligation that we do it responsibly,” Holze said. “We’ve never seen it as playing around or trying to do something illegal.”

He said crews in the past have occasionally gone up in the county helicopter for aerial footage, but the quadrocopter is more convenient and flexible.

“This puts us in control,” he said. “These guys can be as creative as they want to.”

Zack Morris, a producer for the station who was demonstrating the camera this week using a handheld device with two joysticks, said it didn’t take long to get used to operating it.

“The learning curve wasn’t that steep,” he said.

Before flying, the operator punches in his or her GPS coordinates, and even if the flying camera lost signal, it would rise 60 feet then return to the starting point.

The use of unmanned aircraft in the last few years has grown quickly as the price has dropped as low as a few hundred dollars. Municipalities, photographic firms and newspapers such as the Tyler Morning Telegraph have used them for a variety of purposes.

But regulation of the devices and how they’re used is still a work in progress. Last year, Texas was among numerous states that passed laws on unmanned aircraft.

State law prohibits the use of unmanned aircraft to photograph private property or individuals without permission, but with broad exceptions including scholarly research, utility work, missing person searches and real estate sales. Law enforcement can use the cameras in pursuing criminals, documenting crime scenes or, with a warrant, to do searches.

Some groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have raised concerns that the legislation doesn’t go far enough to protect individuals from government surveillance.

“Where surveillance cameras are deployed by the government, the burden is on the government to show that they will be effective and cost-effective, without imposing undue privacy invasions,” said Matt Simpson, ACLU policy strategist for Texas. “Government officials should always be clear and transparent to the public on how surveillance footage is being stored, for what purposes it is being used, who it’s shared with, and for how long.”

Meanwhile, the FAA is still working on revising its restrictions on the devices, restrictions that have been largely ignored as more private users buy them.

The FAA website states that anyone using the devices for commercial purposes must have a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval. As of March, only one company had met those criteria.

But when the FAA tried to fine a businessman $10,000 for the use of a commercial unmanned aircraft, a federal administrative judge dismissed the case, saying the agency’s rules did not apply.

The FAA rules allow public entities to get a waiver for most of the requirements for flying the aircraft, but entities must still apply for a “certificate of authorization,” according to the FAA website.

Holze said the applicability of the FAA’s rules is unclear, but “if it requires a certificate, we’ll get it.”

Fisseler said he hopes for some clarification on the rules for using the devices.

“I think it’s technology that’s gotten ahead of the regulations,” he said.

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