Sunday, September 27, 2015

Read this before flying a drone


The drones are coming.

Berks County businesses are just starting to tap into the potential of drones, otherwise known as unmanned aircraft systems.

Similar to radio-controlled model aircraft, drones offer affordable capabilities for surveying and photographing from heights up to 400 feet.
But, while hobbyists are relatively free to fly as they want within safety guidelines, business owners need to prove their airworthiness to the Federal Aviation Administration.

If you fly a drone for commercial purposes, then you need to get what is called a Section 333 exemption. This is a temporary regulatory fix as the FAA catches up with technology and creates rules overseeing drone flight.

Businesses that don't get an exemption fly at a risk: If caught, they can be fined as much as $250,000, depending on the danger they put others in. Such an incident can impair any chances to legally fly a drone and they can lose the drone itself, which can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $10,000.

Can take drone away

"If you don't (get an exemption) and someone calls the cops, they'll come to take it (the drone) away," said David Speace, owner of DZP Video/Multimedia Inc., New Morgan. DZP has an exemption and has used drone footage in a documentary of Bowmansville Roller Mill in Lancaster County as well as for golf courses and real estate companies.

DZP is one of a few businesses in Berks have the Section 333 exemption.

Speace often works with Mike Levin, a photographer with lots of drone experience from Roslyn, Montgomery County. Levin also has a Section 333 exemption.
Levin said drones make aerial video and photographs more affordable and better.

"It's a flying tripod," said Levin, a former photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer who has training as an air traffic controller. "I can traverse an area as if I was a bird. It's the ultimate tool."

Levin has to keep a log of his flights and submit it to the FAA. He also has to notify nearby airports if he is flying.

Working with drones

Levin has been working with drones for four years, starting out with cheaper, expendable models and progressing to more professional models for his commercial clients.

"I'm not about to crash money into weeds anymore," Levin said.

Experience as a commercial pilot is probably what helped Zackary Tempesco, Muhlenberg Township, get his Section 333 exemption. Tempesco works with his brother, a photographer and graphic designer, to do aerial photography for their business, Photobatic.

Tempesco said flying a drone isn't really like flying a plane because the pilot is oriented differently. Understanding FAA rules and safety measures does translate to drone flying, said Tempesco, 28, who has been flying model aircraft since he was 14.

Photobatic clients include a bank, real estate companies and farms. He charges $75 to $125 for a 10 picture package.

Combining skills

Combining photographic and video skills with drone-flying is the challenge and the benefit. Speace said that gratuitous drone footage in a video doesn't move a story forward, and it holds no benefit for a viewer. As an experienced producer, he knows how to use the footage best.

It's about not just a shot from up high but a well-composed shot, Levin said.

Commercial drone business applications need to be complemented by good photography and video skills, said John Secoges of Secoges Photographics LLC, Spring Township.

"It took 28 years as a professional for me to put a camera in a position that I'm able to now." Secoges said.

Secoges has a drone for personal use and has recently filed for Section 333 exemption. He's tested it on properties of clients, but is not working commercially or selling photographs or footage. He recognized a few years ago drones would be an important tool for his business.

"This is something I've been looking at for three years," Secoges said.

He finally decided to buy a drone when prices came down. His DJI Phantom 3 quadcopter cost $1,300. A similar drone would have cost about $7,000 two years ago, he said.

"I hope to be cleared within the year," Secoges said. "Right now I'm honing my skills. "

Insurance coverage and safety awareness

As a hobbyist, the drone falls under Secoges' homeowners insurance.

Tempesco said finding insurance to cover up to $1 million in mishaps, as a commercial operation wasn't difficult or too expensive. That could change as more drones enter the air.

All the operators interviewed said safety is a paramount concern. They also noted that drones have homing features and software limitations that keep the drone from flying too high.

Secoges said a surprise was how easy it was to fly.

"Basically, it is ready to fly out of the box," Secoges said.

The prospect of new photo angles via drones is exciting, even after nearly three decades in the business, said Secoges.

Teaching emerging technology

The potential for reaching high spots and for teaching an emerging technology is what drew Kutztown University's Eric Laub to drones. Laub is an instructor of physics.

The physics department has a drone, but it is grounded right now as the school looks into federal and school policy, Laub said.

The department got the drone in early 2014 on a bit of lark, he said. They had hoped to incorporate it into the physics program. He soon discovered the geology and geography departments were also interested in collaborating.

For geologists, the drone provided a way to view high rock terrain they couldn't easily reach, Laub said.

Drones Q&A

So you want to fly a drone. There's actually a lot you need to know.

Can anyone fly a drone?

Right now, pretty much, yes. There are some caveats.

The FAA says model aircraft flights should be flown a sufficient distance from populated areas and full-scale aircraft, should be kept within visual line of sight of the operator, should weigh under 55 pounds unless certified by an aeromodeling community-based organization and are not for business purposes. Small unmanned aircraft systems flown for recreational purposes are typically known as model aircraft.

Other rules include: You can't interfere with and must give way to any manned aircraft; when flown within five miles of an airport, the operator of the aircraft must provide the airport operator and the airport air traffic control tower with prior notice of the operation; and the aircraft must be flown within visual line sight of the operator.

What if I want to use it for my business?

If you are using it for commercial purposes, you need approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. said the FAA currently authorizes the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for commercial or business purposes on a case-by-case basis. You may not fly your UAS for commercial purpose without permission from the FAA. You should check with the FAA for further determination as to what constitutes a commercial or business use of small UAS.

What is commercial use? says any commercial use in connection with a business, including selling photos or videos taken from a drone, known in FAA parlance as an unmanned aircraft system; using a drone to provide contract services such as factory or equipment inspection; or using a drone to provide professional services such as security or telecommunications.

What are some examples of commercial uses sanctioned by the FAA?

Real estate or wedding photography, professional cinematography, mapping or land surveys.

What are my options as a business?

You can apply for an exemption from the FAA to operate commercially. According to, you can use UAS with an FAA airworthiness certificate and operate the drone pursuant to FAA rules. In both cases you would also need an FAA Certificate of Authorization (COA).

Is this going to change?

Probably soon. On Feb. 15, the FAA released proposed regulations of drones. There was 60 days of public comment. You can read more about the proposal at

What should I do if I see someone flying irresponsibly?

The FAA says if you believe an imminent risk exists to public safety or to the national airspace, please call your local law enforcement official.
If you witness or have information about a safety-related unmanned aircraft system incident, you can also contact the agency's aviation safety hotline website or call 1-866-835-5322, Option 4.

General questions, comments or complaints can be addressed to

Drones by the numbers

1,658: Number of exemptions the FAA has granted for commercial drones as of Sept. 22.

399: Number of exemptions not granted as of Sept. 22

4,736: Number of petitions for FAA drone exemption pending

400 feet: How high drones are allowed to fly

20 to 30 minutes: Length of drone flight time based on battery charge. This varies depending on the model.

0: Drone flights allowed after dark

1/2 mile: Approximate drone range. FAA rules say drone operators must keep in visual contact with it. When a drone loses contact with its controller, it is preprogrammed to come back to its starting point.

5 miles: The perimeter around an airport drones can't fly

2: Number of Berks-based businesses approved for commercial use

Pilot reports of close calls with unmanned aircraft in all of 2014

650: Pilot reports of close calls with unmanned aircraft in first eight months of 2015

157.7 percent:
Increase of pilot reports of unmanned aircraft between 2014 and 2015

20: Pilot reports of close calls in Pennsylvania between Nov. 13, 2014 and Aug. 20.

1: Pilot reports of close calls at Reading Regional Airport between Nov. 13, 2014 and Aug. 20.

$1,000 to $25,000: Potential fines for violating FAA rules with drones.

$35: cheapest drone with camera available on

7 months: How long it took a professional photographer to get an exemption to fly a drone

Source: FAA,, David Speace of DZP Video, New Morgan and Mike Levin, photo and digital imaging, Roslyn, Montgomery County

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