Monday, August 7, 2017

The buzz on drones

Carl Rocheleau, chief unmanned aerial systems instructor with Northwestern Michigan College, shows students an Aeryon SkyRanger drone during a presentation in Petoskey.



NORTHERN MICHIGAN — What’s that buzzing sound?

You may have heard it out at the beach, at one of the many summertime events that take place throughout Northern Michigan, or perhaps in your own backyard.

The sound probably isn’t that of some monster mosquito, but rather it could be coming from some kind of unmanned aerial system (UAS) — otherwise known to many as a drone.

These radio-controlled aircraft usually fly using three or four helicopter-style rotors, allowing the operator to maneuver and hover the aircraft — usually for the purpose of taking still images or video from small cameras mounted underneath.

These technological advancements have allowed for some aeriel images to be captured in recent years that previously would only have been possible from an airplane, or — depending on the circumstance — not at all.

They’ve become useful for all sorts of practical purposes — real estate, agriculture, utility line surveying, emergency response and many more.

Advances in technology have also driven down the cost to the point that for as little as $50, a person can buy an entry-level drone.

While the technology offers a wide array of benefits, there are some areas of concern, including safety and privacy.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has rules for drone operation. The applicable set of rules depends on the purpose for which the drone is being used.

A person using a drone for recreational or other amateur purposes is not required to have any sort of licensing to fly it.

A person who is using the drone for any sort of commercial purpose — real estate, journalism or professional imaging services, for example — is required to obtain a license from the agency.

Carl Rocheleau, the chief instructor for the Unmanned Aerial Systems Program at Northwestern Michigan College, said the license costs $150 and is good for two years.

To obtain a license through the FAA, a person must be at least 16 years old, “be in physical and mental condition to safely operate a small UAS” and pass a written knowledge test.

The process also includes a security background check by the Transportation Security Administrator.

However, Rocheleau noted, there is no skills proficiency test associated with the licensing process.

“As a pilot (of manned aircraft), we were quite disappointed that there is no standardization through flight testing, but there are so many variations (of drones), it would be very difficult,” he said.

Safety, of course is the primary concern surrounding the use of drones, Rocheleau noted. He said potential hazards include crashing into buildings or people, or interfering with other manned aircraft traffic.

Indeed, during the departure of boats for the annual Boyne Thunder event recently in Boyne City, at least four drones could be seen flying over Veterans Park near the shore of Lake Charlevoix — all while a helicopter made multiple flyovers of the area to take capture images of the event.

There are a host of rules that drone operators are supposed to follow, Rocheleau said. The rules are the same regardless of whether the operator is licensed or unlicensed. However, he noted, the licensed operator should know the rules, and puts his or her license at risk for violating the rules. An unlicensed operator may or may not know the rules, and has no license at risk.

A few of the rules that Rocheleau highlighted include:

• Drones must give way (stay out of the way) of manned aircraft.

• Operators must keep the aircraft in sight (visual line-of-sight)

• Drones must be under 55 pounds

• Operators must follow community-based safety guidelines

• Operators need to notify airport and air traffic control tower before flying within 5 miles of an airport

On its website, the FAA offers these “safety guidelines” for hobby or recreational (non-licensed) drone operators:

• Fly at or below 400 feet and stay away from surrounding obstacles

• Keep your UAS within sight

• Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports

• Never fly over groups of people

• Never fly over stadiums or sports events

• Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires

• Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol

• Understand airspace restrictions and requirements

The FAA lists the following as “must” rules for licensed drone operation:

• Must keep the aircraft in sight (visual line-of-sight)

• Must fly at altitudes under 400 feet

• Must fly during the day

• Must fly at or below 100 mph

• Must yield right of way to manned aircraft

• Must NOT fly over people

• Must NOT fly from a moving vehicle

An operator may apply for a waiver of these rules.

Rocheleau noted that a licensed operator who violates these rules could be subject to sanctions against his or her license.

What to do?

Rocheleau said enforcing the rules set out by the FAA can be somewhat difficult in many circumstances. He said because the aircraft can be operated at a distance, it can be difficult to track down the pilot of a drone operating in an unsafe manner.

For example, Charlevoix Police Chief Gerard Doan said on several occasions he saw drones flying near or over East Park during the recent Venetian Festival — which would be a violation of the rule (or guideline) against flying over people. However, he said in such a large crowd it would be difficult to track the pilot down.

However, several area law enforcement officials — such as Doan, Emmet County Sheriff Pete Wallin and Charlevoix County Prosecuting Attorney Allen Telgenhof — said they’ve handled few, if any, cases in which drone usage has been at issue.

However, the potential for such a circumstance certainly exists.

Rocheleau said if someone sees a drone operating in an unsafe manner he or she can either report it to a local public safety official, or to the FAA. Of course the FAA does not have the manpower to immediately respond to reports of safety violations, but if the person operating the drone can be identified, either by the initial reporting person or by police, a follow-up investigation could be initiated.

Additionally, he noted that any privacy concerns that might stem from a person using drones would have similar legal limitations as those that would apply to traditional photography or invasion-of-privacy laws. Essentially, the benchmark for those situations is whether or not a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a location — such as in his or her fenced-in backyard as opposed to in a park or on a public beach.

The Federal Aviation Administration has a variety of information on its website about the rules surrounding drone usage and how to become licensed. The information is available at www.faa.gov/uas/.

Original article can be found here ➤ http://www.petoskeynews.com

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