Saturday, September 2, 2017

Drones: Unmanned shouldn’t mean unplanned; Sheridan County Airport (KSHR), Wyoming

SHERIDAN — Stories of careless drone flights abound, even in a small state like Wyoming. 

In August 2014, just two months after the National Park Service banned drones in national parks, a Dutch tourist crashed a drone into Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring, causing concern over how the intrusion would impact the nation’s largest hot spring. Earlier this year, a man launched a drone from a highway pullout near Jackson and caused 1,500 elk in the National Elk Refuge to stampede for half a mile. 

In recent national news, drones have disrupted firefighting efforts in Arizona seven times this summer. When a drone is flying over a wildfire, aircraft carrying water and fire retardant must be grounded, delaying critical firefighting efforts and putting lives in danger as the fire grows. A drone strike can be fatal to aircraft pilots. 

“Everyone must land, which means they’re not fighting the fire,” Bighorn National Forest Public Affairs Specialist Susie Douglas said. “Drone incursions are very serious stuff.”   

Douglas said the Bighorn National Forest has never had a drone impede firefighting efforts, but it’s becoming a big enough issue that the U.S. Forest Service launched a new tagline in 2016: If you fly, we can’t. The tagline has become a hashtag on social media. Flying a drone over a wildfire is illegal and punishable by fines. 

With all the negative reports about drone usage — and with a lingering distrust of a motorized camera flying overhead — it is not uncommon to see people at events in Sheridan County pretending to shoot or throw something at a drone. 

It doesn’t have to be that way, Sheridan Travel and Tourism Executive Director Shawn Parker said.

If hobby and commercial drone operators fly in a responsible, respectful manner, they will promote acceptance. 

“If operators fly their drones safely, in a non-disruptive manner when out in public, then I think people will understand that drones are a photography tool just like any other,” Parker said in an email to The Sheridan Press. 

Parker has found that well-planned drone footage can be a powerful promotional tool for Sheridan and the state. He said drones offer a unique aerial perspective on destinations and events that was previously too expensive or difficult to achieve.

“Drones are a hot-button topic today because of the antics of some operators across the country,” Parker said. “Generally, hobby drone operators conduct themselves in a safe, courteous manner.”

Sheridan County Airport manager John Stopka agreed. He said recreational and commercial operators in Sheridan have never caused a problem and are good about notifying him of their planned flights. 

Notifying Stopka is necessary for most drone flights in Sheridan. That is because Federal Aviation Administration rules require airport notification for all flights of unmanned aircraft systems within 5 miles of the airport. Since the city of Sheridan is just over 5 miles in total span, most flights would fall under this rule. 

In short, unmanned shouldn’t mean unplanned. Drone operators need to be familiar with rules and regulations regarding flights, a tall task since they have been amended, challenged and extended in the last few years. 

In December 2015 the FAA ruled that model aircraft, which would include drones and remote controlled airplanes, would have to be registered with the FAA if over .55 pounds in weight, even if operated solely for recreational use. Model aircraft enthusiast John A. Taylor challenged the ruling and won. 

Now, hobby drone and RC aircraft operators have a choice. 

They can operate under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft without registering with the FAA. According to the FAA website, this requires that flights be strictly for hobby or recreational purposes; that community-based safety guidelines be followed; that the UAS be flown within visual line-of-sight; that they give way to manned aircraft; that they notify the airport if flying within 5 miles; and that the drone or aircraft weigh no more than 55 pounds. 

If there’s any chance the drone won’t satisfy all the conditions for a model aircraft, the operator should register with the FAA as a “non-modeler” and obtain an FAA Remote Pilot Certificate.

All drones used for commercial purposes that weigh more than .55 pounds must be registered with the FAA. Registration costs $5 and lasts for three years. The registration number must be displayed on the drone. 

As for where to fly? 

The FAA offers a mobile app called B4UFLY to help operators check on restrictions in their planned flight area. Technically, drones are not to be flown over people, but the FAA offers waivers for this rule if it can be demonstrated that operation can be safely conducted. 

Stopka urged operators to remember that drones can’t be flown on airport property or within runway approaches. Runway approaches extend several miles and have varying altitudes, he said. In general, a drone flying 2-3 miles away should be fine since it can’t be flown higher than 400 feet above ground. 

Douglas reminded operators that commercial drone flights over any national forest require a permit. Additionally, drones cannot be flown within or over wilderness areas as it violates the restriction on motorized vehicles. 

Additionally, the Wyoming Legislature passed a law in 2015 that states drones cannot be used by law enforcement to gather evidence or conduct surveillance without a warrant. In 2016, the Legislature passed a law prohibiting use of drones to scout game for hunting anytime between Aug. 1-Jan. 31 of the next year.  

Original article can be found here ➤

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