Sunday, September 3, 2017

Northwest Arkansas embraces drones for government, commercial, fun

Drew Shoptaw (right) visits Saturday with Alex Sims (left) of Rogers and Tom Oppenheim of Bentonville at Hobbs State Park near Rogers. Shoptaw gave a demonstration on unmanned drones and legal requirements to fly the devices. The talk was part of the Friends of Hobbs monthly speaker series.



ROGERS -- Drone owners and potential fliers of all ages gathered at the Hobbs State Park visitor's center Saturday to learn more about the do's and don'ts in participating the growing unmanned aircraft trend.

Some people take on drone photography or racing as hobby, while others use them in agriculture, real estate and other businesses. The machines are capable of quickly doing topical surveys, unobtrusively checking on the health of wildlife and more, Saturday's presenter Drew Shoptaw said.

Northwest Arkansas has several hobbyists groups, including Drone Racing NWA, of which Fayetteville resident Joey Kavanaugh is a member.

"More people are getting into it because they see the magic, which is the [first person view] aspect. You have goggles that tune into a video broadcast coming from the drone in real time," Kavanaugh said. "It's like virtual reality video game, but you are controlling something in real life, and it is a unique visceral experience, like if you could fly a Lamborghini in three-dimensional space."

The U.S. Consumer Technology Association projects drones will cross the $1 billion revenue milestone for the first time this year, according to its latest semi-annual industry report. Around 3 million drones regularly fly in American skies and the FAA predicts 7 million by 2020.

The technology is far outpacing regulations, Shoptaw and others said, and the regulations in place can be confusing. He worked with the FAA to develop guidelines for commercial and hobby use of drones, he said.

"Most drone operators aren't pilots and most don't understand how basically everything off the ground to space is controlled by the FAA. To most people it's just confusing," said Shoptaw, who is a licensed commercial drone pilot and the owner of Agile Aerial Solutions, which specializes in aerial photography and cinematography.

Rules of the Air

Anyone can walk into Best Buy or go online and buy a drone for a few hundred or thousand dollars. For hobbyists, there is no license or registration needed, though Shoptaw recommended taking lessons and registering with the FAA in case a drone is lost.

Mandatory FAA registration began in December 2015 for commercial drone pilots and since then, 895,587 people have registered as of Aug. 11, which is about double the number of piloted aircraft registered with the agency. Anything beyond educational or recreational flying is considered commercial.

"We don't have an exact number of actual drones operating in the U.S., though by logic it is certain to be higher than this figure," FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said. "And we don't track the number of drones operated by hobbyists."

Much of the regulations in place for both hobbyists and commercial drone owners are to protect manned aircrafts, such as not flying within five miles of an airport without its permission and only flying during the day.

"It's all about safety," Shoptaw said. "And there are waivers for everything."

No aircraft has hit a drone in Arkansas or anywhere else in the United States, according to the most recent FAA records. Northwest Arkansas airports haven't had any real issues with drones, spokesmen said.

"We've not had any issues with drones," said Summer Fallen, airport services manager for Drake Field Airport in Fayetteville. "We do occasionally have people call to ask permission to come within the five-mile radius. We've actually been pleasantly surprised by how respectful they've been of the regulations put in place."

To become a licensed commercial flier, you not only have to register, but also go through a TSA vetting process and take an FAA test. It costs about $150 and includes basic knowledge of drone operations and safety.

No matter what kind of drone flier, everyone must yield right of way to manned aircraft. Restrictions are greater in places like Northwest Arkansas because the multiple airports make much of the area controlled air space.

To know where and when not to fly, drone owners must look at and understand aeronautical charts, which is a map designed to assist in navigation of aircraft. Well, those are understandable confusing for everyday people, Shoptaw said.

"It's like a giant spaghetti map with all these colors on it that you can't really read," he said. "That's what the FAA was giving everybody and it's like, "Great, but I can't tell anything from this because I'm not a pilot.'"

That's why Shoptaw worked to get the FAA to release the information for their map. Now, many hobbyists use an administration-approved sight called www.airmap.com, which is more user friendly, he said.

Beyond just avoiding no fly zones, fliers said it's also important to not fly over other people, because it's an FAA guideline and because people tend to get annoyed, Kavanaugh said. He said most people are fascinated and he lets them use his goggles, but there can be an irate dog walker who thinks he's a spy.

"Mainly we avoid people at all cost. A big event, a park with a lot of people walking dogs, we stay away from," he said. "I think the general perception of drones is that you are somehow spying on people's naked families, which is totally ridiculous."

Drones in Disasters

Some authorities in other states have said private drone owners have flown in and interfered with emergency management operations, such as fighting forest fires, which has caused emergency manned aircraft to land to avoid the risk of a collision, according to national reports.

These intrusions have led many law enforcement agencies to ask for more federal regulations to require the millions of private drones to be fitted with radio tracking equipment. This summer, the FAA created an advisory panel of around 70 drone industry and owners to work on tracking regulations with the idea of giving drones an ID similar to a car's license plate, according to the FAA.

Kavanaugh said he doesn't think there's a big enough issue to warrant more regulation and he and other hobbyists said they're worried what it would mean for users.

"Well, it would probably kill us," Kavanaugh said. "It makes me think I will have to add components to my quad, which means more weight, less performance, and for what purpose? Is it an issue? I don't think it is."

Northwest Arkansas law enforcement officials said there hasn't been any incidences of drone interference in the area of which they are aware.

Capt. Jarod Mason with Rogers Police Department is certified to fly as both a government operator and a commercial pilot. He and his team of seven licensed pilot officers have used drones in search and rescue missions and certain crime scene investigations. When he's off duty, he has also taken photo and video for events at the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion and the city.

Mason said he sees both sides of the regulation issue, but doesn't want a few people not following the rules to hinder the good being done with drones.

"There are always two sides to the fence," he said. "There are the people who support drones, find them interesting and understand what they are capable of doing for human beings in crisis situations and then there are those who think it's government big brother and scary. It's because they don't really understand. There is the all sorts of positive things they're capable of."

When a large event, such as Hurricane Harvey, the FAA "warns drone operators that flying an unauthorized drone could interfere with local, state and federal rescue and recovery missions. You could be subject to significant fines if you interfere with emergency response operations."

FAA is known for its heftier fines. Penalties for not registering as a commercial flier can include fines of up to $250,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three years, according to the administrations website. Fines for flying in restricted areas commonly range from $1,100-2,200.

While that won't stop everyone, Mason said he thinks it deters many.

Drones are still being used in the lifesaving efforts, though. As of Friday, 43 authorized drones were in the Houston area, according to the administrations website. Many are used to find stranded people and survey damages, Mason said.

"Drones are just a tool," Shoptaw said. "They can be cool, but also they're robotics in general and are designed not to replace people but to do the dull, dirty and dangerous tasks people don't want to do."

Temporary drone ban

Coast Guard officials have said civilians drones aren’t permitted over flood-afflicted areas. Flying drones is prohibited in Beaumont, Port Neches Nederland and Port Arthur, Texas, areas while search and rescue operations are underway following Hurricane Harvey.

Federal Aviation Administration Temporary Flight Restrictions have been established in those areas until Tuesday. Flying a drone without authorization could result in significant fines, according to the FAA’s Hurricane Harvey Update page at www.faa.gov/news/stay_connected/.

Drone safety guidelines

Individuals flying for hobby or recreation are strongly encouraged to follow safety guidelines, which include:

• Unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds.

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

• Keep your UAS within sight

• Stay at least 5 miles away from 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

Any questions or concerns can be sent to FAA’s UAS Integration Office via uashelp@faa.gov or by calling 844-FLY-MY-UA.

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

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