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The holidays’ hottest gift soon could be flying above you


[Shutterstock.com]

[Shutterstock.com]

By SUSAN E. SAGARRA

Meg Samson, of West St. Louis County, recently was leaving her parents’ house when she heard a buzzing noise above her head.

“I looked up and saw a drone hovering over their backyard,” Samson said. “It startled me, so I stepped back inside and told my family what I’d seen. I wasn’t upset or scared; I was more curious about whose it was and what it was doing. I didn’t like the thought of being watched or having my picture taken.”

While disconcerted about the drone in her vicinity, it did not cross her mind to alert the police.

In fact, several members of her extended family gathered in the backyard to see the drone for themselves. Later that evening, her dad received an email from a friend who lives less than a mile away.

“His friend had attached a video of my family members pointing and looking up to the sky,” Samson said. “It turned out that the drone belonged to my dad’s friend’s son, and they were having fun paying surprise visits to friends.”

Because the drone belonged to a close friend, Samson said the family considered the incident lighthearted and harmless.

“If, however, we had discovered a stranger sharing a video of us on the Internet, we would have reacted very differently,” she said. “I imagine we would have felt violated – and likely pretty scared. In that case, we would have contacted the police.”

While the police will respond to incidents in which people feel drones are violating their privacy, local law enforcement officials said that the misuse of drones actually falls under the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) authority.

In high demand

The Consumer Electronics Association predicts that 700,000 drones will be sold this holiday season.

A quick search of drones available on Amazon, for example, shows that prices range from $50 to $9,000. Amazon also holds the patent for drone delivery and has been waiting since 2013 to provide the innovative delivery service to its consumers. Officials have said that packages could be delivered within 30 minutes of an order with the drone delivery system.

The FAA currently is working on finalizing regulations for such commercial drones, which are expected to be released sometime next year. Amazon officials have stated that they hope to launch their Prime Air drone delivery system as soon as those regulations are implemented. But doing so may not be as easy as Amazon officials might like. The current proposed FAA regulations state that drones would have to remain in the operator’s sight at all times and remain below 400 feet.

The biggest current concern appears to be the potential use of drones near airports.

A spokesperson for the FAA said that as of Nov. 16, the FAA had received 1,079 reports of unmanned aircraft sightings from pilots and others. He said that civil penalties for an individual can be up to $25,000. He also said that the agency has initiated 24 enforcement cases and has settled 12 of those cases with violation findings.

“Flying an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) for a hobby or recreation does not require specific FAA approval, but a person must fly their UAS according to the law,” the spokesperson said. “The FAA authorizes UAS operations that are not for hobby or recreation on a case-by-case basis. These operations require a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval, or a Section 333 exemption and Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA).”

To date, the FAA has issued more than 2,400 exemptions.

“The FAA promotes voluntary compliance by educating individual UAS operators about how they can operate safely under current regulations and laws,” the spokesperson said. “The agency also has a number of enforcement tools available to address unauthorized use of UAS, including warning notices, letters of correction and civil penalties. The FAA may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a UAS in a way that endangers the safety of the national airspace system. This authority is designed to protect users of the airspace as well as people and property on the ground.”

Melissa Ford, senior manager of operational communication for Southwest Airlines, said pilots are trained and tested in what is called “see and avoid” techniques to detect unmanned aircraft such as drones and other potential hazards.

“This requires pilots to be visually aware of the aircraft’s flight path and any potential conflicts with other airborne vehicles or obstacles,” Ford said. “Further, SWA pilots are trained to respond to potential traffic conflicts, regardless of type, and safely maneuver the aircraft to avoid impact. Drones are treated no differently from any other potential airborne conflicts.”

Ford echoed others in the fact that the FAA has complete authority regarding potential conflicts with national airspace.

“Airlines have no authority as to the operation of drones in the National Airspace System (NAS),” Ford said. “When drones are spotted by our crews during flight, we communicate with applicable FAA Air Traffic Control facilities regarding the observation/potential conflict. This information is subsequently conveyed to other aircraft in the vicinity.”

But Jeff Lea, spokesman for Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, said the airport does not log drone incidents. And John Bales, director of aviation for Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, said that airport has not yet received any reported safety issues with drones.

“If they are spotted, a pilot would typically notify the air traffic control tower of the location and the airport would attempt to locate the operator and educate them on the requirements of operation,” Bales said. “The FAA now aims to announce rules for national regulations for unmanned aircraft systems in the first quarter of 2016.”

Advice for operators

Bales said currently UAS may be operated for hobby and recreational purposes under the FAA’s specific safety guidelines, which include:

• Contact any airport and control tower before flying within 5 miles of an airport.

• Fly them no higher than 400 feet and remain below surrounding obstacles when possible.

• The operator should keep the UAS in eyesight at all times, and use an observer to assist if needed.

• Remain clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations, and see and avoid other aircraft and obstacles at all times.

• Do not intentionally fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles, and remain at least 25 feet away from vulnerable property.

• Do not fly in adverse weather conditions such as in high winds or reduced visibility.

• Do not fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

• Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, government facilities, etc.

• Check local laws and ordinances before flying over private property.

• Do not conduct surveillance or photograph persons in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without the individual’s permission.

Users can find more information at www.knowbeforeyoufly.org and can track pending regulations at www.faa.gov/uas/nprm.

Protecting privacy 

As for protecting one’s privacy, individuals who want to establish “no fly zones” over their properties can visit several websites, including www.noflyzone.org, to set up restricted airspace above their homes.

The companies register the home’s address and its GPS coordinates are logged into a database. Then, the companies work with drone manufacturers to prevent drones from flying over the house. The service is free but the companies do not guarantee that all drones will bypass registered properties; the GPS coordinates are only distributed to operators with whom the company has agreements.

With the holiday gift giving season upon consumers, the FAA spokesperson said it is a great time for consumers to be conscious of proper use of drones and other unmanned aircraft.

“Many retailers already have large stocks of unmanned aircraft on their shelves for this holiday season,” the spokesperson said. “This boom provides the opportunity to bring the spirit of aviation to an entirely new class of users. This opportunity, however, also poses a great challenge. Many unmanned aircraft users may not be aware they are operating in shared, and potentially busy, airspace.”

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