February 16

U.S. skies humming with drones

A ban on flying them for business purposes is largely ignored and barely enforced. When rules do emerge, it may be too late.

By Alan Levin
Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON — It came from the sky.

click image to enlarge

An aerial drone with a high quality video camera records the landscape of the Berkshire Equestrian Center in Richmond, Mass. Drone use for commercial purposes is forbidden in the U.S., but enforcement ranges from lax to non-existent.

The Associated Press

One moment, Eileen Peskoff was enjoying a hot dog after running with the bulls at a Petersburg, Va., racetrack. Then she was on her back, knocked down when a 4-foot drone filming the event in August lost control and dived into the grandstands where she was sitting.

“You sign up for something called running the bulls, you think the only thing you’ll get hurt by is a 1,200-pound bull, not a drone,” Peskoff said in an interview.

Drones flown for a business purpose, like the one that left Peskoff and two friends with bruises, are prohibited in the United States. That hasn’t stopped an invasion of flights far beyond the policing ability of the Federal Aviation Administration, which since 2007 hasn’t permitted commercial drones in the U.S. while it labors to write rules to allow them.

Drones have nonetheless been used to film scenes in the Martin Scorsese-directed movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” and sporting events for Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN. They’ve inspected oilfield equipment, mapped agricultural land and photographed homes and neighborhoods for real estate marketing, according to industry officials, company websites and videos on the Internet.

All such flights in the U.S. are outside the rules. While the FAA hasn’t ruled out granting commercial-use permits under limited circumstances, it has so far allowed operations only in the Arctic.

OPERATORS PLEAD IGNORANCE

Some operators plead ignorance of the rules. Some say their flying is legal under exemptions for hobbyists. Using drones is so lucrative for Hollywood that they’re flown in defiance of the law, said one operator who declined to be identified.

The FAA is aware that the number of flights is increasing and tells users to stop when it learns about them, it said in an emailed response to questions. The agency said it’s considering new guidance on what’s permitted.

For every time the FAA orders an operator to stand down – as it did after a Michigan florist did a test delivery by drone Feb. 8, and in January with Lakemaid Beer, which posted a video online proposing 12-pack deliveries to Minnesota ice fishermen – untold others fly below the radar, said Patrick Egan, a Sacramento, Calif.-based author and producer of an annual unmanned aircraft expo in San Francisco.

Small drones available on the Internet or at hobby stores for less than $1,000 – some equipped with high-definition cameras like those made by San Mateo, Calif.-based GoPro Inc. – are flooding the U.S. and being used by tens of thousands of people, whether legal or not, Egan said.

The FBI opened an investigation on March 4 after pilots on an Alitalia Boeing 777 nearing New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport spotted a multi-rotor copter that came within about 200 feet.

At least six other pilots, including a crew on another airliner, have reported close calls since September 2011 with what they believed were small, unmanned aircraft like those favored by hobbyists, cinematographers and other businesses, according to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, which logs safety issues.

While the government needs to do more to control the growth in drones, it has been “swamped” by political cross-currents and budget cuts that have made it difficult to craft rules, Doug Davis, who ran the FAA’s unmanned aircraft office in the mid-2000s, said in an interview.

As airline pilot unions call for strict standards on the qualifications of drone operators, industry advocates including Egan say the standards should be eased. Lawmakers such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who said protesters flew toy drones outside her house last year, have pressed the FAA to add privacy requirements as it crafts safety rules.

(Continued on page 2)

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