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Drones Fly Into Limbo


The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to issue its draft rules for the use of small drones any day now — but that has been the status quo for months.   New York U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer has gotten involved, and it's hoped his clout may spur the FAA into making regulations official.

Drones — once the subject of science fiction, popularized on early 2000s TV shows like Dark Angel — are fast becoming common components of everyday life. But regulations have lagged behind technology’s cutting edge.

You can buy a drone equipped with a camera online for $34 plus shipping.  In Singapore, a restaurant is preparing a staff of drones to ferry food and drinks from the kitchen to a wait station near customers’ tables by the end of this year.

In the United States, the FAA has authority to regulate and oversee all aspects of civil aviation.  "In too many way, New York air space has become the wild west of drones, and it must stop."

Senator Schumer has been arguing for clear FAA guidelines for drones. He says the technology exists that can take human error out of the equation: GPS "no fly zone" software and firmware that keeps drones out of restricted spaces.   "Like airports, sports stadiums, national landmarks and other high-risk areas. I'm calling on the FAA to require a new rule that all drone manufacturers develop and install this technology. Then all the problems we're hearing about drones, near-misses at airports, going into the White House, flying into the Super Bowl stadium, would be eliminated."

The Democrat favors requiring manufacturers to use technology that can keep drones in check. He sent a letter to the FAA in late January asking drone regulation be fast-tracked. He pointed out that nationwide there are about 25 drone sightings at airports per month, and in many of the cases, pilots said the devices were operating dangerously close to their planes.   "We all agree that drones are an important new technology, and have many important commercial and hobby uses. And I want to make it clear we do not want to get rid of drones, whether at the hobby level or commercial level. They can do lots of good things. We simply want to make sure that both safety and privacy are assured. And the good news is, the new technology we're talking about, not very expensive, built into the drone itself, can make that happen."

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International,  an industry trade group, claims that, “the U.S. loses $27.6 million a day—or $10 billion each year,” because of the lack of a regulatory structure for commercial drone use, which includes everything from agricultural monitoring to checking utility lines to Amazon.com's hopes of direct-air home deliveries.

Bill Verbeten  is a regional extension agronomist with Cornell University. He explains that current regulations prohibit farmers from using drones in agriculture: a farmer cannot use imagery gathered by a drone to make a management decision.  "Let's just say he saw a wet spot in his field and then he wanted to do some drainage management, maybe put a tie-line in or do something. That's illegal today. If he was just flying over his field to get a look at it, or day he had a hired hand  mowing a hay crop and wanted to take a picture from the air, there's nothing to prevent him from doing that today."

Calls to the FAA were not returned.

"If you're flying as a hobbyist, under 400 feet, more than 5 miles away from the airport, during daylight hours, you're obeying all the visual flight rules that are out there, you're not breaking the law as a hobbyist. But you can't change how you manage your farm because that's commercial use, even if your crop is gonna be fed to livestock," said Verbeten.
Some private citizens are taking action to self-regulate drones through a free service offered by a company called NoFlyZone, where you can enter your address and create a no fly zone over your home.

Verbeten feels although drones have a lot of potential, we have to be cautious going forward.   "We have a very safe airspace in the United States. One of the best in the world. While I am equally as frustrated as everybody else with the lack of apparent progress of the FAA putting the rules out there, I definitely understand their concern for safely integrating these things. So I would really caution people that we need to be safe first. You can have fun with them, you can fly under the hobby rules, and eventually there'll be a place for them in agriculture. I think we need to do it right. We need to not be like the people who crashed one on the White House lawn, or people who are operating in ways they really shouldn't be."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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