You may have seen them hovering over your head at public events or perhaps you saw one flying around on a television news show. Amazon even has a plan to use them to deliver packages.
All the while, government agencies have had difficulty crafting regulations to address safety and privacy concerns involving unmanned aerial drones, and have put a de-facto ban on commercial use of the devices.
Now, after nearly five years of discussion, the Federal Aviation Administration has indicated it may in fact relax rules for the use of drones, a change that’s being celebrated as long overdue by local commercial drone pilots — though it’s unknown when any new regulations might take effect.
Some Suffolk County drone pilots say they’ve grounded their fleets while the FAA finishes up the new rules, but others — like Cutchogue’s Andrew LePre — have found loopholes to keep their fledgling businesses active.
“There’s always a way to save yourself,” he said last week while in New York City buying more gear for his DJI Phantom 2 quad-rotor drone.
Drones are small unmanned aerial vehicles, normally flown by remote control, that can be used for aerial photography or surveillance. The most popular kind of drone uses small rotors, similar to a helicopter’s, to hover and fly.
The U.S. military also uses more sophisticated and larger remotely piloted aircraft to track or attack suspected terrorist targets abroad; those drones are not being regulated by the FAA.
Under the proposed regulations, drones would be restricted to altitudes of less than 500 feet during daylight hours. Drones would also not be allowed near airports.
Originally, the proposal required a drone to operate within its user’s sight. But FAA Administrator Michael Huerta reportedly said the FAA may scrap that provision and allow pilots to fly drones beyond their line-of-sight, according to an article in Fortune magazine.
Current rules require businesses that use drones to apply for permission to fly them, which is granted by the FAA on a case-by-case basis.
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the most recently discussed FAA rules, made public in February, were “a lot better” than the old regulations; however, he suggested further changes, such as a requirement that all drones be programmed not to fly over sensitive airspace.
“These FAA rules are a solid first step but need a lot more refining,” Mr. Schumer said in a statement. “As the FAA finalizes these rules, I encourage them to strike a balance that both allows the commercial potential of drones to take flight, but also ensures near-misses with commercial aircraft and places like the White House don’t happen again.”
Mr. LePre was encouraged by the new FAA regulations, though he said many of the limits the FAA is considering are already being observed by drone pilots. The 500-foot height restriction, for example, is something he would rarely reach, he said.
His clients — mostly real estate agencies looking for aerial photographs of their listings — want shots taken 50 to 150 feet off the ground, “twice as high as the trees at most,” Mr. LePre said.
If the new regulations include line-of-sight requirements, Mr. LePre said he’ll use someone as a “spotter” to keep an eye on the drone.
Mr. LePre began using a drone about 18 months ago.
“I heard about what a drone could do,” he said. “It would be fun and make awesome video if I could get good at it.”
It took him hundreds of hours using the drone to be comfortable with it, he said. Ultimately, he started making commercial videos.
“It kind of happened by mistake,” Mr. LePre said. “It was kind of just a hobby but I didn’t know it would get to the point where it’d be good enough to sell.”
He now uses a $1,500 plastic drone for his photography and video, as well as a pair of virtual reality goggles that lets him see what the drone is seeing. Mr. LePre “doesn’t condone” those who use drones irresponsibly, but added that few pilots do, because the hobby is so complicated.
“People who can drop two grand on a toy mostly know what they’re doing,” he said.
Another local operator, who asked not to be named, said that until new FAA rules are in place, he’s keeping his drone on the ground.
“I’m just waiting on them to get their act together,” he said.
He’s been involved in the hobby of remote-controlled aircraft for more than 30 years, starting with planes and ultimately working his way toward the popular quad-copters used today.
He also said that commercial pilots haven’t been the ones violating sensitive airspace, like the recent White House incident. Instead, he said, it’s the recreational pilots — who operate with little care for the FAA’s rules — that are causing trouble.
“There’s no way the FAA is going to be able to regulate those people,” he said.
Meanwhile the Suffolk County Legislature is also considering banning the use of drones with cameras over county properties like beaches, parks and government buildings, citing security and privacy concerns.
The drone operator who asked not to be named said he’s taking no chances. Instead, he’s working to build a rover for local police to use when investigating suspicious packages. He said the Suffolk County Police Department has expressed interest in his idea.
“I’ve been concentrating on the ground,” the pilot said.