New drone rules elicit turbulent response from some local pilots

     Maxwell Tubman of Steam Machine Pictures in South Philly holds one of his many copters. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Maxwell Tubman of Steam Machine Pictures in South Philly holds one of his many copters. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    In just the last few years, drones have become more popular than ever. The small-scale flying machines are cheaper, more compact, and easier to fly – which means a lot more of them zipping around the sky. But new rules regulating the technology are getting mixed reviews from drone pilots in the region.

    In just the last few years, drones have become more popular than ever. The small-scale flying machines are cheaper, more compact, and easier to fly – which means a lot more of them zipping around the sky.

    Drones are officially taking off.

    “It’s immeasurably huge and it’s only getting bigger,” said Lavon Phillips, who runs a club for drone hobbyists out of his South Jersey makerspace.

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    “It’s certainly not going to slow down any time.”

    BS0742 13SoHa SMART makerspace owner Lavon Phillips introduces his drone club to newcomers. (Bas Slabbers/for NewsWorks)

    The Federal Aviation Administration – which regulates the country’s airspace – has also taken note of drones’ immense popularity. So much so, that the FAA has been putting a framework of rules in place to regulate how drones can be used.

    But those rules and their implementation are getting mixed reviews from drone pilots in this region.

    New trend, new rules

    The newfound popularity of drones is giving the model aircraft community a level of mainstream attention it has never gotten before, and turning what was once a learned skill into a pick-up sport.

    “I started flying [remote-controlled] airplanes and helicopters when I was a kid with my dad, and, with those, if you wanted to fly, you had to learn from somebody because they would crash if you didn’t know what you were doing,” said Maxwell Tubman, who runs the drone videography company Steam Machine Productions out of his South Philadelphia rowhome.

    IMG 0813Maxwell Tubman attaches a camera to a drone in his South Philly workshop. Fully equipped, the octocopter can weigh more than 50 pounds. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    “The difference now is the technology allows people without experience to fly a drone the same day they buy it without the knowledge of how and where they should be flying.”

    Pilots range from serious hobbyists to casual users, companies such as Tubman’s videography business to government agencies – and the following continues to grow.

    A recent Fortune magazine report estimated that the market for nonmilitary drones has already ballooned into a $2.5 billion industry.

    emilycohenforwhyy-5A vendor at International Drone Day shows 5-year-old Greg how to control a drone in a computer simulation.  (Emily Cohen/for NewsWorks)

    The FAA, responding to the explosive growth, has been reaffirming old model aircraft rules and proposing some new regulations to make sure drones are operated safely on American soil.

    In part, the rules state that drones have to weigh less than 55 pounds and be flown within the pilot’s line of sight, below a particular altitude, not over groups of people, and a certain distance from airports.

    The rules for commercial flight are currently awaiting comment. If passed, they would require that business owners take a written exam to legally use a drone for business.

    When flying just for fun, the guidelines are simply “strongly encouraged.”

    (A full list of rules for recreational drone flight can be found here. The draft rules for commercial flight are here.)

    Many drone pilots, including Trenton resident Michael Skalka, think the rules are common sense.

    “I think they’re a step in the right direction,” he said.

    emilycohenforwhyy-3Michael Skalka, 26, started flying radio-controlled planes two years ago. He made the switch to building drones in August 2014. (Emily Cohen/for NewsWorks)

    Skalka hopes putting guidelines like these in place might help calm the fears of people who are skeptical of drones, especially in light of some recent national and local incidents involving the technology.

    “Honestly, a lot of people are giving this hobby a bad name. Maybe with small regulation, we can curb the ‘I’m gonna fly my drone over traffic’ kind of guys, which I’m really not a fan of,” Skalka said.

    A patchwork of regulations

    Not everyone is happy with the regulations. Some state and municipal officials think the rules don’t go far enough and have started drafting their own stricter regulations.

    Recently the Delaware Department of Natural Resources banned drones in all public parks. When Philadelphia mayoral nominee Jim Kenney was still on City Council, he introduced a bill to regulate drones and levy penalties if they were used improperly.

    That’s created a patchwork of regulations that may change depending on what and where you’re flying, leaving some drone pilots a little confused about what’s legal and what isn’t.

    “Well, welcome to law and technology,” said University of Pennsylvania law professor Jeff Vagle.

    Vagle says what makes writing laws specifically for drones difficult is that governments have to regulate not only the technology itself (like a drone’s weight limit) but also what that technology allows people to do for the first time (like fly a camera up to somebody’s bedroom window). A colleague of Vagle’s has called this “the law of the newly possible.”

    “You have all these new possibilities that were never considered beforehand, and the pace of new possibilities is increasing by the day and month and year, so much so that law can’t keep up with it.”

    Lack of enforcement

    As much as the law has been trying to keep pace with the fast-moving fervor around drones, what’s proved even more difficult is enforcing the new rules.

    Dan Murray, who owns the Mount Laurel-based aerial data company Unmanned Sensing Systems, was “excited” to get an exemption from the FAA last month that will allow his company to legally use drones for a commercial purpose.

    But while Murray says the FAA has been clear about the rules his company has to follow, the agency hasn’t outlined what would happen if the company ran afoul of those rules.

    “I would hope that they make that clear as time goes on,” Murray said. “But we certainly understand that they’ve been under a lot of pressure to at least get these basic rules out.”

    Drone videographer Maxwell Tubman says he sees his competitors regularly break FAA rules and skate by without a penalty, which he says makes it harder for him to stay competitive.

    “Right now, they can do all the rules they want, and the FAA is unable to enforce them,” Tubman said. “So there’s no accountability for a pilot to say ‘I’m not going to fly over a stadium, even though the producer or concert director wants me to fly over this crowd of people’.”

    For that reason, Tubman says, most people agree that at least some regulation is necessary.

    “There’s a lot of people who say, ‘No, we don’t need to do that,’ because we’ve been self-regulated for so long,” he said. “But I think the technology has changed so fast in the last couple years, and it’s become accessible to so many more people, that it’s rational to think that some regulation is necessary.”

    Whether any given drone pilot actually knows — or follows — those regulations is an open question.

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