Panel addresses drone industry boom

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In May, a drone landed on the White House lawn; last year, another one landed in front of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she was speaking at an outdoor event. And drones are now used to film concerts, by Realtors showcasing neighborhoods and they have even been considered as the vehicle of the future to deliver Amazon packages.

But even as the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) is growing rapidly, problems and concerns are cropping up — stemming from the lack of regulations for commercial and recreational use of the drones.

The Consumer Electronics Association reported last month that around 2.5 million drones — manufactured by companies like DJI, which sells camera-equipped drones and quadcopters starting at $500 — have been sold in the U.S. and that another 1 million are projected to be sold by year’s end.

Last Wednesday, the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance hosted a breakfast panel discussion focused on the most prominent issues currently surrounding these devices — privacy, safety, legality and regulation.

The panel included several industry experts: Constantin Diehl, business development director and interim CEO of UAS Colorado; Tim Haynie, owner of Spectrabotics Aerial Data Services in Colorado Springs; Mark Dombroff, a partner at global law firm Dentons, which specializes in aviation and transportation litigation; and Jim Williams, a principal at Dentons and former manager of the Federal Aviation Administration’s UAS division.

Commercial and recreational drone activity took off during 2012. Congress, recognizing the growing interest and demand in the market, charged the FAA with introducing hard-and-fast regulatory policies specific to the growing phenomenon, but nothing materialized. Now, thanks to record growth in the market, many think it is an issue that needs to be addressed soon, while others argue the field is best left without government intervention.

“This is something that is ongoing — it’s growing,” said panel moderator Amy Stephens, a Dentons principal and former Colorado House majority leader. “At the federal, state and local levels, this issue affects everybody. … This is an area of growth in business that we really want to see flourish.”

Federal law currently dictates that aircraft must fly no lower than 1,000 feet above populated areas, and at least 500 feet in less-populated areas. But commercial and recreational drones, which are not generally regarded as aircraft, may not be flown above 400 feet or within five miles of any airport without authorization.

“There has been a truce between the modelist community and the FAA for years,” Dombroff said. “It’s only when the latest drones descended on us — so to speak — and the technology entered the commercial arena that all of the sudden the modeling community is asking, ‘What does that mean for us?’”

While the FAA has a process that gives commercial drone operators exemption from those rules under certain circumstances, the lack of broader regulations creates an occasional quagmire. That has led to a push for more regulation.

“The fact of the matter is that it is a highly complex world that [drones] are entering,” Dombroff said. “I think there is still a high degree of confusion about what this industry is and what its place is in aviation.”

The panelists said the FAA is in a difficult position when it comes to regulating such activity, because the federal agency is responsible for the safe operation of aircraft, not the privacy issues that are related to UAS uses. State and local agencies, however, have the jurisdiction to apply laws regarding privacy violation, harassment or recklessness to drones and their operators.

“All the tools are already there … you don’t really need any laws,” Williams said. “The laws are already there, you’ve just got to figure out how to apply them to this technology. Because the fact of the matter is that there is nothing new about this technology, other than the fact that it is available to everybody for just a few hundred dollars.”

The FAA, citing a number of close calls with commercial aircraft, said last month that many of the remotely-piloted crafts will soon have to be registered. Companies including DJI have also developed software to prevent their products from wandering into classified airspace. But the conversation continues.

For the average American, privacy concerns continue to be at the forefront of the conversation — a camera-equipped drone crash-landed in a Colorado Springs man’s backyard just last year. And a judge recently ruled that a Kentucky man could legally shoot down a UAS flying over his property.

Dombroff said examples like that shouldn’t characterize the industry.

“There was a similar fear when they started putting cameras on cell phones,” he said. “I think it is more of a psychological thing — it gives people an ominous feeling. But I think it will be just like the cell phone cameras: Once you get accustomed to it, it will be normal.

“The rules are always going to lag behind technology …” he continued. “We don’t want the federal government to be able to create laws without first understanding them, and I don’t think we’re to that point.”

At the Colorado Springs event, audience members recommended that state agencies such as the Colorado Department of Transportation provide information to help maintain public safety and privacy.

One UAS officer for the Army’s 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson suggested publishing designated areas in the city that drone operators can utilize for flying while training and registering their vehicles.

“That way, at least you’re keeping them in a designated area away from bigger airports and where manned aviation is,” he said.