Up in the Air

The sky’s the limit. Their presence is increasingly prominent. Drones are zipping all around North Texas skies capturing images and video, so what’s the big deal?

First of all, considerations need to be made regarding a balance of privacy rights of citizens and the protection of civil liberties. Many fear that law enforcement agencies may use drones to bypass fundamental Fourth Amendment privacy rights. In fact, of the 20-something states that have passed drone legislations, only a few of them address privacy issues.

Current regulations for drone use are nonuniformed. It’s a patchwork of statutes and rules. The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was set to fully integrate unmanned aircraft into the NAS by Sept. 20, 2015, and implement overall standards for drone operation. The Act requires a means of requesting commercial exemptions from the FAA for operation of small (less than 55 pounds) civil UAS and would bar the FAA from regulating model aircraft flights so long as they are in accordance with basic safety rules.

Paul D. Finch and Robert Vanwinkle are quadcopter enthusiasts.

The FAA wants designated test sites to ensure that operators comply with state, local and federal laws regarding civil liberties and privacy rights. In addition, all operators must provide a written plan for the use and storage of any data collected.

Proposed rules provide that drone operators must be over the age of 17 and obtain a license prior to flight operations. Smaller drones must be flown under 400 feet above ground during the day at airspeeds that don’t exceed 100 mph. Drones cannot fly within five miles of an airport/landing strip and must be kept within line of sight.

On Oct. 19, the U.S. government announced a program that will require that drones be registered with the U.S. Department of Transportation. A task force will be created comprised of public and private industry leaders to devise how the registration system will work. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx stated in the press conference that they will be acting fast to develop and implement the plan. Foxx said that “registration will reinforce the need for hobbyists and drone operators to learn the airspace rules before they fly and use their devices safely.” He also noted that regulation will allow these rules to be enforced and let the FAA identify any operators that break the rules.

Local UAV enthusiast and owner of Azle Communications, Paul Finch, does not agree with the new mandatory registration of drones. “It’s a lot like the hysteria about guns right now. There are always going to be idiots misusing them. Has any gun registration ever done anything to curb violence? Just look at Chicago. They have some of the toughest gun laws, and it’s one of the most violent cities in the U.S.”

While it is currently easy to find the actual drone that may have violated airspace regulations, it is nearly impossible to find the operator of the offending drone.

Again, privacy protections in respect to surveillance data collection and its storage are noticeably absent from the act. In response to this absence, the White House issued a presidential memorandum on Feb. 15, 2015, directing federal agencies to evaluate and report policies for protecting private information gathered by drones. An annual report is required to disclose locations of surveillance drone operations. Information collected by the agency’s drones must be, according to the government, only used when consistent with an authorized purpose. In addition, any data containing personal identifiable information must be destroyed after 180 days, with the stipulation that they may not destroy the data if it is expressly required for an agency’s ongoing authorized mission.

The announcement from the U.S. government about registration of drones comes after an alarming rise in near-misses between aircrafts and drones throughout the United States within the last year. In 2015 the FAA has reported nearly 800 incidents, which is triple the number for 2014. In recent months, pilots reported three close calls with drones in North Texas at local airports.

In one instance, arriving planes were moved to the east side of Dallas Love Field after the drone was spotted by those in the control tower. Another small unmanned aircraft was spotted by a passenger aboard an American Airlines flight at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

In response to these incidents, FAA spokesperson Lynn Lunsford said that both occurrences were against FAA guidelines. “Regulations require operators of all aircraft – manned and unmanned – to be in contact with air traffic controllers in these areas. Punishment for such a violation can range from a warning letter to a $25,000 fine for an egregious offense,” Lunsford said.

So how exactly are drones categorized? They fall into three main categories: Civil UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems), Public UAS and Model Aircraft.

A Civil UAS is any private sector (non-governmental) operation of a drone for purposes other than recreation or hobby. This covers all commercial use of drones including use by private universities and colleges.

Drones owned and operated by government agencies and organizations, such as state, county, city government agencies or public universities are considered Public UAS. Common uses of Public UAS include law enforcement, firefighting, disaster relief, and search and rescue.

UAS used as Model Aircraft are small drones used strictly for recreational and hobby purposes. Safety guidelines include avoiding operation over people or stadiums and remaining clear of other aircraft in addition to the other stipulations listed earlier. Flights to “further business or those that are incidental to a person’s business” fall outside of this scope.

This is where the line becomes fuzzy and difficult to regulate. As an example, a local drone enthusiast may fly his or her model aircraft simply for enjoyment, but what if he or she begins demonstrating aerobatics for a small fee? Another instance might be a photographer taking photos for personal use versus taking photos of property for a fee. Also, how is the government going to keep tabs on farmers surveying personal crops for watering and fertilizing needs versus commercial farms using drones for similar purposes?

The commercialization of the drone industry is a subject with which the FAA seems to be consumed. Many ask, “Why is the FAA wasting resources spending time looking for offenders who have received compensation for aerial photos instead of focusing on the unsafe flying practices of hobbyists and novices?”One of the most worrisome aspects of the use of personal drones is the possibility that they include cameras. Snooping neighbors could feasibly hover over your property and see people or activities they shouldn’t be witnessing, although reported cases have been minimal.

Because it’s such new territory, drone-specific legislation isn’t set, and certain regulations aren’t crystal clear. That being said, citizens have a cause of action if they feel that a neighbor is spying on them, based on common law tort of invasion of privacy. The tort consists of four distinct wrongs: The intrusion upon the plaintiff’s physical solitude or seclusion; publicity which violates the ordinary decencies; putting the plaintiff in a false, but not necessarily defamatory position in the public eye; and the appropriation of some element of the plaintiff’s personality for a commercial use.

There have been multiple instances where homeowners have taken dealing with drones lingering above their property into their own hands. After shooting the aircrafts from the sky, however, they were charged with criminal mischief and related misdemeanors such as destruction of property.

So the question becomes, how much of the airspace above your property do you own? While complaining about a Southwest flight at 35,000 feet is unreasonable, what about a drone buzzing overhead at 100 feet?

The “Castle Doctrine,” in general, allows homeowners to protect themselves and in most cases their property with the use of force. Additionally, Texas instated another law that allows property owners to use force when they believe it is necessary to prevent trespass on their land. What does remain unclear is if using force (a gun) to remove a drone from the sky is considered justified and if criminal liability could be avoided.

What is clear is that if a drone operator is caught capturing an image with intent to conduct surveillance, he or she could face a Class C misdemeanor. If the images are published, he or she may face a Class B misdemeanor punishable by time in jail or a whopping fine.

Finch believes that the media and government use the word “drone” to give a negative connotation to the hobby. He prefers the technical term of “UAV.” One could say that he was first introduced to unmanned vehicles when he built a radio-controlled boat at the age of 12. In the early 80s, Finch became interested in flying remote controlled planes and helicopters. He now owns eight or nine UAVs ranging in size and sophistication.

Non-commercial UAVs used for recreational or hobby purposes can range from $20 to $4,000. One reason for the great variation in price has to do with the level of photography equipment.

With plenty of room to operate his quadcopter on his 16 acres of land in Azle, Finch says that it’s a great hobby “as long as you have respect for other people’s property and privacy.”

Probably receiving the most attention for its hopeful use of drones for delivery is Amazon. While it has been given the green light to test its drones, it will more than likely be years before they can start delivering packages to people’s homes.

Amazon did not receive the type of approval they had originally wanted. The FAA granted an experimental airworthiness certificate that is usually given to aerospace companies that are conducting research.

Paul Misner, vice president for global public policy at Amazon, said in a letter to the FAA, “Restrictions will prevent it [Amazon] from rapidly experimenting.”

The commercial use of drone technology has become incredibly creative. Erick Moya, owner of locally based Moera Creative, has more than 18 years in creative design and professional photography experience. In his role at Moera, he is the company designer, photographer, videographer, UAV pilot and creative director. Moya offers a full suite of services to area companies ranging from photography and aerial imaging to video production and social media marketing. One field where he has seen success using UAVs is real estate.

“There is a tremendous value utilizing UAV technology for the real estate industry. It has helped agents make an impact with new perspectives never before seen. The ones who have adopted this technology early have definitely seen an increase in sales,” Moya says. “I have also seen some real estate companies shy away from using drones due to the controversy in news reports. Safety is a big concern, and I can understand the realtors’ trepidation in using this technology.”

BNSF Railway, headquartered in Fort Worth, recently gained approval for a pilotless program to use drones to inspect the safety of its 32,500 miles of rail line across the U.S. Hoping to reduce derailments and other safety concerns, BNSF says its drones will allow for more frequent inspections.

The Federal Railroad Administration reported nearly 500 derailments in 2014 caused by defective track, which led to 35 injuries and $94 million in damages.

An event on Oct. 25 marked the launch of a week-long series of flights with BNSF Railway designed to show how unmanned aircraft technology can be a powerful force multiplier in the effort to further enhance railway safety and infrastructure inspection.

In its first day of operation, ScanEagle provided real-time video covering 64 miles of the 132-mile stretch of track BNSF has designated for the exercise. ScanEagle is capable of flying for up to 24 hours at speeds of up to 80 knots.

"Our Pathfinder project is expected to be a significant enhancement to the tremendous amount of data and information we already gather as part of our track inspection program," said Greg Fox, executive vice president for operations at BNSF Railway. "The capabilities these aircraft have to gather additional intelligence that can then be fed in real-time to track inspectors on the ground will fundamentally enhance our program and the safety of the railroad while helping to keep our people safe in harsh and extreme conditions."

Drones could also save lives even without inspecting track. Aerial drones will be significantly more effective in detecting the hundreds of trespassers that are killed every year on railroad property.

In one of the latest moves to enhance search-and-rescue efforts, Lockheed Martin has teamed up with the non-profit organization, Project Lifesaver. It works to help locate people with cognitive disorders who wander away from their homes. Enlisting the use of Lockheed Martin’s UAVs, Project Lifesaver says the search capabilities will greatly improve.

Jay McConville, director of business development at Lockheed Martin Unmanned Integrated Systems, says that there is a large portion of the community with cognitive disorders. “Currently there are 5 million people with Alzheimer’s in the U.S., with a projected number of 7 million by 2025. Nearly 60 percent of those affected by Alzheimer’s will wander,” McConville says. Of the 3.5 million children with Autism in the U.S., nearly half of them will at some point wander and potentially go missing.

The Indago, Lockheed’s UAV, weighs five pounds and is collapsible. It is equipped with an electro-optic/infrared imager to capture data and a receiver that can detect signals from the personal transmitter worn by the missing person. Using the Project Lifesaver location device with aviation assets will extend search areas from approximately one and a half miles to well over seven miles.

“Lockheed Martin is unique in that we offer a portfolio of platforms in addition to defense. We have aircraft from four or five pounds, like the Indago, to much larger aircraft such as the 12,000-pound unmanned helicopter called K-MAX,” McConville said. These drones can work together as well. “We have been utilizing the K-MAX and Indago to aid in firefighting. We can pinpoint the fire’s hotspot with the Indago and then accurately direct the K-MAX to disperse the suppressant over the fire.”

McConville says, “We don’t know what we don’t know in this market. The use of unmanned systems is really blossoming. Every day we are discovering new ways to implement them.”

And others are as well. In September, the Johnson County Fire Department deployed a camera-mounted drone that gave them an aerial look at the Lime Plant fire. Months before that, a drone was used in Joshua to deliver a rope lifeline to a couple whose Johnson County home was surrounded by floodwaters. Joshua Fire Chief Wayne Baker had for a long time wanted this technology for his department. After that incident, Baker said in a previous interview, “Drones shave minutes off response times when seconds matter.”

In February 2013, Arlington’s police department became one of the first to get its certificate of authorization from the FAA for its drone program. The Arlington PD has a Leptron Avenger helicopter and a Leptron Rapidly Deployable Aerial Vehicle that they specifically utilize to survey fatality crashes, for search and rescue operations and on limited occasions with in-progress critical incidents where safety is paramount.

At town hall meetings, the department has discussed not only how drone technology is used, but also how it is not used. “The public appears to support the safe and responsible use of UAS vehicles based upon our track record of transparency and setting up a standalone web page to detail what our program is all about. We really stress our commitment to protecting the privacy rights of all individuals and have had extensive conversations about our program,” says Lt. Christopher Cook, chief spokesperson for the Arlington Police Department.

Authorities in Mexico use drones to patrol neighborhoods. In other areas, highly controversial applications include the weaponization of drones. As seen in this piece, the politics surrounding drones goes far beyond local police use.

It may seem like science fiction, but will the time come where our days consist of being pulled over for a traffic citation via unmanned aerial vehicle on the morning commute? Might we encounter drones in the driveway delivering mail in the afternoon and then later in the evening dropping dinner for our families? Evidence clearly shows that drones are steadily invading everyday life. Citizens must choose to embrace the technology, knowing that our world is constantly evolving, or fear and reject what may lie ahead.

FLIGHTS OF FANTASY: Drones of tomorrow

Similar to when the shift happened to mechanized GPS tractors and other advances that allowed farming to occur with fewer workers and with greater efficiency, great progress is being made through the use of drones. The largest application includes the ability to remotely track crops through light spectrums such as visual, infrared and thermal. This real-time monitoring is reported to increase yields to more than 30 percent because it is possible to respond more quickly to water shortages and disease. Another use of drones in the farming industry is providing crop treatments such as fertilization.


Search and Rescue
Drones used for search and rescue are on the cusp of becoming mainstream. With enabled access to thermal, night and 3D imagery from the air, the possibilities are endless for locating missing persons. However many are concerned about an over-monitored, police state future, which has led to lawsuits against drone use on private land by government agencies.

Where most development in the drone industry first took place, the area of defense is also by far where the greatest spending has occurred. More than 40 percent of Department of Defense aircrafts are unmanned and range from UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) like the large Air Force Predator drone to micro UAVs that can fit in the palm of a hand. Drones are currently being developed that may replace traditional warplanes. One such example is Boeing’s Phantom Eye drone that can stay aloft for up to four days at heights of up to 65,000 feet.


Innovative conservation projects that are using or will begin using drones include the identification of illegal logging, verifying animal population data, mapping terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, supporting the enforcement of protected areas and the monitoring of endangered species, including stopping poachers before they strike. Another task drones are beginning to take on at national parks is fence mending. Drones can take pictures to identify for rangers where fences are ripped.

Oil and Gas
Drones are turning a portion of the oil and gas industry on its head. Companies, such as BP and Shell, are beginning to use VDOS Global drones with thermal imaging to detect faults, cracks and corrosion. With the thousands of checkups required in a year and a nearly $60,000 average salary for pipeline inspectors, drones are easier, safer and quicker.


While Amazon has received the most publicity for its claim that it will begin drone delivery of packages weighing less than five pounds, other drone delivery services have included Domino’s and a number of laundry services. While it is predicted that drones would pay off for businesses with high delivery volume, issues such as public safety, recipient verification and package security must first be addressed.

Drones piloted for journalism purposes have given new perspective by getting across borders and being able to look where some humans could never look on their own. The FAA recently signed an agreement with CNN in a test project to manifest ways that journalists can safely and ethically use drones. It is expected that in the future every newsroom will have drones and people who are certified to fly them. Possibilities would include safely mapping disasters, imaging structures in 3D and covering protests, just to name a few.


Internet Access
Last year Google acquired Titan Aerospace, the solar-powered drone maker. Solar drones can stay airborne for as long as five years and would be used to provide movable wireless access points. Facebook teamed up with Nokia, Samsung, Qualcomm and several other firms to develop similar drones that could fly for months at 65,000 feet, allowing mobile phone signals to bounce between satellites and base stations on Earth.

Using drones in movies is changing the way films are made. Several filmmaking companies have been exempted from the FAA ban on domestic drone use. Drone use allows directors to shoot scenes that were difficult in the past. They no longer need an entire helicopter filming crew. Drones also increase the safety on set. Viewers can expect to see more explosions and high-paced chase scenes. Becoming widely recognized, the New York City Drone Film Festival took place in February 2015. The Festival provides a platform for aerial filmmakers to showcase their work in such categories as innovative flight technique, epic crashes and aesthetic beauty.