Droning on: Aircraft fly high despite concerns

The sky’s the limit for the drone industry, but it’s a mixed bag of upsides and concerns.

A beginner drone (featuring an attached video camera) will set you back a measly $691 on Amazon. And if Amazon gets its way, the online retailer may one day deliver your drone via drone, as depicted in its conceptual Prime Air feature that the company unveiled late last year.

“Drones vary in anything from what they call a micro, which can fit in the palm of your hand, to the large drones that are the size of 737s,” said Randall Burdette, Director of the Virginia Department of Aviation.

As with other drone advocates, Burdette prefers to call them Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), which avoids the connotations of espionage and missile drones, or predators, used by the military.

“They vary in speed, endurance, the height they can obtain,” he said about consumer UASs. “It’s a huge industry with a lot of challenges, but with a lot of upsides as well.”


“I think one of the very biggest ones for our society is the capability to use these for search and rescue [and] first responders,” Burdette said. “Instead of putting people in harm’s way, we can now use technology to keep people safe…”

There are also economic benefits. “The unmanned aerial systems is a huge burgeoning industry, which will bring a lot of jobs into the Commonwealth,” Burdette said. Some believe the industry will hover near the $83 billion mark in coming years.

Last December, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) named Virginia Tech one of six federally certified drone research sites in the country. Students and researchers have been studying UASs for ways to counter weapons of mass destruction for the Department of Defense, among other research initiatives. State officials and proponents of UASs hope that by making Virginia one of only a few federally recognized sites for UAS research, experts in the field, along with would-be businesses, will stay in the Commonwealth and help grow an industry whose only limit is the sky.


But one of the of the challenges facing the FAA is how to integrate a growing number of UASs into the nation’s airspace. Officials don’t want UASs to interfere with police helicopters, commercial planes, and other aircraft. “We’ve had retail airlines report sightings of drones,” Burdette said. Last month, a private UAS disrupted a plane’s effort to control a wildfire in Northern California.

Congress mandated that the FAA propose a plan for UAS integration by September 2015.

But perhaps the biggest challenge to UAS industry growth is privacy. “I think the biggest fear the public has is the privacy issue: Big Brother using these to spy on people, track people, and things of that nature,” Burdette said. “I think as the industry grows, we’ve got to address those concerns…”

Virginia Moratorium

Those privacy fears prompted State Senator Donald McEachin (9th District – Greater Richmond Area) to propose SB 1331. That bill, passed in February 2013, led to the General Assembly to pass (with strong bi-partisan support) a two-year moratorium on UAS use by Virginia law enforcement and regulatory agencies.

“We’re not trying to ban the use of drones by law enforcement,2 rather we’re trying to put in the same safeguards for personal privacy that Virginians enjoy,” McEachin said by phone.

The issue is how UASs relate to the plain view doctrine, which allows police to seize evidence without a warrant. Let’s say an officer pulls over a motorist for speeding, and the officer notices illegal materials in the car, in plain view. That officer can then search the vehicle with no warrant.

“When the plain view doctrine was articulated, no one knew about a robot that could sit over your backyard, watch what you’re doing, and send signals…and pictures back to home base,” McEachin said. “I think most Virginians, as well as most Americans, would expect that if you’re using a robot to fly through the sky and look at what’s going on in their backyard, you ought to have a court’s permission to do so.”

The General Assembly will try to craft legislation addressing UAS use by Virginia police departments and regulatory agencies by July 2015, when the moratorium ends.

But while efforts to assure privacy from police remains bi-partisan and robust, those who fly drones recreationally have carte blanche.

Backwards and Borderline Dangerous

Your neighbor can fly his or her UAS virtually anywhere3 without FAA approval and without demonstrating competence beforehand.

“I feel like the current situation in the US is completely backwards,” said Brandon Montijo, a professional photographer and videographer who has been using UASs commercially for the last two years. Amateurs, he said, “are essentially allowed to do whatever they want.”

Montijo has gained UAS experience through years of use. Not only that, he secures permission before using a UAS to shoot photos or video.

But other hobbyists can’t always say the same. Montijo brought up an infamous instance wherein a wedding photographer used a UAS and crashed into the groom:

The instance reinforces the worry that people flying UASs do so in an unqualified (and sometimes injurious) way. The lack of oversight and regulations for private, and to a lesser extent commercial use,4 of UASs creates a trial-by-fire learning curve. “People don’t have a guideline to play by, especially on the amateur level,” Montijo said. “I can fly it 10 feet in my backyard, so now I’m going to go over a group of people that don’t have any idea why there’s a helicopter flying above them.”

And those tiny helicopters don’t always stay above people. Last year, a UAS crashed into a crowd at the Great Bull Run at Virginia Motorsports Park in Dinwiddie County, injuring several people. “[UASs] can be incredibly dangerous,” Montijo said.

Montijo would like professional, commercial UAS users to advise operational laws and restrictions. “We’re beta-testing drones in the US on a market that doesn’t have any experience in production or professional photography and [other similar applications],” he said. “It would be better to beta test it in a market where there are” people risking insurance liabilities, and even the reputation of their companies. That would provide the FAA and lawmakers with competent testing to determine future laws, like licensing and restrictions on how close UASs may fly to individuals who’ve not given consent to being near, or documented by, UASs, etc. “And then open it up to the public market, where you’ve already got your guidelines,” Montijo said.

But that’s not how things are going. “Right now, unfortunately, we’re going in the other direction,” he said. “We’re letting the guys do whatever they want in their backyard and translate that into public space. And that’s just really, really backwards and borderline dangerous.”


Photo by Ethernum

  1. Marked down from $500. 
  2. However, the moratorium did hamstring existing efforts for some police agencies
  3. Although Yosemite and other parks have banned UASs
  4. Commercial use of UASs are limited to being flown over private property and below 400 feet. However, the FAA typically investigates commercial UAS only after complaints. 
  • error

    Report an error

Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

There are 2 reader comments. Read them.