By GREGORY ZELLER // Drone operators are not only looking over your shoulder, they’re looking over their own.
A bill approved Tuesday by the Suffolk County Legislature outlawing drone flights over county beaches between May and September and requiring special licensing to operate drones over county parks isn’t likely to significantly impact commercial drone operators. But with the FAA formulating new drone regulations and unmanned aerial vehicle use steadily rising, commercial drone pioneers see a trend.
So does Sarah Anker, a Democrat from Mount Sinai and one of two Suffolk legislators to vote against the beach-ban bill, which passed by a 16-2 count with one abstention and now goes to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone.
Anker expressed concern for a bill she says is too restrictive to recreational users, is extremely difficult to enforce and represents “another layer of government, which is surprising, coming from a conservative Republican legislator.”
And the drone restrictions would “absolutely infringe on business uses,” according to Anker.
“This will restrict commercial use,” she said. “As new regulations come along, we need to make sure we’re not doing anything that restricts the use of these types of craft for business purposes.”
Restricting commercial use is not the drone bill’s intention, according to Legis. Tom Muratore, the Ronkonkoma Republican who sponsored the bill, which covers both recreational and commercial drones but is “mostly concerned with safety, particularly on the beaches.”
“I don’t want anybody impacted running a business,” Muratore said. “I’m pro-business all the way.”
That sounds about right to Patrick Gaeta and David Sanders, the owners of Long Island Aerial Photo and Rotor Air Cam, two local drone startups. While both acknowledged that beach and park restrictions would have negligible effects on their businesses, they agreed that evolving regulations for their burgeoning industry bear watching – and over-regulation is a concern.
“It’s hard when they put any laws on the books saying you can’t do this,” said Gaeta, who launched Wading River-based Long Island Aerial Photography in May. “It’s interrupting business and free trade. It’s preventing the manufacturer from making something and selling it, all because of paranoia. It’s interrupting a lot of things.”
Gaeta, whose clients include realtors and lawyers, also questioned the proposed law’s privacy-protection intentions.
“If I want to look at your wife in a bikini, I’m going to put on my sunglasses and walk down the beach,” he noted. “A drone at 100 feet isn’t going to help me.”
Like Gaeta, Sanders isn’t particularly concerned with the proposed Suffolk law’s commercial impact. Sanders, who launched Plainview-based Rotor Air Cam in March, pointed to internal operating procedures that require his startup – which specializes in aerial surveys, 3D mapping and other topography services – to obtain a property owner’s permission before swooping in.
“That’s true in every case,” Sanders noted. “If we’re flying over a county park or a state park, we already have that permission in place.”
In fact, Sanders – a former U.S. Marine and commercial pilot who focuses his drone-operator recruitment on experienced pilots – applauds regulations that establish rules stating who can operate drones, and where.
“In the end this is a good thing, because it creates differentiation,” he said. “This helps define where recreational users can operate, and how commercial users can operate within their rights.”
But the proposed Suffolk law and similar regulations do have negative, possibly severe, effects on the up-and-coming drone industry, Sanders added, particularly by generating negative press.
“People are hearing ‘you can’t fly drones here, you can’t fly drones there,’” he noted. “Because of that, they’re not going to engage with drone services as quickly. They’re getting a sense this is something they can’t do.”
What’s needed, according to Sanders, is some good drone news – some positivity to help the drone industry off the ground. Suffolk can champion safety and the FAA can lay down the law regarding commercial drone use – new federal regulations are expected by 2017 – but with technology improving and industrious opportunities multiplying, “what we need is legislation that’s clear about what can be done,” Sanders said.
Some optimistic drone news surfaced Tuesday, when Gur Kimchi, vice president of Amazon Prime Air, proposed the creation of a “drone zone” to make low-altitude airspace safe for various UAV functions, including package delivery.
Speaking at a drone convention at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, Kimchi floated the idea of slicing up airspace below 500 feet, with altitude layers for recreational drones and high-speed commercial and noncommercial uses, including emergency first response, and a buffer layer to keep drones away from airplanes and helicopters.
“Optimistic” is the operative word, according to Gaeta, who said Kimchi’s ideas are “cool” but noted the drone community is “not quite there yet.”
“There’s medivac helicopters, private planes, traffic heading in and out of airports … can we really create a safe lane for drones at 200 feet?” Gaeta asked. “For now, at least, it’s going to wind up costing a lot more than just putting the thing on a FedEx truck.”
Sanders agreed that the kind of technology needed to realize Kimchi’s call is “not yet feasible.” Collision-avoidance systems on contemporary drones aren’t where they’re going to be in the near future, he said, while battery power is also a concern. “Most drones can only fly for 15 minutes, maybe a half-hour,” Sanders said. “So how is this happening?”
The good news, he added, is the good news: positive thinking and proactive suggestions to give the drone industry some lift. The forthcoming FAA regulations are a good thing, “just like traffic laws are a good thing,” and the technology is there and improving, Sanders noted. All that’s needed is the political will to help commercial operators carve out their space.
Anker predicted the federal regulations would focus heavily on the sub-500-feet airspace Kimchi mentioned, and said they’d need to be “balanced” to avoid trampling personal rights and developing industries. Muratore, who confirmed that any new FAA regulations would supersede local Suffolk ordinances, said he was confident regulators would ultimately craft rules that, like his proposed local law, promote safety but don’t hinder the economy.
“I would hope that they don’t hamper people trying to make a living,” Muratore said. “The people who are trying to generate money for the economy.”