Remote-controlled drones are on the minds of many this holiday season, topping wish lists and crowding shelves at area retailers. But eager hobbyists and retailers aren’t the only ones with drones on their minds as Christmas approaches: The Federal Aviation Administration is scrambling to put together new regulations for recreational drones.
Exploding popularity of the unmanned, radio-controlled aircraft — expected to be among the hottest holiday gifts this year — has prompted federal regulators to fast-track new rules. Those regulations will likely require those unwrapping new drones this December to register aircraft as small as 9 ounces with federal aviation officials.
Those were among the recommendations released earlier this week by a federally convened task force, which urged federal regulators to set up a quick, simple and free online registration process for new amateur drone pilots. Nearly every consumer drone, except some very small toys, would be covered under the proposed regulations, which would apply to aircraft weighing between 250 grams and 55 pounds.
Trade associations have estimated that hundreds of thousands of new drones will take to the skies in the United States over the holidays, leading federal regulators to move with remarkable speed to implement new regulations.
Largely unregulated until now, small drone aircraft have attracted news and courted controversy in a number of well-publicized incidents. Amateur drone pilots have attracted nationwide attention for flying drones into crowded stadiums, near commercial airplanes and over the White House fence. According to the Wall Street Journal, pilots reported seeing drones while flying more than 650 times this year through Aug. 9 — a marked increased from the 238 reported sightings in nearly all of 2014.
In Ascension Parish, a man hunting squirrels on his property in October blasted a neighbor’s drone out of the sky, claiming his neighbor had been repeatedly flying the $1,200 Christmas gift too low over his property. The drone’s pilot, however, maintained that the aircraft was high in the air when it was shot down.
That incident came a month after a student crashed a drone in the University of Kentucky’s football stadium during a game against the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Ragin’ Cajuns.
Charles Malveaux, a licensed pilot who builds and studies drones as a doctoral student in biological agricultural engineering at LSU, said increased oversight of recreational drones is needed to help prevent collisions with manned aircraft and to promote safety in the skies. The task force recommendations, Malveaux said, are a good step toward regulating the skies.
“We have to regulate the airspace and keep pilots safe and the airspace safe,” Malveaux said.
Joe Dloniak, a Prairieville auto mechanic who started flying drones several years ago and now races them in events across the state, said high-profile incidents with drones represent just a tiny percentage of the flights by the many drone enthusiasts across the country. While Dloniak applauded federal efforts to go after “rogue operators,” he said registering hobby drones wouldn’t be of much help. Current regulations already prohibit flying drones near airports and require the aircraft be kept within sight of the operator and at less than 400 feet.
“People are going to get out there, they’re going to do stupid stuff, no matter what rules or regulations they’re going to put out,” said Dloniak, the founder of the Baton Rouge Drone Club. “They’re trying to catch rogue operators. Nobody is thrilled or happy about (registering their drones), but everybody will go do it just to comply.”
Ryan Stanzel, a spokesman for Best Buy, said sales of drones have exploded in the company’s stores since they first started carrying the hobby aircraft about a year ago. Every store now has displays dedicated to drones, which are expected to be popular items this year.
Stanzel said that Best Buy, which served as part of the federal task force, doesn’t anticipate any issues with new regulations. The stores already train staff on drone rules and regulations and sell memberships with the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a national organization that promotes recreational model aircraft.
Toys ‘R’ Us spokeswoman Kathleen Waugh said the company’s stores stock seven different models of drones, a product category she said is “performing extremely well.”
All of the models sold at Toys “R” Us, Waugh said, are smaller toys that operate at very low altitude. “Generally speaking, the toy drones we carry fly up to 200 feet and our understanding is that the concern is largely for drones that fly above 400 feet.”
Javier Fernandez, a senior at LSU who’s been flying drones since 2013, said he hopes the proposed regulations would be a step toward clearing up a legal gray area around operating drones. The photo editor for the university’s student newspaper, The Daily Reveille, Fernandez said he’s tried flying the aircraft around campus to create aerial videos but was told by university administrators to stop.
Fernandez said he started a business with his father in his native Guatemala using drones for aerial photography and he’s tried to launch a similar business, Free Fall View Productions, here in Baton Rouge. Ambiguity around drone regulations — particularly for commercial purposes — has made that difficult.
“If they can create a set of rules to follow, I’d be more than happy to follow them — as long as it doesn’t cost a ridiculous amount of money,” Fernandez said. “As long as the rules are fair and inexpensive, it’s a good direction to move.”
Although new federal regulations won’t address commercial drone use — focusing instead exclusively on hobby fliers — Fernandez said he welcomes it as a step toward creating a clear framework for drone owners and pilots to follow. Senior FAA officials have said they anticipate rolling out new regulations for commercial drones by next summer.
Malveaux, the LSU graduate student, said the exploding drone industry should have a big impact on the wider economy as the technology spreads from hobbyists to numerous commercial applications. Malveaux’s drones, which he builds for his company, Environmental Robotics Institute, have focused on services for farmers, including crop scouting and yield predictions.
“I would say right now it’s in its infancy, but it’s definitely coming,” Malveaux said. “I think development is moving pretty fast.”