Eyes in the sky: Small drones have FAA shaping regulations
By Christina Elmore, The Post & Courier
Like something out of a science-fiction flick, the four-rotor apparatus looks the part of an oversize, mechanical dragonfly.
A distinct hum similar to the insect exudes from the gadget when it hovers at eye level. The buzz fades to silence in seconds when the device darts skyward and nearly out of sight.
No, this contraption isn't being maneuvered by engineers on some military testing site. It isn't soaring beside airplanes at a local airport. It's under the control of a 27-year-old College of Charleston student killing time on a sunny afternoon.
Its owner, Matthew Ervin, prefers to call it a "quadcopter" so as not to alarm the locals, but those in the know are fully aware of its other name: drone.
"It's so much fun," Ervin said as he extended a finger to flick one of the device's propellers. "Imagine how it just kind of changes things in photography. No more helicopters."
With a diagonal span of just over a foot, Ervin's DJI Phantom quadcopter is small compared with the hefty military drones that often resemble miniature jets when they flash across television screens.
The device is manipulated by remote control with a range spanning 2,000 feet, allowing Ervin to capture bird's-eye footage of Charleston's landmarks with his feet firmly planted on the ground.
His favorite launch sites include the paved lot next to his Chalmers Street apartment and Hazel Parker Playground off East Bay Street.
"I try to go for areas that are open - somewhere I can keep a better eye on it and go a little bit farther distance without losing it," he said. "Whenever I fly it in the park I get a big crowd of people saying, 'Oh that's cool,' and asking me a lot of questions. That can be a little distracting when you're flying because you don't want to take your eye off of it."
Ervin recently bought his quadcopter for about $850 on Amazon.com. Fitting, considering the company's CEO Jeff Bezos told "60 Minutes" late last year that Amazon could start using drones to deliver packages in some urban areas within the next five years.
Bezos is far from the only person pondering possible uses for drones. Law enforcement agencies are exploring their use in criminal investigations and emergencies. Even the College of Charleston is eyeing a possible drone purchase to help survey landscapes for archeological studies.
The FAA's role
While the thought may leave some shaking a fist toward the sky in contempt of Big Brother, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Les Dorr said it's quickly becoming apparent that unmanned aircraft systems are the way of the future.
In the meantime, the FAA is charged with overseeing their safe entry into the national airspace.
"The FAA has been integrating new technology into the airspace for more than 50 years," Dorr said, citing the speedy jet airliners that hit the scene in the late 1950s and the jumbo jets that increased passenger space in the '70s.
"We safely got those into the system," Dorr said. "We have a history of successfully and safely integrating new technology into the national airspace. I'm confident that the same can be done with the new drones." The commercial use of drones is currently banned while the FAA continues to hash out regulations addressing privacy and other concerns, Dorr said.
Don't like the FAA regulating what you can do with your private property? Tough.
"The FAA controls U.S. airspace from the ground up, period," Dorr responded when questioned about any potential infringement on civil liberties.
The subject of sanctions recently became a hot topic when FAA officials sent cease-and-desist letters to multiple commercial groups that were found to be in violation of the ban. Targeted groups included journalism programs at Nebraska and Missouri universities after professors were caught teaching students how they could utilize the devices in their future careers.
Public entities, including law enforcement and government agencies, can submit proposals to the FAA seeking the approved use of unmanned aircraft, Dorr said.
Hobbyists, like Ervin, who use the devices much like model aircraft, need no such authorization from the FAA. But that knowledge did little to ease Ervin's fear of violating some unknown law.
"I'm trying to avoid any kind of trouble. I don't want to break the law, but at the same time I want to have a good time and get some really good footage," Ervin said. "I've had a lot of trouble trying to find any laws or regulations. Since it's such a new technology, there's not a lot available."
Two other local drone owners also spoke with The Post and Courier, but they would not allow their names to be used for fear of attracting unwanted attention from the FAA.
Drones for police?
The extent that federal and state authorities will control or limit the civil use of drones remains to be seen.
The S.C. House unanimously voted last month to restrict the public use of unmanned aircraft systems by law enforcement and government agencies.
The proposed legislation adheres to recommendations from the American Civil Liberties Union to require authorities to seek a court order before flying a drone. The proposal is currently being considered by the state Senate.
Charleston police sought to win a grant in 2008 to buy two unmanned drone helicopters for surveillance and other uses. They didn't get the grant and police shelved the purchase, in part because the regulatory aspects of drone usage were still being worked out at the federal level.
Having studied the recent state bill in depth, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said he's not convinced that lawmakers considered all the facts before acting. Mullen acknowledged that a search warrant would be appropriate under certain circumstances. But he said the bill doesn't fully address the technology's usefulness outside of criminal situations, such as search and rescue efforts and natural disasters.
"I just don't think that in those situations a search warrant is an appropriate requirement," Mullen said.
More dialogue is needed among lawmakers, law enforcement officials and community leaders to thoroughly address concerns from all sides before the bill becomes law, he said.
"There has to be a comfort level and a balance between public safety and privacy. There is a middle ground that needs to be found," Mullen said.
Rep. Dan Hamilton, R-Greenville, one of bill's sponsors, said the proposed legislation is similar to others that have been submitted nationwide.
"This is a non-partisan issue," Hamilton said. "Here in South Carolina folks are universally concerned about their privacy."
Joanne Gabrynowicz, professor emerita and former director of the National Center for Remote Sensing, Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law, said the increasing presence of drones has raised privacy concerns at the state and local levels. This has resulted in a patchwork of laws, she said, for an issue that would be more efficiently explored by federal officials.
"People are beginning to realize how much technology has the capability of keeping track of them, whether it's through their browsers or their cellphones, information about what they do and who they are is being collected by all sorts of entities," Gabrynowicz said. "If you're talking about the government using drones, then you have Fourth Amendment issues and the Fourth Amendment is going to apply. That's always been the case regardless of the wiretap and all the other technologies that were used in the past."
She said the private use of drones raises other issues, including the debate of fairness between parties with competing interests.
That debate came to the forefront this month when authorities in Hartford, Conn., spotted a drone hovering over fatal car wreck. The device was used by an on-call employee for a Connecticut television station, and the body of the accident victim was still hanging from the wreckage when the drone flew by, according to an Associated Press report.
"Here was a dead body still on the scene. We had covered it the best we could," Lt. Brian Foley, a Hartford police spokesman, was quoted as saying. He said drones have been appearing more frequently at crime scenes. "You don't want the family to see that."
Hartford officers reportedly questioned the man operating the drone but did not ask him to take it down. The FAA is now investigating the incident, the AP reported.
According to Hamilton, the next step for South Carolina lawmakers will be to explore the limitations on civil use. Lawmakers will likely follow the FAA's lead in pursuing that challenging task, he said.
"We have to be more careful with protecting the rights of our citizens. That's going to be a little more complicated," Hamilton said. "I doubt we'll challenge the FAA's regulations. We're certainly not afraid to challenge government in South Carolina, but this has to do with airspace and safety."