Drones buzzing in the skies above Clark County may have piqued your interest in the hobby. If you’re thinking of buying a drone or giving one as gift during the coming holiday season, you’d better study up on the red tape that comes with it.
You have to pass an online test before taking that drone for a spin, register it with the Federal Aviation Administration if it’s heavier than 0.55 pounds, and then be very careful about where you fly. Otherwise, you risk thousands of dollars in fines from the FAA.
About 860,000 drones are registered in the United States, more than three times the number of crewed aircraft, according to the FAA. Judging from the fact that the FAA didn’t respond to The Columbian’s inquiry, the average consumer isn’t likely to get any personalized help either.
The FAA does, however, offer a website (www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started) outlining pertinent regulations. They’re more stringent for commercial drone pilots, but even recreational flyers of so-called UAS (unmanned aircraft systems) must obey key restrictions.
Felida resident John Veneruso researched them carefully after receiving a drone as a gift last year. He described his drone as “at the low end of serious,” priced less than $1,000.
“It has the ability to fly several hundred feet in the air, can fly itself along predetermined path, and comes with a nice remote control,” said Veneruso, 58, a software development manager.
He had two big questions after getting the drone: What can I do with this? Can I fly it anywhere?
“I knew, at the minimum, I could fly over my own property without any trouble,” he said.
As he studied further, he learned he needed to carry proof that he passed an aeronautical knowledge and safety test known as TRUST when he flies his drone, and keep the aircraft within his line of sight the whole time.
He downloaded the FAA’s B4UFLY mobile app so he could check for airspace restrictions and find out how high he can fly his drone in any given area.
And even though his drone has an obstacle-avoidance feature, he also investigated liability insurance in case it crashes into something or someone.
Although Veneruso is a stickler for the rules, some who purchase drones aren’t even aware of them.
In October, a man flew a drone over Ohio Stadium during a college football game, leading to its evacuation. The FAA creates a no-fly zone in a 3-mile radius around stadiums during games. The culprit told police he bought the drone the day before at Best Buy and wanted to see how far it could go. Now he faces criminal charges and FAA fines.
This region also has had its share of mishaps. A drone recorded video of its crash into the Space Needle on New Year’s Eve 2016. In September, a drone disrupted Portland’s beloved Swift Watch, where visitors flock to watch Vaux’s Swifts fly into an elementary school’s chimney.
Veneruso would like to use his drone for nature photography, but he discovered that Washington requires permits to fly in state parks. The U.S. Forest Service prohibits drones altogether in wilderness areas. The National Parks Service doesn’t allow them either, so that rules out aerial photos of Fort Vancouver.
For now, Veneruso is content to practice in his yard. But even that can be fraught, judging from posts by Clark County residents on Nextdoor.com.
Another Felida resident recently posted on Nextdoor.com about a drone hovering around his house early in the morning: “It was kind of creepy. … Thanks for any advice.” His query elicited a range of reactions from “shoot it down” to “turn a hose on it” to “call 311 to report it.”
“It’s a super-gray area of law enforcement,” said Sgt. Chris Skidmore of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
He leads the Clark County Sheriff’s Office team that uses drones for patrol efforts — searching for a fleeing suspect, for example. While the sheriff’s office uses drones to respond to calls, Skidmore said he wasn’t aware of instances where deputies have responded to calls about drones. And if they did, they would end up referring the complaint to the FAA given that Washington, Clark County and local cities have not established rules specific to drones, Skidmore said.
Drones may not be on local governments’ radar yet, but airports have long been alert to the threat posed by errant drones. The south end of Clark County is in either Troutdale Airport’s or Portland International Airport’s airspace.
“The primary concern with drones around PDX, or any airport, is ensuring they do not pose a threat to crewed aircraft during takeoff and landing,” Jason Schwartz, the airside operations planner at Portland International Airport, said in an email.
Drone flyers must obtain special authorization to operate in the airspace near airports, Schwartz said.
“These measures are in place to minimize risk and avoid drone interference with conventional (manned) aircraft,” Schwartz said. “It’s critically important that all drone operators comply.”