Technology
8:57 pm
Sun August 10, 2014

Where Can Drones Fly? Legal Limits Are Up In the Air

Originally published on Sun August 10, 2014 7:38 pm

It's getting easier for the average civilian to own drones.

The word may bring to mind million-dollar jets that carry bombs, but a drone is any aircraft that doesn't have passengers or a pilot onboard. Some look like sophisticated remote-control helicopters and model airplanes.

They're available online and in stores, some for less than $100. But whether and where owners are allowed to fly those drones falls in a legal gray area.

In an open field at Bergen Community College in New Jersey, students fly drones they built in class. One model looks like a beach-ball-sized spider. It has six arms with blades on each and can shoot hundreds of feet into the air within a second.

Mechanical Baby Birds

Students have mounted a camera to the drone and programmed it to take pictures every few seconds. They're using the drone to create a 3-D map of the campus.

"It's like our baby," says Mariia Alibekova. "Like a little baby bird flying in the sky. I feel like a bird mama."

Students can park their "bird" in the sky, leave it hovering and then make it come back home on its own.

FAA regulations say drones shouldn't be flown above 400 feet. Higher than that, drones start to interfere with the national airspace.

They can't be flown within a few miles of an airport, and they can be used only for fun — not for commercial purposes.

NYPD spokesperson Brendan Ryan says individuals could potentially be charged with reckless endangerment in New York City if, for example, an individual with a camera flies a drone into a stadium.

But an FAA spokesman also says big, congested cities like New York are completely off-limits to drones. Unmanned aircraft are not authorized to fly in what it calls Class B airspace.

New Yorkers don't seem to know that, and some lawyers say small unmanned aircraft should not be treated like larger models.

The Wild West Of Drones

Bill Dickey manages Pilotage Fun and Hobby in Manhattan, a store that sells drones. He says unmanned aircraft are flying all over the city.

Dickey says slate workers send them drones over buildings to take pictures of their work.

"It's been a great thing for my business," Dickey says. "I think the drone industry is the industry for our era."

The FAA fined one resident more than $2,000 for flying a small drone off a building in Manhattan, after it bumped into other buildings and landed on a public sidewalk.

Peter Kalaitzidis, an Air Force veteran who owns drones, says they need to be taken more seriously.

"Everyone is doing these high, elevated shots, and they're failing," Kalaitzidis says. "You can go on YouTube and see epic crashes all day, every day."

That's why lawmakers are calling for more regulations. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called New York City the "Wild West of drones" and said the devices threaten citizens' privacy.

The FAA is expected to issue more regulations in the fall. But Manhattan lawyer Brendan Schulman says existing laws already protect against the types of illegal acts someone might commit with a drone.

"You have trespass laws, anti-stalking laws, peeping Tom laws, unlawful surveillance," Schulman says. "Those would apply to the use of any technology."

Schulman says those who worry about drones invading their privacy overlook the good they can do. Cameras on drones have found missing children and stranded hikers.

"These are real technologies that are going to save lives and help people," he says.

Bergen Community College professor Steve Cohen says drones are becoming a part of everyday activities. Perhaps the best indicator, he says, is a new trend: Instead of "selfies," drone owners are now taking "dronies" — a selfie with their drones.

"Yes, taking dronies with your bronies!" he says, laughing.

"That's going to be a thing," says student Joan Madera. "It's going to have a hashtag."

And, as a matter of fact, it already does.

Copyright 2014 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnyc.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. If you are a die-hard geek or just an average civilian, it's getting easier to own drones. You can buy one online or at a store for less than a $100. You can even make your own. But in New York, there are still questions about whether you're allowed to fly those drones and where, as Sarah Gonzalez of member station WNYC reports.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Drones might make you think stealth million-dollar jets that carry bombs. But a drone is any aircraft that doesn't have passengers or a pilot onboard - think remote-controlled helicopters that are little more sophisticated.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE SPEAKING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Time remaining - 9 minutes, 40 seconds.

GONZALEZ: In an open field at Bergen Community College in New Jersey, students fly drones they built in class.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE SPEAKING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Flight mode two - attitude mode. Flight mode one - GPS mode.

GONZALEZ: This particular model looks like a really big spider - six arms with blades on them sticking out of what looks like a big Oreo cookie. It's about the size of a beach ball, and within a second, it can shoot up hundreds of feet in the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE TAKING OFF)

GONZALEZ: Students mounted a camera to their drone and programmed it to take pictures every few seconds. Maria Alibekova says their mission is to create a 3-D map of their campus.

MARIA ALIBEKOVA: It's like our baby - like, little baby bird flying in the sky. I feel like a bird mama.

GONZALEZ: And they can park their bird in the sky, leave it hovering up there and make it come back home on its own.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE SPEAKING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Failsafe - return home, one minute.

GONZALEZ: FAA regulations say drones shouldn't be flown above 400 feet - after that, it starts to interfere with the national airspace. They can't be flown within a few miles of an airport, and they can only be used for fun, not for commercial purposes. So you can take a video of your drone flying above a cliff and over an ocean, but you can't sell that the video. And an FAA spokesman says big, congested cities, like New York, are off-limits to drones completely - the entire city. It's called class B airspace. But New Yorkers don't seem to know that. Unmanned aircraft are being flown all over the city.

BILL DICKEY: Oh, every day.

GONZALEZ: Bill Dickey manages Pilotage Fun and Hobby in Manhattan. They sell drones. He says slate workers throw them up over a building to take pictures of some of their work.

DICKEY: I mean, it's been a great thing for my business because I think the drone industry is the industry for our era.

GONZALEZ: The FAA fined one resident more than $2,000 for flying a small drone off a building in Manhattan after it bumped into other buildings and landed on a public sidewalk. Peter Kalaitzidis, an Air Force vet who owns drones, says they need to be taken more seriously.

PETER KALAITZIDIS: Everyone is doing these high-elevated shots, and they're failing. You can go on YouTube and see epic crashes all day, every day.

GONZALEZ: It's why lawmakers want more regulations. Senator Charles Schumer called New York City the wild west of drones. And he says they threaten the privacy of citizens. The FAA is expected to issue more regulations in the fall. But Brendan Schulman, a drone lawyer in Manhattan, says there are already laws that protect against the types of illegal acts someone might commit with a drone.

BRENDAN SCHULMAN: So you have trespass laws, anti-stalking laws, peeping Tom laws, unlawful surveillance. And those would apply to the use of any technology.

GONZALEZ: Schulman says those who worry about drones invading their privacy overlook the good they can do. Cameras on drones have found missing children and stranded hikers.

SCHULMAN: These are real technologies that are going to save lives and help people.

GONZALEZ: Back at the campus of the Bergen Community College, professor Steve Cohen says drones are becoming a part of everyday activities. And perhaps the best indicator of that is this new trend - taking a selfie with your drone.

STEVE COHEN: So yes, taking dronies with your bronies.

JOAN MADERA: Look at the pictures here.

GONZALEZ: His student, Joan Madera, shows us the aerial shots they took from their drone, and we're all in the pictures.

ALIBEKOVA: We took a dronie.

(LAUGHTER)

MADERA: That's going to become a thing. It's going to have its own hashtag.

ALIBEKOVA: No, it has a hashtag.

MADERA: Oh, it does.

ALIBEKOVA: Yeah.

MADERA: OK.

GONZALEZ: For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gonzalez in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.