By Barrie Barber, Tiffany Y. Latta and Andy Sedlak
A CareFlight helicopter taking a patient to Miami Valley Hospital was forced to circle for nine minutes Monday because a drone entered the airspace near the hospital.
Unmanned aerial system experts say incidents such as this highlight the need for the Federal Aviation Administration to set new rules for people flying drones for personal and commercial use.
Hospital officials said the helicopter was returning to Miami Valley around 6 p.m. when a staffer discovered that someone was flying a drone at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds across Main Street.
The patient’s health was not compromised but officials at the hospital said the man flying the drone violated an FAA guideline that the operator must be at least 400 feet away from a hospital.
“It’s about safety for us,” said Beth Calcidise, program manager for CareFlight Air Mobile Services. “Since that aircraft is an unmanned aircraft, we have no communication with it.
“When the (helicopter) is coming in to land, we’re trained to look for any obstacles,” she said. “Our communications center notified the pilot and he had to circle … before we could locate the gentleman.”
Calcidise said the man was contracted by the Montgomery County Fairgrounds to take aerial shots. He was not arrested, and complied with Miami Valley police. The hospital notified the FAA of the incident.
Monday’s incident was the second since April involving a CareFlight helicopter and an unmanned aerial vehicle. Last spring CareFlight was called to a crash on the 2900 block of Mechanicsburg Road in Moorefield Twp. A local cinematographer, 31-year-old Kele Stanley, also responded to the scene with his remote-controlled drone and was eventually arrested for ignoring officers’ commands to ground it due to CareFlight’s response.
On Wednesday, Stanley came to the defense of the man in Dayton. Although he conceded that flying a drone near a medical helicopter can be dangerous, he also said the only way the drone would interfere with CareFlight is if it was flying over top of it.
“In order for a helicopter or a (drone) to get into those blades to cause an issue it has to be flying above it,” Stanley said.
“It’s just a coincidence that the Montgomery County Fairgrounds is right next to the Miami Valley Hospital,” he said. “Of course people are going to freak out.”
The incident at Miami Valley happened just before the start of a three-day Ohio UAS Conference at the Dayton Convention Center that drew more than 700 people and 70 exhibitors across the United States, Israel, Mexico and Australia.
One exhibitor was Frank Beafore, executive director of Springfield-based SelectTech Geospatial. He said the incident near the hospital on Monday was “horrible.”
“What really concerns me is that these types of model aircraft are available to the general public,” he said. “We find people that have very little training begin to fly them. Sometimes they’re innocent — they’re in an area where they didn’t know they shouldn’t be. Or sometimes they do it for nefarious reasons.
“Those minor incidents make it very difficult for this industry to go forward,” he said.
Michael Toscano, president and CEO of the Association of Unmanned Vehicles Systems International, said the incident Monday showed the need for the FAA to set long-awaited rules on flying unmanned aerial vehicles.
“This is just more evidence and proof why we’ve got to have regulatory implementation that allows for full use of this, for a variety of different applications, whether it’s for personal enjoyment or life-saving events, or search and rescue or firefighting (and) all of the public stuff as well as the private stuff that we do in commercial applications,” said Toscano, who was a keynote speaker at the UAS conference in Dayton.
“Because some of this right now is in the development phase and not in the implementation phase, most people will follow the rules if they know what the rules are. And that’s the difficulty they have right now. The technology has outpaced the regulatory aspects.”
Maurice McDonald, Dayton Development Coalition executive vice president for aerospace and defense, also called for the FAA to impose rules for UAVs.
“We’ve just got to go through the right process and procedures to come up with how we should do this in the national airspace system safely,” he said.
The FAA is under a congressional mandate to safely integrate drones into civilian manned airspace beginning in September 2015. The federal aviation agency has chosen six sites across the country to begin tests.