Eyes in the Sky: The Rise of Privately Owned Drones


Rob Preliasco

There’s something new in the sky over Austin and it’s not just all of the construction cranes. Unmanned aerial vehicles, known as UAVs or drones, are getting popular across America with both amateur and professional users, and tech-savvy Austin is no exception. Until recently, Austin was home to the North American headquarters of a leading UAV manufacturer.

The integration of UAVs into American airspace has been complicated by concerns about legality, privacy, and safety. Dustups like the arrest of a UT student for flying a drone over a Longhorns game and a court battle allowing the search and rescue group Texas Equusearch to use drones in its searches are proliferating.

A Legal Limbo

Both amateur and professional UAV pilots are occupying a bit of a legal gray area, unsure exactly what uses of their machines are legal. Lawmakers and regulators are racing to keep pace with the growing use of UAVs and drafting new laws to incorporate them into American airspace.

“It’s still very unclear what we’re allowed to do and it does vary state by state,” said UAV pilot Jamie Brown, a native Austinite who works for local TV, film, and video production company Onion Creek Productions, a local TV, film, and video production company.

Brown sometimes uses a UAV-mounted camera for his work, and his customized DJI Phantom II quadcopter can often be seen blinking and whirring overhead at events like Blues on the Green, Sound and Cinema, and Fun Fun Fun Fest. “Our bread and butter is event coverage,” he said.

Texas state law allows UAV photography in public places but federal laws are different. Commercial UAV flight is banned for now but flight by hobbyists is allowed, even if a hobbyist and a professional aerial photographer are filming the same thing.

It’s unclear where the line between commercial and private use lies. For example: Can a farmer, on his private property, survey his crops for business reasons? If Brown buys a quadcopter with his own money (which he did), is it a personal or a business expense?

The sole fine issued by the Federal Aviation Administration for a UAV commercial flight violation was overruled by a judge last March, but the FAA has appealed that decision to the National Transportation Safety Board.

UAV pilots are waiting for the FAA’s official rules for unmanned flight, which Congress has ordered the agency to produce by Sept. 2015. While the commercial use regulations leave room for uncertainty, other safety regulations are clear: UAVs are prohibited near airports and limited to a 400-foot flight ceiling.

Texas is one of only a few states to pass laws governing the use of UAVs. House Bill 912 is an amendment to the state’s privacy laws and creates a misdemeanor for certain uses of UAV aerial photography. Taking photos with a UAV on public property is legal only when the subjects of the photos are also on public property, unless permission has been granted by a private property owner.

Exemptions exist for law enforcement, the real estate business (if no people are identifiable), and the inspection of natural gas and drilling equipment. However, civil rights advocates are wary of the broad exemptions granted to law enforcement agencies, which can deploy drones to survey citizens without a warrant. Only “probable cause to suspect” that a person has committed a felony is needed.

Growing Popularity

It’s clear that lawmakers and regulators nationwide will need to address the issue of drones, because the ever-improving technology is making them more common. Better software and manufacturing techniques put the price of a UAV at less than $1,000, and a knowledgeable person can make one from scratch with parts bought online.

New camera technology makes it easy to strap a GoPro or other camera to a drone and get Hollywood-quality aerial shots. Private hobbyists, law enforcement agencies, land surveyors, farmers, professional videographers, and many others are coming up with new applications for UAVs. Amazon.com and Google have floated the idea of using them for deliveries.

Some of the first amateur uses of UAV photography came from the extreme-sports community, which was how Brown became involved. It was hard to film someone kayaking through rapids or snowboarding on a mountain peak using traditional equipment, so photographers of these athletes turned to UAV-mounted cameras.

“It’s basically Planet Earth-level video but for these no-budget sports,” Brown said. “Now, in the past two or three years, the whole UAV thing has blown up. Every time you turn the TV on, you’re going to see a shot from a UAV, whether you know it or not.”

Brown moved back to Austin from Colorado in 2009 when his brother founded Onion Creek Productions. He began practicing with a UAV and was soon taking it on shoots all over the world. His quadcopter weighs about 12 pounds and can fit in to a custom backpack. “I can throw it on my back and ride down a mountain bike trail,” Brown said.

Its most useful feature, and the one that has made quadcopters so popular with aerial photographers, is a special camera gimbal that compensates for motion in flight to keep the camera steady. “When I hook left, it compensates right to keep that camera super stable,” Brown said.

However: “Getting smooth, quality shots is still tough. You don’t realize how bad your human depth perception is until [the UAV] gets far away from you.”

Safety First

Until the beginning of this year, Austin was home to the headquarters of DJI Innovations, the developer of the popular Phantom line of UAVs. The company has since decamped to Los Angeles to better court the film industry.

Company spokesman Michael Perry said representatives from the company have met with FAA officials to discuss safety regulations. DJI also programs safety features into its firmware, such as GPS tags corresponding to all major US airports.

“We’ve built in no-fly zones around airports,” he said. “If you try to fly too close to one, your Phantom will turn back and go back to the point of takeoff and land itself automatically.” He added, “We understand that people who buy our products may not fully know the rules.”

It is also possible for users to program a maximum altitude, but this does not come pre-set because the laws differ internationally.

Austinite Brown said he is careful at every event he films. He walks the site before he begins filming to find power lines and other obstacles as well as a safe landing area. He keeps a careful log of his battery power.

If his remote control loses contact with the quadcopter or otherwise fails, the machine is programmed to automatically fly to a pre-designated point and land itself.

Brown said he would welcome regulation for UAVs and their pilots, perhaps with a required qualification similar to a driver’s license.

“I’m in full support of regulating the industry if it’s done right,” he said. “They’re definitely going to have to regulate it. There will be too many [UAVs] in the future not to.”

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