Chris Klint, Senior Digital Producer
Parents in Eagle River have complained to police about a small drone aircraft that they say has been spotted this week following school children and hovering near homes. The reports highlight growing concern over laws that govern how and where drones can be used in Alaska.
Concerned grandparent Patricia Bailey said her experience with the aerial intruder began Tuesday, when she saw the drone hovering above her and 2-year-old granddaughter as they stood in their driveway.
After speaking with other parents, Bailey learned that the craft, which she described as “a very elaborate drone” — a quadcopter model equipped with a camera in a ball turret — had also been spotted outside windows of homes in the area.
Bailey said the final straw came when she spoke with children returning home from Eagle River Elementary School.
“One of them asked, ‘Did you see the drone?’” Bailey said. “I asked, “What drone?'”
“‘The one that followed us home.’”
“That’s what got me fired up,” Bailey said.
When Bailey and other parents called Anchorage police, she said they were told that the letter of the law bars firing guns at drones, but that they were within their rights to throw rocks and fire slingshots at the device if they felt threatened.
Anchorage police spokeswoman Anita Shell says police took one call each Monday and Tuesday about the drone from residents near Eagle River Elementary. She said several people had apparently decided to have one person call police on behalf of the group.
“There were two separate calls that neighbors (made), about a drone following children home or near windows,” Shell said.
Police told the parents involved that they spoke with the drone’s operator and gave him a “very stern talking-to” about their concerns, Bailey said.
When the man complained about the potential risk of damage to his expensive drone, she said, officers told him that the best way to keep his drone safe was by not flying it over other people’s property.
Bailey said the intervention by officers on parents’ behalf had an apparent effect when people next saw the drone Wednesday.
“It wasn’t following kids,” Bailey said. “It was over the school, but it was high up.”
Shell said police did speak to the drone operator but did not talk about specifics of the exchange.
“We did make contact with the drone owner,” Shell said. “He was using the drone to practice for some upcoming business venture.”
Police would not identify the drone operator Thursday, because Shell said he wasn’t arrested or charged after officers contacted him.
“He wasn’t committing a crime,” Shell said. “There wasn’t anything we could do but advise him of the neighbors’ concerns about following children home or flying near windows.”
Since then, Shell said, “We haven’t received any other complaints on him.”
Channel 2 on Thursday visited the operator’s residence, as identified by Bailey, but an occupant said the man was not at home.
With the Federal Aviation Administration taking the lead in the emerging field of legislation governing drone use, Shell said the Eagle River incident highlighted the lack of local rules doing so.
“It’s not a city law, it’s not a state law,” Shell said.
FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said in a Thursday email that the agency is investigating this week’s Eagle River incident. The FAA is also looking into another Anchorage drone incident, involving a craft which entered airspace at Merrill Field.
One section of FAA regulations concerning drone use quoted by Kenitzer offers stern consequences for encroaching on manned aircraft, warning that the agency “may take enforcement action against anyone who operates a (drone) in a way that endangers the safety of the national airspace system.” The excerpt doesn’t directly address privacy concerns, however, citing a list of do’s and don’ts released by the agency in June.
“In the notice, the FAA restates the law’s definition of ‘model aircraft,’ including requirements that they not interfere with manned aircraft, be flown within sight of the operator and be operated only for hobby or recreational purposes,” FAA officials wrote. “The agency also explains that model aircraft operators flying within five miles of an airport must notify the airport operator and air traffic control tower.”
Privacy is being addressed on the state level, however, with lawmakers taking increasing interest in how to protect people from encroachments by drones. Ginger Blaisdell, the chief of staff for Rep. Shelley Hughes (R-Palmer), said Thursday that Hughes’ office was aware of the Eagle River incident and had spoken with Bailey.
According to Blaisdell, flying a drone up to someone else’s window doesn’t currently violate state law — unless it’s equipped with a camera.
“That’s not a criminal issue at all,” Blaisdell said. “What is a criminal issue is peeking into people’s windows and photographing them — that could lean into harassment.”
Hughes is entering her third year as a member of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Legislative Task Force, a group which includes lawmakers as well as representatives from the FAA and the state Department of Public Safety. The task force hasn’t specifically discussed the Eagle River incident, but Blaisdell said it has considered some very similar scenarios.
“(For instance), what if a person flies up and takes pictures of you changing your clothes?” Blaisdell said. “Should you close your curtains?”
The discussions accompany a rising wave of drone activity on the Last Frontier, with the FAA naming Alaska one of six states where it plans to develop test sites for drones in 2013 and the University of Alaska conducting drone research at an in-state flight range.
Despite that uptick in unmanned flights, Blaisdell said state activity on drone bills has been limited since last year, when then-Gov. Sean Parnell signed into law a bill governing the use of drones by law enforcement. She cited the FAA’s lead on drone rules as a factor in that slowness.
“We haven’t put together another actual bill this year,” Blaisdell said. “They’re really the ones establishing the regulations for drone use.”
Back in Eagle River, Bailey said keeping drones like the one spotted this week from following her children is a victory in itself.
“As long as he stays high in the sky, I’m OK with him,” Bailey said.