By JIM THOMPSON
As the federal government continues to wrestle with regulation of drones, and a state legislative study committee just released its own set of recommendations for drone regulation in Georgia, Athens-Ben Epps Airport Director Tim Beggerly has a single piece of advice for anyone who might find one of the flying machines under the Christmas tree — check out the Know Before You Fly website, at knowbeforeyoufly.org, for the best guidance on legal and safe operation of drones, whether for recreational, commercial or governmental use.
Athens-Ben Epps Airport, like other airports across the country, has a keen interest in the proliferation of drones — something that’s been evident in Athens for a while, where the University of Georgia and various professional organizations use the machines regularly, Beggerly said — due to the potential for interference with private and commercial air traffic.
At Athens-Ben Epps Airport, the approach zones for the facility’s two runways extend two miles beyond the airport boundaries, and there are also other areas, closer in to the runways, where an errant drone could cause a serious problem for aircraft, according to Beggerly. Many of those aircraft are approaching Athens-Ben Epps runways at speeds of up to 200 mph, and a collision with even a 3- or 4-pound recreational drone could be catastrophic, Beggerly said.
So with the Federal Aviation Administration predicting that as many as 1 million drones will be sold during this holiday season — a figure credited to FAA administrator Rick Swayze in numerous media reports and aviation trade publications — airport officials such as Beggerly are keenly attuned to the potential for the machines to become more of a danger to aircraft than may be the case.
At the Know Before You Fly website, a cooperative effort of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the Academy of Model Aeronautics and the FAA, recreational drone users will learn, among other things, that FAA regulations require them to contact their local airport, or its control tower, before operating a drone within five miles of the facility, and that drones can be flown no higher than 400 feet.
When drone operators contact the airport, “it’s not like we’re going to say you can’t fly your drones,” Beggerly said Friday, but airport officials do want to be certain recreational users won’t be interfering with local aircraft traffic. Both the university and the area’s commercial drone users have been diligent in contacting the airport when flying their machines, Beggerly said.
Earlier this year, a special task force was charged with helping the FAA develop a plan for improved tracking of the growing number of privately owned drones in the United States. According to media reports from late last month, the FAA is hoping to implement a drone registration system for machines being flown in private, noncommercial use.
The system, which the FAA hopes to have in place before Christmas, would require the registration of private, non-commercial drones weighing more than 250 grams — slightly more than half a pound — via the Web or through a smartphone app.
Other federal regulations are expected, but Beggerly said Athens-Ben Epps Airport officials haven’t heard anything directly from the FAA, and are relying on trade publications and other aviation industry channels to stay abreast of the latest developments.
And even as federal regulations are continuing to evolve, a state legislative study committee earlier this month released a set of recommendations for their legislative colleagues to consider as areas for possible legislation when the Georgia General Assembly convenes next month.
The House Study Committee on the Use of Drones’ four meetings focused as much on the economic development potential of drones as on safety and other issues, but its recommendations include prohibiting the installation of weapons on drones, keeping drones from flying in or around certain public properties, making it unlawful for drones to interfere with public safety personnel, prohibiting the use of drones in hunting or fishing, and prohibiting drone operations within some yet-unspecified distance from a public road.
The committee is also recommending local governments be allowed to restrict drone use on their publicly owned land, and also is calling for measures to ensure drones don’t invade people’s privacy, including requiring law enforcement agencies to get a search warrant before using a drone to collect evidence “in areas … where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy.”