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The drone zone

A revolution in aviation is happening in the skies above

Yoshi Yonekawa, left, a videographer with KPA Productions pilots a professional quad-copter drone while standing next to KPA owner Kelly Anzalone. Drones have surged in popularity over the last few years, and commercial use of the devices is currently banned by the Federal Aviation Administration.
John F. Russell

What do I need to know to fly my hobby drone?

• Fly below 400 feet and clear of surrounding obstacles.

• Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times and use a spotter when piloting a drone with first-person-view goggles.

• Remain clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.

• Don’t fly near groups of people or stadiums.

• Don’t fly a drone that weighs more than 55 pounds.

• Don’t be careless or reckless with unmanned aircraft, as you could be fined for endangering people or other aircrafts.

• Notify an airport if you plan to fly within five miles to make sure pilots are aware of the flight and that there aren’t any safety concerns. (Five miles from Bob Adams Field extends to Sundance Plaza, all of downtown Steamboat Springs, east to Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp on Routt County Road 36, west to Steamboat II and north to just past the Mad Creek trailhead on Routt County Road 129.)

—Adapted from the FAA’s Know Before You Fly campaign

Commercial drone use, is it a possibility?

The steps for obtaining an exemption from the FAA’s Section 333 include a lengthy application and could take more than two months. As of late September, 1,658 petitions have been granted, while 399 were denied.

The FAA continues to review exemptions until an official Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rule is put in place to regulate drones.

A 333 exemption is needed for all drone flights for commercial purposes, including photography or videography for profit, using a drone to provide a service, such as equipment or facilities inspection, mapping or land surveying or using one to provide security.

To obtain an exemption from Section 333, expect to review guidelines at faa.gov and submit an application describing the safety policies and control features that would be used.

A designated drone pilot must be identified and have an airman certification with a designated number of hours of flight experience.

Detailed descriptions in the application must show intended use of the aircraft, safety measures and maximum height and speed of the aircraft.

There must be a preflight safety risk assessment procedure established, and drones must be flown within line of sight.

— Imagine a world where a photographer pulls on a pair of first-person-view goggles and is transported into the cockpit of a small helicopter with a powerful camera on board.

In sweeping motions, the camera can capture dramatic aerial footage and stills of luxury homes, can provide a glimpse of a professional athlete’s vantage point or can act as the eyes of a farmer tending to crops a mile away.

This camera-equipped helicopter — known as an unmanned aircraft system to the Federal Aviation Administration or as a drone to much of the public — might also be used with less noble intentions.



The camera could hover above the yard of an unsuspecting sunbather, be used as covert surveillance or flown in close proximity to unpredictable crowds or commercial aircraft attempting to land or reach an emergency situation.

Today, these scenarios are no longer part of the script for a spy movie and the use of drones is in no way limited to the military, the rich or even the trained eye.



The popularity of drones and their newly imagined uses have continued to grow through the past few years, and some fanatics think it’s only a matter of time before the lightweight helicopters are delivering pizza to your front door or picking up your dry cleaning.

The rise of drones

When Steamboat Springs resident Cedar Beauregard attached a small camera to his remote-controlled airplane 12 years ago, he could never have predicted the aviation revolution that would be taking place today.

“They weren’t called drones at the time,” Beauregard said. “We just called it aerial photography. We were hobbyists with remote-controlled airplanes, and I just thought it would be interesting.”

The idea may have been original in Beauregard’s mind, but for the United States military, unmanned aircraft with camera capabilities had been more than 100 years in the making.

The military first fitted a camera to a kite in 1898 to take aerial reconnaissance photos during the Spanish-American War, and within a couple of decades technology allowed the development of the first radio-controlled pilotless aircraft.

Throughout the next century, technology and efficiency progressed while the size and price of drones dropped, though production remained relatively limited to military defense contractors selling to government agencies, which were coming up with innovative new ways to use the aircraft.

During a six-month period in 2006, it was reported that drones had aided in the arrest of some 4,000 people trying to cross the Mexico/United States border illegally.

Government officials outside the military began to see the possibilities associated with drone use and were hopeful the devices could also aid in search and rescue missions and wildland firefighting.

Others began to plot how drones could be used to monitor agriculture or for scientific observation, and the Hollywood film industry was recognizing the possibilities for film production.

Suddenly, a rush of companies began to manufacture their own drones available to civilians — basic setups that cost less than $1,000 and could be piloted by anyone.

Beauregard was one of the early enthusiasts, using first his remote-controlled airplane and then his drones to shoot aerial images of Steamboat Springs as early as 2004.

An aerial video showing 360-degree views of a piece of real estate for sale showed prospective buyers more than they ever had seen.

“For still photographs, you wonder if there’s a warehouse behind the photographer, but with a virtual tour, it’s almost better than having been there,” Beauregard said. “There are no questions that have been left unturned.”

The popularity of drones during the past two years has continued to skyrocket, and drone sales are outpacing predications.

The Consumer Electronics Association last year estimated that as many as one million drones would be sold in 2018.

An FAA official said last week the organization now expects a million drones will be sold during the upcoming 2015 holiday season alone.

Flying across Steamboat

When taking one of his drones to the skies outside his home in the Silver Spur subdivision west of Steamboat, Nick Yaw tries to pilot it in circles over his own house, or he opts for an alfalfa field nearby.

What do I need to know to fly my hobby drone?

• Fly below 400 feet and clear of surrounding obstacles.

• Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times and use a spotter when piloting a drone with first-person-view goggles.

• Remain clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.

• Don’t fly near groups of people or stadiums.

• Don’t fly a drone that weighs more than 55 pounds.

• Don’t be careless or reckless with unmanned aircraft, as you could be fined for endangering people or other aircrafts.

• Notify an airport if you plan to fly within five miles to make sure pilots are aware of the flight and that there aren’t any safety concerns. (Five miles from Bob Adams Field extends to Sundance Plaza, all of downtown Steamboat Springs, east to Perry-Mansfield Performing Arts School and Camp on Routt County Road 36, west to Steamboat II and north to just past the Mad Creek trailhead on Routt County Road 129.)

—Adapted from the FAA’s Know Before You Fly campaign

Commercial drone use, is it a possibility?

The steps for obtaining an exemption from the FAA’s Section 333 include a lengthy application and could take more than two months. As of late September, 1,658 petitions have been granted, while 399 were denied.

The FAA continues to review exemptions until an official Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rule is put in place to regulate drones.

A 333 exemption is needed for all drone flights for commercial purposes, including photography or videography for profit, using a drone to provide a service, such as equipment or facilities inspection, mapping or land surveying or using one to provide security.

To obtain an exemption from Section 333, expect to review guidelines at faa.gov and submit an application describing the safety policies and control features that would be used.

A designated drone pilot must be identified and have an airman certification with a designated number of hours of flight experience.

Detailed descriptions in the application must show intended use of the aircraft, safety measures and maximum height and speed of the aircraft.

There must be a preflight safety risk assessment procedure established, and drones must be flown within line of sight.

“I’m not good, so when I crash, it’s better in alfalfa than in a house or a car. I lose orientation really easily,” said Yaw, who recently listed a couple of his quad-copter drones for sale on Craigslist.

“I will help you set up your electronics and you’re ready to go, please call with any questions,” reads the ad.

Yaw said he isn’t abandoning the hobby, just downsizing his collection of drones, which peaked at four. Keeping up with drone technology is tough, according to some drone owners.

Yaw is strictly a drone hobbyist, not using the aircraft for any commercial purposes, and is thus largely exempt from regulatory laws.

Yaw gathers with friends to race drones, and he said he’s seen firsthand how unpredictable the rogue aircraft can be.

Last Easter he was flying drones with a friend when a gust of wind picked up his friend’s drone and shoved it off “into the jet stream,” Yaw said.

“It got so small, you couldn’t even see it anymore,” he said. “That one was $500 bucks.”

Drone users around the country have reported similar tales of disappearing drones, and rogue drones have been blamed for personal injuries and damage to property when they’ve flown out of control.

For Steamboat resident Kelly Anzalone, something in the minerals of the earth may have interacted with the radio frequencies while he was trying to capture an aerial shot with a drone at Fish Creek Falls. The drone crashed and fell to the ground for no obvious reason, said Anzalone, who owns the videography company KPA Productions and serves as TV 18’s video production manager.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said.

Anzalone began using a drone for aerial photography a few years ago, purchasing the components separately and assembling them in-house at KPA.

He said the $4,000 drone allowed the company to capture coveted shots like aerial views of a wedding for a customer, but it’s use came with potential risks.

“When they work, they’re great,” Anzalone said. “But there’s all these weird things when you use drones. They’re really, really dangerous.”

Anzalone’s and Yaw’s experiences with drone unpredictability aren’t isolated — even the military has a long history of drones that have gone missing or failed to operate, evidenced in reports first exposed by the Washington Post last year.

The FAA soon realized it had a problem on its hands, given that the only regulations in place for small unmanned aircraft were designed with model airplanes in mind, not camera ‘copters flying thousands of feet high and miles away from their pilots.

Absence of regulations

When Kentucky homeowner William Meredith was alerted to a small, unmanned aircraft hovering above the backyard of his home this summer, he viewed the drone as an invasion of privacy and promptly ended the flight with his shotgun.

While Meredith’s actions may seem reasonable to many, the only federal laws in place don’t address Meredith’s privacy concerns but instead protect the hobbyist drone owner, whose property was damaged.

Cases such as Meredith’s have popped up across the country, where privacy-seeking residents are clashing with drone owners, highlighting the confusing or nonexistent laws for regulating drones.

Airplane and helicopter pilots have also reported their own dangerous drone encounters, including near airports and during wildland firefighting efforts in California during the summer.

For hobbyists such as Yaw, rules only require that drones stay below 400 feet in the air and away from stadiums and airports.

For commercial users, drone regulations are much stricter, with use generally banned while the FAA works to establish formal rules on their use.

In the meantime, commercial users who want to continue drone use must go through an extensive application process, detailing how and where the drone will be used and submitting proof that an actual certified pilot is at the helm.

About 1,600 of the applications, which grant Section 333 exemptions, have been approved.

The irony of the FAA’s rules are that experienced users such as Beauregard and Anzalone are now barred from using their drones commercially, while an amateur can buy a drone online and put it in the air.

“As soon as you charge a dollar for it, it’s a whole different world,” Beauregard said.

When it comes to privacy, Beauregard said many of the common concerns are unnecessary. Also a hunter, Beauregard noted that long-range optical binoculars, telescopes and lenses would serve as much better spy tools than a helicopter drone, and he said it’s unfortunate that privacy issues are leading to negativity surrounding drones.

Both Anzalone and Beauregard have halted their commercial drone use because of the FAA and both are taking a wait-and-see approach to whether they’ll operate again, depending on what the FAA’s new rules look like.

They’ve both considered the application process but have not yet turned in requests for 333 exemptions, in part because neither is a certified pilot.

New regulations originally slated for a spring 2015 release by the FAA are now expected by mid-2016, the organization said this summer.


Flying into the future

Speaking to a Seminars at Steamboat crowd in August, Washington Post national security reporter Craig Whitlock shared his “just the facts” predictions for new ways drones could soon be integrated into everyday life.

“In the coming years, drones are going to change life in ways that we’re only beginning to comprehend,” Whitlock said. “Drones in very short order are going to revolutionize transport. They’ll be able to deliver pizzas, medicines to rural areas and Amazon packages to your doorstep. Also cargo planes — FedEx and UPS will love having their big cargo planes piloted by robots.”

Amazon already has permission from the FAA to test prototypes for a system called Prime Air, which would use a drone to deliver small packages in 30 minutes or less to the doorstep of a customer.

“It looks like science fiction, but it’s real,” reads a description of the service on amazon.com. “One day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road.”

Beauregard said that dreaming up future uses of drones is fun, but ideas such as pizza delivery, specifically in rural Northwest Colorado, are unrealistic at this time.

“I think it’s fun to think about and dream about, but the practical aspects are so daunting,” said Beauregard, who thinks major advances must first be made in battery technology to allow for longer flights. “As soon as you have to go more than a mile, you come to some serious limitations.”

Audience members at Whitlock’s talk were similarly skeptical of the futuristic uses for drones he described; laughing when he suggested that someday airplanes “won’t need pilots, just passengers.”

“It makes your goose bumps rise up a little bit, doesn’t it,” Whitlock said. “But that’s where we’re heading.”

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email tristow@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow


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