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Drone enthusiasts fear regulations may go too far

Tyler Dubuke, 17, and his father, Jerry Dubuke,

Tyler Dubuke, 17, and his father, Jerry Dubuke, watch a DJI Phantom quadcopter drone fly outside of their home in Farmingdale on Sept. 27, 2015. Credit: Ed Betz

Recreational drones are filling the skies, but Long Island hobbyists fear their air space will shrink under a blitz of new rules spurred by safety and privacy concerns.

The remote-controlled, propeller-driven devices can shoot stunning videos from hundreds of feet in the air -- and most operators say they do so safely and responsibly.

They view a wave of proposed local, state and federal restrictions as an overreaction to a relatively small number of incidents, including crashes in public places and close encounters with passenger planes.

"I kind of think the public response has gotten a little bit out of control," said Nathan King, 36, of Bellport.

King, who works in marketing, enjoys flying his drone over the ocean waves when the South Shore is deserted. Like many hobbyists, he started with an inexpensive, miniature model that he flew indoors, before graduating to a faster, more powerful and much costlier drone.

"It's a lot of fun to fly, and I find it very, very rewarding to see the video," said King, who founded a club for local drone devotees.

Enthusiasts say drones let them explore by seeing what birds see -- soaring over neighborhoods or high school football games, or capturing dazzling footage of sunsets and private fireworks displays.

"It's really interesting watching the fireworks come up and explode at eye level of the drone," said Jerry Dubuke, 55, of Farmingdale, a technology manager who started with model airplanes.

Drones have been spotted around such landmarks as the George Washington Bridge and Empire State Building -- even at Citi Field during a Mets game, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The fear is that what goes up could come crashing down.

Drone crashes

Last week on Sag Harbor's Main Street, a drone taking real estate pictures burst into flames, ricocheted off buildings and shattered on the sidewalk. Police said it was fortunate no one was nearby.

Last month, a drone crashed into empty seats at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Queens, alarming players and fans. Bronx high school teacher Daniel Verley was charged with reckless endangerment and sentenced Oct. 2 to 5 days of community service.

Verley's lawyer, D. Andrew Marshall, advised other drone operators to learn the rapidly evolving rules before takeoff.

"If anyone else is thinking about flying a drone in New York City, they should defer to the rules and regulations first," he said.

The U.S. Open crash and a spate of drone sightings by passenger jet pilots using Kennedy and LaGuardia airports prompted officials to call for stricter rules and to require manufacturers to add built-in controls.

On July 31, pilots on two inbound flights at Kennedy Airport spotted drones -- one just 100 feet below the plane's right wing, the FAA said. In a pair of incidents in May, a jetliner heading to LaGuardia Airport had to climb 200 feet to avoid a collision, and a pilot approaching Republic Airport in East Farmingdale saw a drone cross 300 feet below his plane.

The FAA said reports of unmanned aircraft have "increased dramatically" over the past year, from 238 sightings in 2014 to more than 650 by Aug. 9 of this year.

Rich Hanson of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a Muncie, Indiana-based group representing hobbyists, said only 3.5 percent of the FAA's sightings could be considered near-misses, but stressed even one "is one too many."

He fears a federal crackdown could go too far.

"It's kind of gotten to the point that if any unmanned aircraft are seen in the airspace, it's somehow considered to be illegitimate," he said.

FAA limits

The FAA limits hobbyists to drones that weigh less than 55 pounds. They have to fly in daylight, avoid people and stadiums, stay below 400 feet and keep the devices within unaided view. They cannot interfere with airplanes, and must stay 5 miles from airports unless operators are in touch with air traffic controllers. Careless or reckless pilots can be charged criminally and fined as much as $25,000.

While homeowners might assume they control air space above their property, it's actually controlled by the FAA.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) wants "geofencing" installed in all new drones, which could use GPS to prevent flying near airports, for example.

"The FAA has been playing whack-a-mole across the skies," Schumer said. "Unmanned aircraft systems safety is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately and fully, especially as we work to strike the right balance between their usage and privacy."

The FAA said two major drone manufacturers, DJI and Parrot, are already installing geofencing.

But it's not foolproof. Pilots of existing drones can spurn updates, and geofencing can be hacked. Some small airports, including Republic and Long Island-MacArthur in Ronkonkoma, do not have it, at least not yet.

Some 700,000 consumer drones, which can cost up to $1,500 each, could be sold this year, up 63 percent from 2014, according to the Arlington, Virginia-based Consumer Electronics Association.

Many states are proposing drone limits to get ahead of the trend. New York lawmakers have proposed barring the use of drones for surveillance or hunting, and restricting law enforcement use, according to Joseph Hanna, a Buffalo lawyer and expert in drone law.

Suffolk County has proposed a public safety bill restricting drones to specific sites in parks and requiring permits. A Nassau spokesman had no comment.

National parks ban

Citing noise and safety concerns, the National Park Service last year banned all drones. New York requires permits to fly drones at specific sites in some state parks, including Bethpage, Heckscher, Nissequogue River and Sunken Meadow.

Like other drone fans, John Feinberg, 21, a Stony Brook University student, began by practicing indoors with a miniature model.

"If you can fly that around the house, through chairs and windows and people, you can fly a larger piece of machinery," he said.

He recommended testing bigger, more sophisticated models over open fields, saying: "You really have to know that you have a machine that could cause serious damage."

Feinberg, who has shot video over the Stony Brook campus, believes his drone -- and its onboard camera -- is far from intrusive.

"At 200 feet up, you can barely see people," he said.

Dubuke accepts geofencing for safety reasons. "Yes, they are starting to handcuff us, absolutely," he said of regulators, "but the fact is we still have to stay within these rules."

He has flown his drone in his backyard, though he lives less than 5 miles from Republic Airport -- a technical violation of FAA rules. Dubuke reasons that if his drone's geofencing allows him to operate, he's playing by the rules.

In the meantime, he said his neighbors are more fascinated than fearful."Nobody in my neighborhood has said, 'Don't you dare fly that thing over my house.' "


Federal Aviation Administration  says reckless or careless flights can result in criminal charges and fines. FAA limits on recreational drones include:

-- Operate only in daylight

-- Keep below 400 feet

-- Avoid people, stadiums, “No Fly” zones

-- Stay 5 miles from airports


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