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Dawn Of The Drones: Are We Ready?

Mauricio Lima

Unmanned Aerial Systems – better known as drones – are swarming in popularity.  The Federal Aviation Administration expects drone sales to climb from 2.5 million in 2016, to seven million in 2020.  That’s a lot of drones in the air.  As KLCC’s Brian Bull reports, some hope safety keeps pace with all of the enthusiasm.  

At Eugene Toy and Hobby, manager Mark Agerter shows off shelves of brightly colored drones.  He’d have more, except that many disappeared during the holiday shopping season.

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Mark Agerter, manager of Eugene Toy & Hobby, shows off one of the remaining consumer drones he has in stock.

“No pun intended, fly off the shelf?  Yeah, well there you go," he laughs.

"The most popular one is a DromidaKodo HD, the HD camera was an upgrade, an innovation from them…” 

Drones here can sell from $35 to $1,000, depending on size, power, and accessories.  Agerter says they’ve been a hot Christmas item for the last four years. 

“They’re extremely easy to fly compared to airplanes or helicopters," Agerter tells KLCC.  

"For example, you know you take it off from a standing start on the ground, you don’t have to be going at 50, 60, 70 miles an hour. 

"A lot of them come with cameras or visual equipment, so it just adds another feature of interest for a lot of people.” 

Some are wary of the flying machine’s popularity, including air traffic controllers and pilots like Mary Rosenblum of Canby.  She recalls a near miss in 2012, as she flew her single-engine Cessna out of Troutdale airport near Portland.

“I had a glimpse of a bright, shiny green object that zipped past me, missing my wing on the right by about six inches. I was a thousand feet above the ground.” 

The FAA says they average 100 reports of drones in controlled airspace a month. 

Credit Oregon State University / Flickr.com
A quadcopter drone, which could be used for a number of purposes, including agriculture, geology, or law enforcement.

Rosenblum says drone operators need to exercise common sense and a general awareness of their environment.

“There’s no reason that drones and aircraft should cause problems for one another, but it really will make it a much more compatible co-existence if the people who operating drones have an understanding of where aircraft are, and where they’re not.” 

Enter Brandon Wynn.  He’s a flight instructor at Lane Community College, a job that often takes him here to the Eugene airport.  He helps teach a brand new class at LCC on drones.  

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Brandon Wynn, prepping one of his instructional drones for flight.

“…this guy, you can also upgrade the motors on it, and you can get this guy bookin’ 30 to 40 miles an hour…”

Wynn maneuvers a drone across a conference room. It’s about the size of a Frisbee.  Some consumer models can weigh up to 55 pounds, and require two people to carry them.  Regardless of size, Wynn says…

“...for all practical purposes, it is still an airplane in the air, it is still something that can cause deaths if you’re not careful.” 

Collisions with windshields, engines, rotors, or wings can be dangerous to pilots, passengers, and people below.  Wynn says the FAA released new regulations last summer that should help cut the potential for accidents.

“They allowed UAS (unmanned aerial systems) to fly all the way up to 400 feet.  And you have to stay outside, of five miles of any airport," says Wynn.  

"The FAA has come out with a really awesome app for the phone, it’s called B4UFLY, and it’ll take weather, location, and a few other factors in there– daylight even – and it’ll tell you ‘Yes, you’re good to fly.’” 

Wynn hopes his students learn the dos and don’ts of drone operation. News reports through the years have included stories of rescue copters and fire planes having to divert away from drones hovering in their path. 

At Lane Community College’s downtown campus, students learn drone basics and FAA regulations, including mandatory registration for drones between just over half a pound and 55 pounds.  Co-instructor Sean Parrish shares another one…called Part 107. 

Credit Brian Bull / KLCC
Students at a recent drone class offered at Lane Community College.

“…which allows for commercial operations of small, unmanned aerial systems.  The big reason for that is it allowed lot of photographers and other professionals to utilize drones for making money.” 

The business angle is what drew many here, including Matthew Corson-Finnerty.  He’s taking the class to help him better market his business, Bike Friday.

“What I’m really excited to do is to use a drone to capture our bicycles in motion," says Corson-Finnerty.

"To be able to fly alongside someone as they’re cycling or to be able to go up into the sky and get a nice, downward shot of them riding.”

And Zach Erdmann of Premium Efficiencies says he’ll use drones for home inspection.

"...and not actually putting myself up on a roof of a house….with icy roofs and snow cover, so I figured this would be a great way to introduce myself to this kind of technology and see if it’s something we can incorporate into our business.” 

Credit Mauricio Lima / Flickr.com
Under FAA rules, the sky's the limit for consumer drones...as long as the limit stops at 400 feet.

And hobbyists, like Dan Schiedell just want to learn the basics of safety, privacy, and security.

“Don’t fly near emergency areas…you can’t fly in national parks," ticks off Schiedell.  "Just follow the rules, so you don’t ruin the fun for the rest of us…don’t be that guy.” 

Even Lady Gaga is abiding by the rules.  Her Super Bowl half-time show featured hundreds of drones doing synchronized maneuvers.  But turns out they were all pre-recorded well before the coin toss.  The FAA prohibits drones in a 35 mile radius from any stadium hosting the big game. 

Copyright 2017, KLCC.

Brian Bull is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Oregon, and remains a contributor to the KLCC news department. He began working with KLCC in June 2016.   In his 27+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (22 regional),  the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from  the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.