Drones Above Us

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Following a federal court decision, drones could become more integrated into our daily lives. NBC Connecticut Troubleshooter George Colli investigates the implications and how they re already being used in Connecticut.

    Amazon’s ambitious plan to use drones to deliver your purchases sounds like a pie-in-the-sky idea, but drones are already being used in Connecticut. Now a recent court decision is throwing the FAA’s regulations on drone use up in the air.

    In March, a National Transportation Safety Board judge dismissed a Federal Aviation Administration levied ten-thousand dollar fine against commercial aerial drone photographer, Raphael Pirker.

    The FAA accused Pirker of flying his 5-pound Styrofoam glider in a “reckless and dangerous manner” when he shot video at the University of Virginia Medical Center for an advertising agency in 2011.

    Pirker’s attorney’s argued the FAA had no authority over the regulation of drones, or small unmanned aerial systems. Arguing the FAA’s assertion that drones can’t be used for commercial use are based on 1981 voluntary guidelines meant for model aircraft hobbyists.

    The judge ruled with Pirker. The FAA is now appealing the decision.

    Quinnipiac law professor John Thomas believes the ruling is comparable to the dawn of the Internet age for drone technology. He calls the current state of drone regulation the “Wild West” and believes the case will be upheld on appeal.

    “Under the FAA’s contentions, says the judge, the FAA regulatory authority would extend to paper airplanes,” Thomas said.

    The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters found that drone technology is already being used in the public and private sectors here in Connecticut.

    Drones have been spotted over a quarry in Branford. With the fire approaching sheds filled with dynamite at a granite company, Branford Fire Chief Jack Ahern asked one of his volunteers, Peter Sachs, a drone hobbyist, to give him a bird’s eye view before sending in any firefighters.

    It worked and the firefighters were able to put out the fire and return hundreds of evacuated residents back to their homes within hours.

    “The chief did say that the flight itself made all the difference whether they could send firefighters in safely,” said Sachs, who authors a blog dronelawjournal.com.

    That successful flight led to the owner of the granite company donating a drone to the department. It’s been used once – to rescue a lost puppy in a marsh. It's a situation Ahern calls “a perfect test case.”

    “We really look at this as public safety and I don’t think the FAA is going to go against public safety,” said Ahern, who does not believe they are defying the FAA by its use of the drone in rescue operations.

    A drone is also being used to help market luxury homes in Fairfield County.

    New Canaan Realtor Mark Pires says he’s picked up several listings based solely on his creative pictures and videos. He says the Pirker case gives him more confidence that he is in the right.

    “People that are coming to buy a house like this, they’re looking online first,” said Pires. “If they’re not taken by what they see online first, then it's six seconds and on to the next house.”

    A drone was also spotted over a fatal car crash in Hartford. The drone photographer, a freelance journalist who says he was off-duty at the time, is currently suing the Hartford Police Department over their brief confiscation of the three pound quadcopter.

    The New York City based attorney for Pirker, Brendan Schulman, says his client has caught the attention of the FAA before. Most notably, after posting drone video from a joy ride over downtown Manhattan. He says the reason for the fine this time was the fact that Pirker got paid to shoot the video at UVA Medical School.

    “I do think the case has started a national dialogue about how we should regulate, whether we should regulate,” said Schulman, who heads a special drone law division at his midtown Manhattan law firm, Kramer Levin Naftalis and Frankel. “It’s a discussion we should have had a long time ago.”

    Last week, Schulman sued the FAA on behalf of a Texas-based volunteer search and rescue group. The suit alleges that the FAA told Texas EquuSearch to “stop immediately” with their use of a drone to assist in their searches for missing persons. The suit says the company has assisted in over 1,400 missing persons cases and have found 300 missing people alive.

    When reached for a response to the lawsuit, the FAA wrote:

    "The FAA is reviewing the appeal. The agency approves emergency Certificates of Authorization (COAs) for natural disaster relief, search and rescue operations and other urgent circumstances, sometimes in a matter of hours. We are not aware that any government entity with an existing COA has applied for an emergency naming Texas EquuSearch as its contractor."

    The FAA tells the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters that they plan on releasing a draft proposal for the operation of small drones by the end of this year, with the hope being that regulations will be in place by the end of 2015.

    With them, some scholars believe our notion of privacy will be greatly changed.

    “We got get this Orwellian notion of big brother, but it’s not really just big brother,” said Thomas. “We’re gonna have little brother, little sister, annoying neighbor, the paparazzi. It transforms, sort of, an entire social life in our country from a legal perspective, commercial perspective and from a personal privacy perspective.”

    As for those federal regulations, Thomas would not be surprised if the FAA never issues any regulations regarding drones, leaving states to enact their own individual sets of laws.