Small Plane Pilots Keep Wary Eye on Skies as FAA Drafts New Drone Rules
November 5, 2015
  • Share
  • Anchorage House of Hobbies is a toy store that sometimes ends up on the front lines of the battle between drones and Alaska’s prolific fleet of small planes.

    Co-owner Ryan Raffuse says many new owners of the DJI Phantom — the most popular model capable of the sweeping aerial videos taking YouTube by storm — come into the store and know little about aviation or their new “toy” that can fly thousands of feet high and miles away from an operator. He’s all too aware of the low-altitude small plane traffic that dominates Alaska airspace, given the vantage he has from his home near a private airstrip in South Anchorage.

    “A lot of people come in with absolutely no experience in radio control aircraft. They want it because they see the YouTube videos and want those really cool photographs and videos,” Raffuse said. “But they have no experience in how to operate flying aircraft. Sometimes we’ve got to burst their bubbles and give them a little dose of reality.”

    Consumer education is a major industry focus and a mainstay of the state legislative drone task force working on privacy and safety issues for more than three years. But as the Federal Aviation Administration starts work on an already delayed process to require recreational drone operators to register the craft, pilots say they’re concerned that the current lack of educated consumers and up-to-date regulation surrounding drone technology puts them at risk.

    ‘Not what happens’

    Like drone enthusiasts in the Lower 48, Alaskans are buying scores of the lightweight aircraft. But Alaskans fly more — and at the lower altitudes occupied by drones — than any other aviators in the country.

    Right now, people flying multi-rotor copters and other drones fall under guidelines written for model aircraft: Keep them below 400 feet off the ground, 5 miles from airports and within sight of the operator.

    “That’s not what happens at all,” said GCI President Ron Duncan, who flies both his corporate jet and a private plane. “What happens is people put little booster kits on them to run a couple miles away. They fly them by putting cameras on and looking … they disable the lock that’s supposed to stop them from going 400 feet.”

    Duncan said it’s too easy for uninformed or intentionally law-breaking operators to unpack a drone and take to the sky.

    “The chance of seeing one of those things — which is 1 foot wide — when you’re in an airplane moving 120, particularly when it’s coming at you from the side?” he said. “The risk terrifies me.”

    Alaska has more private planes per capita than any other state. There are 855 registered airports and seaplane bases, including 405 public-use facilities and 450 private airports, in Alaska, housing 10,423 aircraft used by 8,202 registered pilots, according to information included in a state resolution about aviation.

    One estimate puts the number of just one type of popular drone — the Phantom — at 15,000 a month coming into the United States.

    FAA eyes drone registration

    A federal database lists only one report of a drone “event” in Alaska involving a manned aircraft from November through August: A helicopter pilot reported a drone at 500 to 900 feet within a half-mile of Merrill Field in Anchorage. No evasive action was needed, but Anchorage police spotted and “questioned” the drone operator, according to the report. The database lists nearly 800 reports from pilots about drone sightings in that time period, including a series this year involving passenger jets landing at LaGuardia Airport in New York.

    Such reports add urgency to the Federal Aviation Administration’s effort to draft new rules for recreational drone registration.

    The FAA has convened a task force of 25 to 30 people representing government and manned and unmanned aircraft industries to develop recommendations for a registration platform, how to collect registration data, what type of information to collect, when and whom to provide access to that information and the best ways to maintain that data, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which is part of the task force. The group will also explore which, if any, drones should be exempt because of a low threat level.

    “It’s obviously kind of a delicate balance; you don’t want to come up with regulations that are so onerous and restrictive they thwart industry or people ignore them,” said Tom George, the Fairbanks-based Alaska regional manager for AOPA. “We do need some way, if there are incidents, to figure out whose drone was (involved).”

    The task force has until Nov. 20 to present its recommendations, with the goal of establishing registration rules before the busy holiday gift-giving season, which is expected to include record drone sales.

    Along with the task force, FAA has agreements with three manufacturers — Parrot, DJI and Yuneec — to voluntarily include “Know Before You Fly” educational materials in packaging, according to FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer.

    Alaska’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Legislative Task Force has met for several years, putting Alaska ahead of other states addressing drones, according to co-chair, Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer. Hughes got immersed in unmanned aviation after several constituents with privacy concerns asked her to ban them. Rather than an outright ban, Hughes said, the task force found that “pushing public education” is crucial. Commercial drone operators tend to have a solid understanding of the technology and many obtain FAA exemptions to use theirs, often for research. But the recreational users buying most of the drones today can be far less educated.

    “It used to be with model aircraft it was people who took it pretty seriously,” she said. “But now that they’re flying off the shelves and they’ve got these cool cameras, you’re getting a lot of people who are not serious geek users and know little if not nothing about aviation, so we are concerned about that.”

    No fly?

    People can enter their addresses at a website that creates a “no-fly zone” over their homes.

    Newer drones also come equipped with preprogrammed no-fly areas like airports, and also with a 400-foot ceiling, though pilots and drone enthusiasts both say a savvy operator can override the technology.

    Mat-Su pilot Michael Pannone said even preprogrammed airport settings might not include small airstrips like those scattered throughout the Valley. He says both drone operators and pilots need to be more aware of the potential for the craft to cross paths.

    “The ones that are in those GPS units are places like Palmer, Talkeetna, maybe Wasilla, Anchorage,” Pannone said. “But if you were to take a look at the Mat-Su, you’d find the number of strips is probably over 35 or 40 between Big Lake and Palmer, down to Goose Bay. We don’t know who’s operating off those strips or what their awareness is.”

    There’s also a feeling in the drone community, however, that the risks of a drone strike are overrated.

    Most of the smaller craft are lightweight and it’s unclear what the effect of one hitting even a small plane would be, said Kurt Gerstung, a drone enthusiast from Anchorage who believes “geofencing” — coordinates that tell the craft to steer clear of preprogrammed locations — is the best way to reduce the “idiots by airports” who make most of the trouble for legitimate drone operators.

    “They’re pretty fragile,” Gerstung said. “I had one I landed a little rough and broke the whole arm off.”