With the increasing affordability and availability of drones, local pilots are concerned about the remotely operated aircraft crowding the skies and leading to a dangerous collision.
The Federal Aviation Administration has worked to introduce guidelines for drone operators, but it appears local compliance is inconsistent. Notably, the FAA has 18-month-old guidelines advising drone operators seeking to fly within 5 miles of an airport to contact the facility. On Thursday, neither manager at the Chico and Oroville airports recalled a drone operator contacting them.
Oroville pilot Gonzalo “Peewee” Curiel contacted this publication after seeing an online video on Dec. 26 of a drone taking off near an Oroville supermarket and ascending to the cloud layer at an altitude of 1,200 to 1,500 feet. In addition to exceeding FAA altitude guideline of 400 feet, such heights can put drones in the path of general aircraft like the small Piper Cherokee 140 flown by Curiel.
He shared the Facebook link with other pilots, who he said were equally appalled at the drone flight. The original poster subsequently removed the video post after several pilots commented on it.
Although he hasn’t heard of any midair collision between a plane and drone, Curiel said he was concerned about not being able to see a drone until it was too late. He said a drone striking a light aircraft could cause considerable damage to the propeller, frame or windshield.
“If I’m doing about 120 mph, it’s going to come right through the windshield,” Curiel said.
He said pilots are trained with how to deal with birds or other pilots, but drones can act very differently.
Curiel was also concerned about drone pilots putting their vehicles in dangerous situations in a quest to capture exciting video footage, but unwittingly jeopardizing others.
Last year, fire officials had to cancel aerial attacks on some wildfires because of drones operating in restricted areas. An NPR story published in July counted five such incidents.
Despite calls for additional rules, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed three bills regulating drones in October. According to the Associated Press, the governor indicated the state’s criminal laws were already too complex without adding more laws that would have little public benefit.
Cade Boeger, a flight instructor who also does crop-dusting, said drones could affect every area of manned flight operations.
“It’s just become so popular and recently so cheap,” Boeger said
He was also concerned about collisions, especially when on crop-dusting flights. People may be interested in capturing the unique sight of a plane flying as low as 5 feet above the ground, but Boeger said pilots are so engaged in their work and other obstacles that there’s practically no chance of spotting a drone in time.
“When we’re flying ag, it’s a special issue because when we’re down low and crop-dusting a field there can be no warning,” Boeger said.
At this time, there’s no safe distance to fly a drone around crop-dusting, according to Boeger. He said it could be possible for a drone operator and crop-dusting pilot to make arrangements in advance.
Boeger called for drone operators to be more careful than bold to keep everyone safe. In the future, he suggested it was possible drones may be required to use a navigation system that also broadcasts its location to others.
Curiel said he’s been on both sides of the matter — he flew remote-controlled helicopters before moving to full-scale aircraft. He said it would be wise for drone operators to research the pilot’s perspective and perhaps visit online communities.
Curiel said he generally agreed with the FAA guidelines for drones, if operators followed them.
“I think just abiding by what the FAA recommends, they’re going to be in the clear,” he said.
The guidelines, included at KnowBeforeYouFly.org, include the 400-foot maximum altitude, keeping the vehicle in sight and staying clear of manned aircraft operations.
Other guidelines included not flying over sensitive or restricted areas and to maintain a safe distance from low-altitude operations such as crop-dusting.
Beginning last month, the FAA also required that people register their drones heavier than 0.55 pounds before flying them outside. The $5 registration for many drones will be refunded if completed before Jan. 20.
People wishing to use their drones for commercial purposes, such as photography, are required to obtain permission from the FAA.
Curiel said the 400-foot altitude cap could provide an important buffer between drones and general aviation. Following such limits would allow both to safely operate in scenic areas such as downtown Oroville and Table Mountain. In an area like Table Mountain, pilots may fly as low as 500 feet.
CHECKING WITH AIRPORTS
One of the guidelines calls for drone operators seeking to fly within 5 miles of an airport to contact the facility. This affects flights over nearly all of Chico and Oroville.
City officials acting as managers for the Chico and Oroville airports reported they were aware of the condition, but no drone operator has contacted them.
At Oroville Municipal Airport, interim city engineer Rick Walls said he hasn’t been concerned about drones and hasn’t heard any complaints from pilots at the airport.
“It hasn’t been a problem for Oroville up to this point in time,” Walls said.
If a drone operator contacted him, Walls said he would advise the operator to be aware of takeoff and landing patterns at the airport. He said the city didn’t have any authority to regulate airspace over the airport, but he would advise that drones avoid flying near the facility.
It’s not known how many drones have been flying near the Chico Municipal Airport, according to City Manager Mark Orme. He said he wasn’t aware of anyone calling either the city or air control tower prior to flying a drone.
“We’ll find out if there were any folks utilizing the space,” Orme said.
Until the city gets a call from a drone operator, he wasn’t certain what process to follow. Orme said the city would contact the FAA at that time for more information.
Drone operators seeking to stay within the guidelines may face challenges, particularly with contacting air facilities that are privately owned or unstaffed. An FAA spokesman said the contact guidelines apply to private landing strips, agricultural airports and seaplane landing areas. The spokesman advised in an email that it was best to just stay away from airports.
Several key locations are within 5 miles of an air facility. For example, an area of Lake Oroville east of Potter Point is designated as a seaplane base. Someone seeking to fly a drone around the lake would need to call that facility.
The situation gets complicated in some areas. For example, someone wishing to fly a drone over Chico State University or lower Bidwell Park would need to contact four air facilities — the Chico airport, the heliport at Enloe Medical Center, the private Ranchaero Airport on Oak Park Avenue and the private Johnsen Airport on Willow Landing.
This week, the FAA published an smartphone app to help navigate some of these restrictions. Called B4UFLY, the app is currently available for Apple’s iOS and is in beta testing for Android devices.