Flying High

Local drone use soars

October 18, 2016

In 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) passed a law permitting users to fly drones under 55 pounds. This opened up the sky for recreational users, including both children and adults who now fly drones as a hobby.

Renfroe student Joseph Gable has been experimenting with drones for more than three years and working on his latest drone for two. He added a GPS and a gimbal, which stabilizes the GoPro attached to it.

“I even put my iPhone on it,” he said. “It can hold almost anything.”

Gable attends Decatur Makers, a club where he’s been a member for just over a year. There, he repairs and flies his drone. Decatur Makers typically charges as little as $25 a month for individuals, but Gable is “very lucky” to attend on scholarship, he said.

Gable usually spends his time there customizing a drone he built that weighs in at over a half pound. Because of the drone’s weight, he had to register it with the FAA.

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Joseph Gable has been working on his current drone for two years. Over time, he has bought parts to customize the drone at the Decatur Maker space.

“If I want to fly anywhere that’s not my backyard, I have to bring my permit,” he said. “I’ll be fined if I forget.”

Decatur resident Edward Redfield also picked up Gable’s hobby and started out flying small helicopters and other remote control (R/C) vehicles. Soon after, he started searching for a drone to purchase.

“I didn’t have the money to invest in a drone at the time,” he said. “I didn’t want a subaverage drone. If I was going to spend the money, I wanted to do it right.”

Many of Redfield’s cheap R/C cars and helicopters broke after a few weeks.

“I immediately regretted buying some of those,” he said. “I didn’t want that to happen with a drone.”

At first, Redfield was hesitant to shell out hundreds of dollars on a drone.

“I’ve never liked spending money,” he said. “It’s always been hard for me to make big purchases.”

Redfield began saving his money in hopes of one day buying a quality drone and purchased a DJI Phantom 3 for $470 that shoots in 4,000 pixel wide video footage. To Redfield, the difference is noticeable.

“When I started reading the reviews and tech specs, I instantly knew I had made a great decision,” he said.

With a top speed of 35 miles per hour, it’s “one of the top drones on the market,” according to Redfield. His Phantom boasts up to a 25 minute battery life, 12 megapixel video and vision positioning technology, making it almost impossible to hit an obstacle. Other leading drones available, such as the DJI Inspire 1, typically have an 18 minute battery life.

“It’s just incredible,” he said.

The drone came with an owners’ manual that listed rules that he didn’t know.

“When I was scanning the manual, I saw that I had to get the drone registered,” he said. “I had no idea what that meant.”

In 2015, the FAA passed a law that required drones weighing more than 55 pounds to be registered.

“When I learned I had to register the Phantom, I was honestly disappointed,” he said. “I knew it’d take forever until I could legally fly the drone anywhere besides my backyard.”

After researching the process, his mindset changed. All he had to do was provide his name, email and home address. Then, he received a certificate of registration with an identification number for his drone, and “boom! I was done.”

Redfield could legally fly the drone, but with restictions. Many countries ban using a drone, and they’re difficult to get through customs, according to Redfield.

Ben Kroll, chief operating officer and chief pilot for Atlanta Drone Consulting, has seen this first hand.

“I know someone who got permission to film a movie in Cuba, and he tried to bring a drone to shoot some footage,” Kroll said. “They didn’t allow it through customs because they don’t know enough about the technology.”

Even if he had managed to get it through customs, he wouldn’t have been allowed to use in Cuba.

“The only person that’s allowed to fly it is a Cuban national,” Kroll said.

According to Kroll, drone laws simply depend on the country.

“Some developing countries have a lot of rules and some have none. It all depends.”

Originally, Kroll started out as a commercial pilot and flight instructor, but he started flying drones about a year and a half ago.

“One of my students wanted to start a drone company,” he said. “We really hit it off.”

Kroll’s student’s company inspired him, and he was ready to try something new.

“It sounded like the next thing for me,” he said. “I could take all my background knowledge and apply it to flying drones.”

His company, Atlanta Drone Consulting, offers filming services including shooting movies, TV shows and commercials. They provide the drone, the operator and the filming. When the company offers services for businesses, they fly commercially, resulting in more restrictions. Filming commercially simply means flying for an established business or company, not just for personal use.

“When filming commercially, we have a maximum altitude of 400 feet, and we are only allowed to fly during the day hours,” he said. “In addition, you’re required to have a drone operator’s license.”

The restrictions may sound limiting, but Kroll can get around them.

“We are able to fly at night because we got a warrant to from the FAA,” he said. “You just have to fill out the paperwork and go through the process.”

Kroll has flown drones for a variety of companies.

“We’ve shot for construction and engineering companies and used special mapping techniques to build a 3D model,” he said. “We even worked with the Weather Channel and followed them around in Hurricane Hermine that recently hit Florida. We captured live footage of it with a drone.”

Kroll’s favorite shot he’s gotten with a drone came inside the Hyatt Regency hotel in Downtown Atlanta.

“The Hyatt has an amazing atrium,” he said. “We flew from the ground to the very top of the building and it was the coolest shot ever.”

Redfield flies in Atlanta often, but he was ready for more. He got the opportunity when Redfield and his family traveled to Europe. He originally planned to bring the drone before learning that Italy and France would not permit flying it.

“The video potential was infinite,” Redfield said. “There were so many times when I was thinking ‘this would be the perfect place to fly the drone,’ so it was kind of disappointing.”

Regardless, Redfield understands the laws.

“Drones are scary things,” he said. “When most people think of a drone, drones used in the military and what they can do to people comes to mind. Footage from drone strikes give a bad first impression of drones to most.”

Redfield believes that fear is what results in strict rules.

“When developing countries such as Cuba have less knowledge of the new technology, they usually are frightened by them and therefore stricter rules are enforced,” Redfield said. “If you don’t understand technology, it can be terrifying.”

Other developed countries have similarly established rules like the United States, and some countries don’t. Kroll believes you should always do your research about a foreign country’s drone laws before attempting to bring a drone into that country.

Whether in the U.S. or abroad, junior Fin Jones isn’t a supporter of recreational drone flying.

“I don’t think any ordinary person should be able to have that much power in their hands,” he said. “Drones should be harder to get for the average user. You don’t even have to get a license.”

Some drones have proven to be dangerous. A report from the FAA shows 583 drone incidents from August 2015 to January 2016. Though Jones doesn’t support the easy registration process of drones, he does realize how progressive the technology is, and how when in the right hands, drones are nothing to be afraid of.

“I think the technology is super cool, and pictures and videos from some flights are amazing,” Jones said. “A lot of my friends have drones. It’s just important that people stay safe when using them. They’re not something to mess around with.”

Redfield belives the reward outweighs the risk.

“Drone technology is incredibly innovative,” he said. “They’re making everyday activities easier, and they’re changing the way we film. They’re the future.”

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