With drones becoming increasingly popular, metro Phoenix cities are scrambling to figure out how to regulate the unmanned aerial vehicles.
But because drone technology is so new, there are few policy precedents. And in spring 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration is set to release a new set of rules concerning recreational drones, which could further complicate local drone legislation.
“The whole drone industry really basically started this year,” says Josh Roetzer, development specialist for the Phoenix-based Unmanned Vehicle University, a drone flying school. “It’s that young, it’s that new.”
The unique drone university is the only institution in the country offering a graduate degree in piloting drones. The program teaches students how to use drones in careers such as mine inspection, sports coverage, and film making.
Drone use has surged in the past past year, and during the holiday season, about a million unmanned aerial vehicles are expected to be sold in the United States, according to the FAA.
The increased use of drones worries not only municipalities but state and federal governments.
Across the country, drones have invaded private property and flown too close to planes. This past year there have been reports of drones smuggling drugs into an Ohio prison, crashing into a Cincinnati skyscraper, and knocking a woman unconscious at a Seattle parade when she was struck by a two-pound unmanned aircraft.
In Phoenix this summer, a drone was spotted 100 feet from an American Airlines flight. The pilot, who was flying from Milwaukee, reported seeing the craft as he was coming in to land at Sky Harbor International Airport.
“In recent months, we’ve seen a large increase in reports of unmanned aircraft coming too close to airplanes and airports,” says Ian Gregor, FAA communications manager.
In 2014, pilots across the country reported 238 incidents where drones flew too close to planes, according to the FAA. There already have been 650 such reports in 2015 through mid-August.
“There are definitely lots of conflicts arising around the world,” says Troy Rule, an associate professor of law at Arizona State University who has studied statutes related to domestic drones for years. “There have been reports of drones flying into stadiums, hitting bystanders at parades, spying on neighbors, and [of] people shooting or knocking drones out of air.”
At least 25 states have enacted laws addressing drones and five others have passed resolutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Arizona does not have a drone-specific law, but there are guidelines that require that the aircraft be kept under 400 feet and not flown within five miles of an airport.
Last year, Phoenix unveiled a draft ordinance to safeguard privacy, which would make drone use illegal to surreptitiously record or take video of people without their consent, among other restrictions. Glendale is considering restrictions on drones near the Glendale Airport, Luke Air Force Base, and near University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Arizona Cardinals play. And Paradise Valley is mulling over the strictest ordinance in the state, which would make it illegal for commercial operators to fly drones in town without a permit.
Other cities in Arizona have shelved legislation until the FAA releases rules regarding recreational use.
“Many states have passed laws that regulate drones," Rule says. “The question is, will those laws be overruled by federal law? That remains to be seen."
In 2012, Congress passed a law directing that the FAA to regulate commercial drones. Over the past year, the it has worked on recreational guidelines, including requiring hobbyists to register aircraft. The policy is expected to go into effect this spring.
Professional drone pilots and individuals who use drones commercially already are required by the FAA to obtain "unmanned aerial vehicle" certification for permission to fly the aircraft.
In January, Doug Trudeau, a 62-year-old real estate agent in Tucson, received the FAA’s first commercial unmanned aircraft exemption for his real estate business, allowing him to take aerial photos and video of homes he is selling. He says the process was not difficult and has allowed him to expand his business.
“Putting a camera on [a drone] to give my clients more [help] marketing their homes was a natural fit,” says Trudeau, who is now teaching his grandson to fly drones. “I enjoy what I refer to as precision flying. Flying low, under trees, through carports, out of living rooms, over the patio, elevating over the desert. The more I do, the more I want to experiment.”
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The FAA still is debating how to handle recreational policies. Earlier this year, it proposed a framework of regulations that would address, among other things, height restrictions, operator certifications, aircraft registration and marking, and operational limits.
Still, Roetzer doesn’t believe laws regulating drones will do anything to stop the their growing popularity.
“I don’t see it stunting the industry,” he says. “I don’t think regulations will prevent anything; [they] will just make people accountable for their actions.”