New technology gives way to entrepreneurship, artistic expressions; As drone capabilities advance, so do laws
Above: A licensed drone flying over Roswell by AirPlay Media and Adventure Services, LLC. (Submitted Photo)
Below: The darker shade on the map represents the area around the Roswell International Airport, which belongs to its controlled airspace, class D. Any commercial unmanned aerial vehicles — known as drones — need special permits to fly in the airport’s controlled airspace. According to the FAA webpage permits are given on average within 90 days after being received. (Submitted Photo)
This article is Part 1 of a two-part series.
The word drone describes unmanned aerial vehicles and is actually misleading. After all, drones are actually miniature models of helicopters and planes. A technology used for military purposes since World War II. According to Mirriam-Webster, those first models were called remotely piloted vehicles, this technical term was soon changed to drone. Who used this term first is unknown; a theory is that the name came from the monotone sound the models made.
The first movie to use aerial footage taken by an UAV, that amazed in quality and speed was the James Bond movie “Skyfall,” starring Daniel Craig, in 2012. This new technology revolutionized the movie industry and opened up new challenges for the Federal Aviation Administration when affordable UAVs became available to the public. The FAA expects the sale of UAVs to hit seven million by the year 2020. The interest for this piece of technology is growing from both the commercial and individual front. However, the law is just now catching up with the challenges this new trend is bringing.
In August 2016, a new FAA rule took effect that offers safety regulations for UAVs weighing less than 55 pounds that are conducting non-hobbyist operations.
Under the final rule, the person actually flying a drone must be at least 16 years old and have a remote pilot certificate with a small unmanned aircraft system rating, or be directly supervised by someone with such a certificate. To qualify for a remote pilot certificate, an individual must either pass an initial aeronautical knowledge test at an FAA-approved knowledge testing center or have an existing non-student Part 61 pilot certificate. If qualifying under the latter provision, a pilot must have completed a flight review in the previous 24 months and must take a UAS online training course provided by the FAA. The Transportation Security Administration which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will conduct a security background check of all remote pilot applications prior to issuance of a certificate.
The owner of the Roswell company AirPlay Media and Adventure Services, LLC., Mike Lanfor and his partner Jenna Preston Secrist have been active in the film industry with Lanfor being one of the two first licensed UAS pilots in town.
“The reason that we got ours first is that I am already a pilot of a manned aircraft,” Lanfor said. “I fly real airplanes. The certification for me was different than for people who have no experience. I was able to do my test online. They were able to verify what they needed to do because I am in their (FAA) system.
“The day the regulation came out, I had to drive to Lubbock, Texas, that’s where the FAA office is,” Lanfor said. “They went ahead and verified my current license — I have to be current — and then they gave me my certificate right then and there.”
Lanfor has been involved in photography most of his life. “It started in the military as a hobby. That turned into an extreme hobby. I used to jump in the Army parachute team,” he said.
“I have been skydiving for 34 years and am a skydiving instructor. In the early ’80s, there weren’t a lot of people that jumped with video or still-cameras for skydiving,” Lanfor said. Lanfor started to film his students, taking photos of them skydiving. “That was a very lucrative business for a lot of years,” Lanfor said. “When I retired from the Army, I continued the adventure skydiving, videotaping everything. The passion with video and camera went from there to anything nature, rock climbing, mountaineering. I lived in New York at that time. A helicopter company was working out on the East Coast, they filmed a lot of major motion pictures. The helicopter had a huge gimbal on its nose (gimbals are used in stabilization systems designed to give the camera operator the independence of shooting without camera vibration or shake). The gimbal is a million dollars. The helicopter was a million dollars. The cameras were $60,000 to $100,000. They charged a lot of money for their service. It was very expensive to make a movie with aerial footage. That aerial footage was only for people who had the biggest budget. And there were so much regulations and safety risks involved — a lot of complications,” Lanfor said.
Lanfor was also looking into using remote controlled helicopters but the technology wasn’t advanced enough.
Lanfor returned with his company to Roswell in 2012, Secrist followed in 2015 and joining him. “My family goes back three generations in Roswell,” Lanfor said.
Lanfor and Secrist want to help new UAS pilots and educate the public. “There is a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of people are quoting things that are not true,” Lanfor said. “For example, if you fly a drone over a private home. The whole issue is, the Supreme Court of the United States many, many years ago actually ruled no one owns the airspace from the height of a blade of grass all the way up to outer space over your property. You do not have right of air above your property. A drone as of three years ago, a drone was actually legally reclassified as an aircraft.”
The National Transportation Safety Board declared in 2014 that drones, also known as quadcopters or remote-controlled copters, are aircraft subject to regulation by the FAA, overturning a NTSB decision that effectively made commercial drones legal.
“An ‘aircraft’ is any ‘device’ ‘used for flight in the air,’” the board said. “This definition includes any aircraft, manned or unmanned, large or small.”
“What that means is, if I take a paper plane, I fly it and it pokes somebody’s eye out, technically if the FAA wanted to investigate and hold me responsible at a federal level they could do that,” Lanfor said. “It seems really ridiculous, but they felt they had to do that in order to keep control over what they thought would be extremely dangerous.
“What the government has done is that they went after people who made money, they are controlling us, micro-managing us. The people who don’t fly commercial, the hobbyist, there is no regulation for them as there is for commercially operators. There really has been no training or education and that’s what the country needs. Places where people can go and get affordable, real training so they can learn to be safe and responsible.
“The federal government should have been pushing that and they didn’t. So we kind of missed the part, everybody was scared that some crazy drone operator was going to do something dangerous and instead they (FAA) made sure that wouldn’t happen and went after people with money. Those are the people who really want to be careful, otherwise they lose their license and image,” Lanfor said.
“We represented our company and industry in Santa Fe at the Roundhouse, so we were actually there at the bottom of the Roundhouse and spent an entire day talking about the drone industry, mostly because of the film industry and drones in general. We got a lot of questions from a lot of people that were there in the Roundhouse.”
Lanfor is concerned that UAS operators are not educated about the new regulations or where it is illegal to fly without a special permit. As an example he shows that the flight zone D, which requires a special permit, reaches as far as the former Sears parking lot. “We are professional, we do know what we’re doing, we are licensed, insured and established. We demonstrated and proved our skill but we are competing with a market of people who are operating illegally or operating legally but without the skill or knowledge just because they bought the right piece of equipment,” he said.
“Working with the university and the class of Alan Trever (Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell) here in Roswell and working through any community outreach that we can, we are trying to help people understand that there are places where you can learn, we are trying to help build that,” Lanfor said. “Something as simple as just joining a model aircraft club. It is time to bring them back together and teach how to fly those drones, how to be safe. As far as the professional side, we start working with people who want to build a business so that we can grow the business together, responsibly and professionally.”
Lanfor said that he encountered an individual who operated illegally in town. “He didn’t know what the rules were. We found out about it and we actually helped him get certified. We wanted him to do things right, we wanted him to know what he was doing. We want to compete fairly.”
According to Todd Wildermuth, spokesperson for the Roswell Police Department, there have been no illegal incidents reported. “The air center and RPD have had no problems with drones that resulted in any official reports to the FAA,” Wildermuth said in an email. “RPD has received occasional calls from residents reporting having seen a drone flying around their property or low around a house. What can be done on a local law enforcement level has to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, based on the situation relative to potential violations of any existing laws.”
Les Dorr of the FAA Office of Comminications said in an email to the Daily Record that the FAA is collecting sightings of UAS. The FAA now receives more than 100 such reports each month. The agency wants to send out a clear message that operating drones around airplanes, helicopters and airports is dangerous and illegal. Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time.
The FAA continues to work closely with its industry partners through the “Know Before You Fly” campaign to educate unmanned aircraft users about where they can operate within the rules. The agency also is working closely with the law enforcement community to identify and investigate unauthorized, unmanned aircraft operations. The FAA has levied civil penalties for a number of unauthorized flights in various parts of the country, and has many open enforcement cases.
The FAA encourages the public to report unauthorized drone operations to local law enforcement and to help discourage this dangerous, illegal activity. However, according to the FAA’s 2016 sightings report, there have been in total in New Mexico four hazardous and/or unauthorized UAS activities reported where the FAA had contacted the local law enforcement to investigate. Sightings were in Albuquerque, Farmington, Lovington and Santa Fe. One public inquiry or concern report was from Albuquerque.
“It’s important to note these may not be illegal; they’re reports from pilots who sighted what they believe were drones too close to their aircraft or in airspace where they shouldn’t be flying,” Dorr said.
For more information about the FAA regulations about UAS, visit faa.gov/uas.
For more information about AirPlay Media and Adventure Services, visit airplayphoto.com.
To be continued March 30.
Christina Stock may be contacted at 575-622-7710, ext. 309, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.