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How many drones are in your neighborhood? Now it might be harder to tell

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Geoptic Aerial of Raleigh, N.C. use drones equipped with infrared thermal imaging at a solar farm near Mebane, N.C. to scan solar modules to pinpoint problems for the solar company.
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Geoptic Aerial of Raleigh, N.C. use drones equipped with infrared thermal imaging at a solar farm near Mebane, N.C. to scan solar modules to pinpoint problems for the solar company.

Nearly 5,000 recreational drone users in the Triangle had registered their drones with the Federal Aviation Administration as of February.

But a federal appeals court said last week that these pilots no longer have to do so. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down an FAA rule that requires recreational drone users to register their aircraft, siding with John A. Taylor, a drone hobbyist in the Washington, D.C., area.

While the ruling was a victory for hobbyists, Triangle airplane pilots and commercial drone users say it will create a lack of accountability.

“I thought it was a very bad decision because the regulation requiring them to register was the only control they had,” local pilot Jim Kilpatrick said.

Last month, Kilpatrick was flying with the Bandit Flight Team, a Triangle-based group that performs national anthem flyovers at local sporting events, when a drone flew among the team’s six planes, narrowly missing two of them.

The planes were flying at 1,000 feet – well above the 400-foot maximum altitude that drones are allowed to fly.

Because of the court ruling on May 19, Kilpatrick is concerned that more drones will take to the skies without their operators understanding airspace rules.

“There are people flying these drones that have no aviation experience or background, and they’re flying them in the airspace and they don’t really know anything about aviation or airspace requirements,” he said.

The FAA cited safety concerns as the reason it began to require registration in 2015. Registration is a way to give drone pilots a sense of responsibility and accountability for their actions and provide them with the rules of flight, according to the FAA.

 

About 19,000 hobbyists had registered their drones in North Carolina as of February 2017. Map shows the number registered in Wake County.

But the appeals court said a law passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in 2012 barred the FAA from imposing new regulations on drones. It said Congress would have to repeal that ban before registrations could be required.

“The FAA put registration and operational regulations in place to ensure that drones are operated in a way that is safe and does not pose security and privacy threats,” the FAA said in a statement. “We are in the process of considering our options and response to the decision.”

The N.C. Department of Transportation already is working to educate drone pilots about federal and state rules and will continue doing so in the wake of the court decision.

“Our priority is to educate operators so they are safe and responsible when flying drones,” NCDOT spokeswoman Carly Olexik said.

Drones in the Triangle

About 1.1 million recreational drones had been registered nationwide at the end of 2016. If the registration requirement is restored, that number could triple to more than 3.5 million by 2021, according to FAA projections.

About 19,000 hobbyists had registered their drones in North Carolina as of February. In the Triangle, hobbyists account for 92 percent of the more than 5,000 drone registrations with the FAA.

But this does not account for all of the drones in the Triangle.

Before the appeals court ruling, hobbyists were required to register with the FAA every three years at a cost of $5. They were required to place their issued identification number on all their drones. A hobbyist could have any number of drones but would register only once.

 
 

But even before May 19, not all drones needed to be registered. Drones that weigh less than 0.55 pounds weren’t required to be registered, and those make up a large portion of starter drones, which can cost $100 or less.

Unlike hobbyists, commercial drone users must register each drone, and the court ruling did not change that.

Future identification

Last year, Congress directed the FAA to develop identification standards to remotely identify and track drones during operation, and the FAA has announced that it will create a new committee to write these standards.

DJI, the world’s largest consumer drone company, has proposed a system of electronic “license plates” for drones to allow authorities to identify drone owners when necessary. Anyone with a proper radio receiver could obtain the drone’s registration number through transmissions from the drone, but only law enforcement officials or aviation regulators would be able to use that registration number to identify the owner, according to DJI.

But remote identification is still early in the process, said Kyle Snyder, director of the NextGen Air Transportation Consortium at N.C. State.

“I think the FAA needs some way of being able to track who is flying,” Snyder said. “So I think this (ruling) is going to back us up a little but, but with the FAA working on the electronic identification rules, I think we will continue to see this evolve.”

Kathryn Trogdon: 919-829-4845: @KTrogdon

FAA drone rules for hobbyists

▪ Always fly below an altitude of 400 feet and within your direct line of sight.

▪ Do not fly drones that weigh more than 55 pounds.

▪ Do not fly at night, even if your drone has lights.

▪ Do not fly within five miles of an airport or near stadiums or other public events. You can use mobile applications such as B4UFLY to ensure that you are not within a five-mile radius.

▪ Do not fly over groups of people.

▪ Never fly near emergency response efforts, such as fires.

▪ Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

▪ Drones still can be registered for $5 at https://registermyuas.faa.gov/.

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