Game Of Drones

By Nicole Palya Wood

State legislatures and the FAA wrestle with the myriad applications of drones entering our everyday lives, and how they should be regulated.

Photo of a HeliPal DJI Phantom 2Photo: DJI

In the past, if you wanted a great aerial shot of your boat racing along in open water, you needed a helicopter, but not any more. Now, boaters are turning to drones to capture their action shots. Take Eric Winberry, who sails a 1971 Grampian G26 in the Great South Bay of Long Island, New York. "Recently, while sailing with a few friends, we brought the drone with the GoPro HD camera with us," he said. "My buddy had purchased it for aerial shots he uses to sell waterfront properties, and with the GoPro attached, it takes amazing video and pictures you could never get, even from the mast."

These days, you can purchase a drone, also called an unmanned aerial system, online at Brookstone for about $328, and get 720-pixel-quality aerial video of your boat sent live to your Android or iPhone. Spend about twice that and get one like the HeliPal DJI Phantom 2 with 1,000-meter range and GPS. It's aerial photography, intelligence gathering, and hobbyist fun, all wrapped up into one controversial little package. If progress continues in this area, Amazon may even be able to deliver your new drone via drone to your doorstep.

Aerial photo of a powerboatAerial photos and videos using drones have become popular among professionals and amateur enthusiasts, alike. The potential use for drones in the boating industry is extensive, but with rapid technological progress comes unintended consequences. (Photo: Jim Raycroft)

In 2012, President Obama signed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization Act, opening America's skies to commercial drones for the first time. Used by the military for years, drones are governed by the FAA and range in wingspan from the equivalent of a model airplane all the way up to a Boeing 737. The almost unlimited commercial, recreational, and law-enforcement applications for these aircraft, along with their cost efficiency, have quickly brought the issue of privacy vs. protection to the forefront on Capitol Hill, and blurred the lines between the public's expectation of privacy and support for national security and crime protection.

Drones At Work

Although most people associate drones with military use, their utility in everyday life is expanding exponentially, particularly in the public sector. State and local law enforcement are using drones to add needed "manpower" to their marine divisions, while drones with thermal-imaging technology are being used to help in hostage situations, during bomb threats, and when officers need to pursue armed criminals.

Drones can assist in fighting fires and in search-and-rescue missions, reporting back critical information while placing fewer first responders in harm's way. Healthcare workers can deliver needed medicine, antidotes, or vaccines to people in hard-to-reach areas via drone.

NOAA is testing drone capabilities for use in fisheries management and enforcement. They've run trials with a drone model called the Puma AE to do seabird and marine debris surveys, as well as to improve hurricane tracking, and to patrol and enforce laws prohibiting the taking of illegal or out-of-season fish and game. Oil companies are using drones to patrol their offshore oil rigs to check for intruders, vandalism, and leaks.

Even the outgoing USCG Commandant, Admiral Bob Papp, reported to Congress that the entire fleet of new National Security Cutters will be equipped with drones, as will many of the larger search-and-rescue boats. USCG Capt. Tony Hahn told BoatUS, "During search-and-rescue cases, these cutter-based drone systems will reduce search time, as well as provide advance en route and on-scene rescue assistance for responding helicopter and boat crews, enhancing planning, safety, and successful outcomes. These are all positive impacts to recreational boating safety."

Public Policy & Privacy

Although the benefits to law enforcement, military, and conservation applications are clear, there's a grayer side to drones as well. Some people see these drones as another form of Big Brother and a violation of their right of privacy. Since passage of the FAA Modernization Act, states have introduced legislation to keep unwanted eyes out of the skies, or at the very least create a list of prohibited drone activities.

US Coast Guard drone imageIntegrating civilian drone use into national air space is becoming challenging.

In 2013, more than 40 states introduced more than 100 bills or resolutions to limit or specifically regulate the use of drones; 16 new laws were passed. By April this year, 35 states had introduced bills; and four new states — Indiana, Tennessee, Utah, and Wisconsin — had adopted new laws. The laws and list of activities cover a large range of topics. In Louisiana, these laws prohibit private drones from monitoring oil and gas facilities due to their vulnerability as critical infrastructure targets. In Pennsylvania a bill prohibits the use of drones to obstruct anglers, hunters, and boaters by scaring away game and fish, while other states seek to ban anglers and hunters from using drones to scout their catch.

In a growing number of states like Alaska and New Mexico, legislation has been passed that both restricts hunting and tracking with the use of drones and, on the other side of the issue, restricts groups from interfering with hunts by using drones to scare away animals.

No matter where you stand on these issues, things are getting heated. In Colorado, one town proposed an ordinance to allow the shooting down of drones.

The New SkyMall

During the prestigious Super Bowl ad time, Amazon advertised the potential for your purchases to be air-dropped by drone via their new Amazon Prime Air service. The Amazon website claims that this is not science fiction, and once the FAA has produced the appropriate regulations, Prime Air will be a reality for its shoppers, and just one of the online retail giant's many shipping options.

Currently, the FAA permits limited drone use. There are two ways to get approval to operate a drone — either obtain an experimental airworthiness certificate for civil aircraft, and demonstrate you're doing research; or obtain a Certificate of Authorization (COA) for public use. Either way, you can't fly them over densely populated areas or transport people or items for compensation.

The FAA is working on ways to properly integrate civilian drone use into national airspace. Since 2009, 545 COAs have been issued by the FAA, and in 2011 the organization chartered a rule making committee to examine the practice. The committee is also tapping the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, a nonprofit volunteer organization that develops technical guidance for government regulatory authorities and for the industry. To test these new guidelines, the FAA selected six test sites across the country, ranging from universities to airports.

Pie In The Sky

In the past decade, there was a mad dash to create the best GPS chartplotter. That may be morphing these days into the search for the best boat drone. Someday, drones may augment the VHF radio, satellite phones, and ham radios of long-range cruisers by intensifying signals and increasing communication range. Cruisers may utilize drone images to navigate by water color in reef passes known for quickly changing shoals, or to preview navigating an inlet with wind against the tide to see if it's passable. Maybe the day is just around the corner when we'll send up our personal drones to see if there's a good slip available at the next marina, or as a traffic monitor to plot the best time to enter high-traffic areas like the Cape Cod Canal. The potential for all this is imminent, but with rapid technological progress comes unintended consequences. We'll have to wait and see how drone technology plays out — in the skies, the legislatures, and with the FAA — and BoatUS will continue to monitor how it might affect your boating and fishing. 

Nicole Palya Wood is a member of our BoatUS Government Affairs team.

— Published: August/September 2014

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