drone

Every drone on Penn's campus must be under 55 pounds, and must fly below 200 feet at a speed of less than 100 miles per hour.

Photo: Don McCullough / Flickr

The Federal Aviation Agency estimated that more than 700,000 drones were sold during the last holiday season, making them one of the hottest-selling toys in the last two years. Due to their popularity, drones have been creating problems for both local pilots and government officials in Philadelphia.

For example, in June an Air Force KC-10 flying over the outskirts of Philadelphia was forced to take evasive action due to a football-sized drone that passed within 10 feet of its right wing, according to a Washington Post report.

Additionally, according to a December FAA report, pilot interaction with drones increased nationwide from 238 incidents in 2014 to 740 in the first seven months of 2015.

Drone use has also caused security concerns during high-profile public gatherings in Philadelphia. During the papal visit in September, the FAA issued an alert that designated Philadelphia as a “No Drone Zone” during the pope’s visit.

“If you plan to attend any of the Papal visit events, please leave your drone at home,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a September 2015 statement. “Anyone flying a drone within the designated restricted areas may be subject to civil and criminal charges.”

The Philadelphia local government has recently taken steps to embrace drone use by its local agencies despite the controversial incidents in the past year.

Most recently, on Jan. 27, Philadelphia Controller Alan Butkovitz announced that his office had used a drone to provide the Department of Licenses and Inspections sky-high views of damaged properties, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer

At Penn, student organizations — such as Penn Aerial Robotics and Penn Drones — have emerged to also promote the construction and experimentation of unmanned vehicles.

Even Penn faculty are at the forefront of UAV innovation. Roboticist and the Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, Vijay Kumar, heads one of the leading labs that builds flying autonomous quadrotors with the potential of surveying everything from natural disasters to mapping the insides of radioactive buildings.

Despite the frequency of drone incidents, the FAA has taken its time in formulating a nationwide regulatory framework to address these issues in the U.S. airspace.

As of February 2015, the only guideline required from the FAA is for drones to fly below 400 feet, stay five miles away from airports, avoid flying near people or stadiums and that the aircraft not weigh more than 55 pounds.

Commercial drone users face further restrictions. Those wishing to use drones to collect images and videos for commercial purposes must apply for an FAA Section 333 Exemption. One of the requirements for the exemption — having a pilot license — has created problems for business owners in Philadelphia.

Matt Satell, the founder of Philly By Air, has had trouble with the quirky FAA requirement. His company has been hired by clients such as Temple University to take drone footage for commercial purposes.

“The Section 333 Exemption is limiting in terms of what we are able to do,” Satell said. “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because piloting a drone is completely different from piloting a Cesna or anything like that. But those are the regulations currently on the books.”

In December 2015, the FAA imposed a new rule requiring all recreational drone users to register their drones with the FAA and pay a $5 registration fee. Nearly 300,000 owners registered their small unmanned aircrafts in the first month, according to a Jan. 22 FAA press release.

Experts expect the final FAA regulatory framework for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to be issued at some point in 2016.

“We are waiting for the future regulatory framework to be set up and enacted, because then we won’t have that pilot license requirement. That will allow us to do much more,” Satell said.

The FAA’s delayed action in tackling regulatory issues at the federal level prompted local governments to propose their own solutions.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney — when serving in City Council — was one of the most outspoken proponents in favor of regulating drone use in Philadelphia. In 2014, the former Fels Institute of Government instructor proposed a bill “to regulate the use of unmanned aircraft systems, and create penalties for improper use of said systems.” The bill died, however, in the Public Safety Committee.

Randall Miller — local politics expert and St. Joseph’s University professor — emphasized the need for uniform federal regulation regarding drone use.

“Drones manufacturers should argue for a uniform standard of regulation,” Miller said. “They don’t want many standards from different jurisdictions, it’s problematic.”

The FAA has tried to dissuade local governments from overtaking the FAA’s jurisdiction of U.S. airspace as it could “severely limit the flexibility of the FAA in controlling the airspace and flight patterns, and ensuring safety.”

Satell agrees with the FAA’s position and is optimistic of the upcoming regulations.

“I think that there should be one set of rules governing the entire national airspace. It makes it much safer and easier to understand,” said Satell. “Like any new form of technology it takes society some time to get adjusted to it.”

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