Flying Blind? Drones grow in popularity, but rules are murky

This story appeared in the Green Valley News and Sun on June 14, 2015.

John Malozsak, a real estate agent, flies one of his drones in the desert near Sahuarita.

John Malozsak, a real estate agent, flies one of his drones in the desert near Sahuarita.

The gray, cross-shape drone is light — no more than three and a half pounds — and its four rotors whir as they cut through the June heat above Sahuarita.

A hundred feet below in a parking lot is John Malozsak at the controls. For him, the drone is more than a hobby; it’s a business opportunity.

Malozsak, a Sahuarita real estate agent, is already using his camera-equipped drone to help sell homes. “It gives you just that different angle,” he said. “It’s an in-between shot from those satellite images and ground shots.”

Malozsak is among a growing number of entrepreneurs, business owners and legal experts trying to navigate the quickly changing — and often disputable — laws and regulations that govern drones.

As the popularity rises and prices drop, more drones — the FAA calls them unmanned aerial systems — will land in the hands of casual users, raising more ethical and legal questions.

Who’s in control?

Malozsak, who’s flown drones for almost two years, said he is operating legally by keeping within what the FAA calls Class G airspace, which is uncontrolled airspace for air traffic under 1,200 feet. He says there is no local, state or federal statute affecting Sahuarita in this area.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor wouldn’t comment on a specific case but said airspace class is “irrelevant” because the agency’s drone regulations apply to all airspace.

“Anyone who wants to operate an unmanned aircraft for commercial purposes must have authorization from the FAA,” he said.

Gregor said the FAA has enforcement tools at its disposal to address violations but said it has imposed fewer than 12 fines nationwide for unauthorized drone use.

James Arrowood, an attorney with Scottsdale-based Frutkin Law Firm, who works with clients across the state on drone issues, agrees that keeping it in Class G airspace is not enough to comply with current regulations. But Arrowood, who teaches the state bar course on drone law, said the FAA has been under pressure to update drone regulations and added that this area of law is moving “extremely quickly.”

“Once I get caught up on changes, the government changes the rules again,” he said.

The FAA proposed a new set of regulations in February that would allow drones to be flown for commercial use. The new rules would likely not go into effect until next year.

Malozsak said he grounded his drones for a time a few months ago when he followed the legal issues being sorted with the FAA, but he determined that since there was no statute in place, “I decided it was time to get back up in the air and keep doing this.”

Flying in Tucson

For now, however, what is needed to use a drone for commercial purposes is a Section 333 exemption, according to the FAA and Arrowood, which is what Tucson real estate agent Doug Trudeau obtained recently. The FAA has granted more than 500 such exemptions in the past year, with Trudeau’s being among the first.

More than five months after Trudeau applied, the FAA gave him 33 conditions to meet when the agency approved his exemption in January. He complied and on Tuesday used a drone to help show a house for sale in Tucson.

Trudeau said he had to notify the FAA prior to the drone’s flight and had Ken Dungey, who has the required private pilot’s license, operate the drone while he served as a lookout for passing aircraft.

The home Trudeau chose to show was perfect for the drone, he said, sitting on 25 acres in the scenic Tucson Mountains.

“With Google, you just get a satellite shot and the advantage of doing this with a drone is I can get different angles and take different shots,” Trudeau said, as they gave a demonstration. “I can give a really good perspective of the house that you just can’t get from the ground or any other means.”

While he said it’s not for every home, Trudeau believes drones are the future of real estate in the area with many homes up offering views of the Sonoran Desert.

Town rules

In addition to his real estate business at Suburban Real Estate Group, Malozsak operates Bird Machine Aerials, which offers aerial photography and video services with his drones to filmmakers, special events and other real estate agents.

Because technology allowing private citizens to operate drones easily and affordably is relatively new, few regulations are in place among states and municipalities.

No regulations are in place at the state level. Two bills in 2013 at the state Legislature sought to regulate the use of drones by law enforcement and the public but failed to make it to the governor’s desk.

Debbie Summers, director of Sahuarita’s Parks and Recreation, said the town is working to develop a policy or an ordinance to address the use of drones within the town.

Sahuarita has, however, given waivers to Malozsak and another drone operator to use them in Sahuarita parks, she said.

Dungey, the drone pilot, said there is an online community of people across the world who use drones and added there are efforts to self-regulate their flights.

“You’ve got people doing stupid stuff and that’s going to hurt the [drone] business. It’s because it’s so easy, you just go buy [a drone] and it comes in the mail,” he said. “Those are the people that are killing it.”

Police work

Sahuarita Police Chief John Noland, who wrote a research paper in 2012 on how law enforcement could handle the advance in drone technology, said changes need to be made soon at the local level to address drones.

“If we don’t, as municipalities, start to craft uses or expectations for drones, then basically critical mass would take over and expectations would be dictated to us,” he said.

The FAA has issued guidelines to law enforcements agencies on how to handle potential unauthorized drone use, though Noland and the Pima County Sheriff’s Department said they have not encountered the problem.

The sheriff’s department has used drones on a “limited basis” in the past, said Lt. Jeffrey Palmer, head of the department’s Green Valley substation. He added that the department might be using them increasingly in the “not too distant future.”

SPD has not used drones in the past and has no plans to acquire any right now, Noland said.

He added law enforcement would have several potential uses for drones, but privacy concerns still need to be worked out especially as drones available to the public become smaller and more advanced.

“Imagine you’re in your yard and someone is flying a drone six feet off the ground or 10 feet off the ground. Is that an invasion of privacy?” Noland said. “I tend to think it would, but there is no law anywhere that prohibits someone from flying over and filming you in your yard.”

As debate continues to swirl around drones, though, Malozsak said he will continue to operate his drone business and when new FAA regulations come out, he will comply.

“Until then, I will just have to fly with care and be responsible,” he said.

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