When Yuriy Drubinskiy was flying his DGI Phantom Vision II Plus drone over Lee Richardson Zoo in Garden City recently, he was surprised to see a warning come over his smart phone.
Through an app on his phone, he received a text message from the Federal Aviation Administration telling him the zoo was a no-fly zone. The GPS on the plane linked with the app and let the FAA know where he was flying.
That he was in a no-fly zone was news to Drubinskiy, a math and engineering teacher at Garden City High School who is among the growing number of local drone enthusiasts. And it served as a reminder that it might not be a bad idea for him to brush up on the do's and don'ts of drones.
That's what the FAA had in mind when it recently pushed through new regulations to make drone users more accountable and responsible.
In October, federal regulators announced plans were in the works to require most recreational drones to be registered in the wake of a growing number of incidents. They wanted to make sure to get the rules in place before Christmas, when it was expected the small aircraft would be popular gifts.
As of Dec. 21, all drones weighing between .55 pounds and 55 pounds have to be registered. Registration has to be done online with the FAA at a cost of $5, and failure to register will result in penalties.
“Registering unmanned aircraft will help build a culture of accountability and responsibility, especially with new users who have no experience operating in the U.S. aviation system,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in October. “It will help protect public safety in the air and on the ground."
In addition to the new rules on registration, the FAA also has an extensive list of rules and recommendations for operating drones, to include that drones:
• must fly no higher than 400 feet and remain below any surrounding obstacles when possible;
• must be flown within eyesight at all times, and those flying them should use an observer to assist if needed;
• must remain well clear of and not interfere with manned aircraft operations, to include avoiding other aircraft and obstacles at all times;
• must not intentionally fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles, and remain at least 25 feet away from individuals and vulnerable property;
• operators must contact the airport or control tower before flying within five miles of an airport;
• must fly no closer than two nautical miles from a heliport with a published instrument flight procedure;
• must not be flown in adverse weather conditions, such as in high winds or reduced visibility;
• must not be flown under the influence of alcohol or drugs;
• must be flown where the operating environment is safe, and by a competent and proficient operator;
• must not be flown near or over sensitive infrastructure or property, such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways and government facilities;
• cannot be flown over private property before operator has checked and followed all local laws and ordinances;
• cannot conduct surveillance or photograph persons in areas where there is an expectation of privacy without the individual’s permission;
GCHS ninth-grader Treytan Hutchinson, a member of Drubinskiy’s robotics club at the the high school that has experimented with some of the practical uses of drones, admitted he did not know there were rules and regulations for flying them.
Combining the prevalence of novice users like Hutchinson with the complexity of introducing drones into the nation's airspace is challenging. As a result, the FAA is taking an incremental approach to integrating drones.
Drones come in a variety of shapes and sizes and serve diverse purposes — from recreational to commercial to government use. Regardless of size and use, the responsibility to fly safely applies equally. The FAA is partnering with several industry associations to promote safety and responsibility and had open meetings to answer questions from the public prior to implementing the registration requirements.
Dennis O’Connor, interim director of aviation for the Kansas Department of Transportation, said the FAA regulates and makes the rules for everything that goes into the sky.
One rule the FAA has is for anyone flying an unmanned aircraft to not be reckless or careless.
This FAA regulation is intended to be broad, and O’Connor said things like Drubinskiy flying over a zoo could fall under this category because if a drone gets too close to animals, it could cause a reaction or spook the animals.
“It could be a case of recklessness or neglect,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor said if someone operates outside the FAA regulations, that person is at the risk of being fined. The amount of the fine depends on the infraction and the circumstances.
While flying a drone over 400 feet could impact aircraft, so could flying one at lower altitudes if it comes too close to an airport, O’Connor said.
“That is where (planes) land and take off, and that is why drones are expected to be five miles away from airports,” O’Connor said. “The FAA is the regulator of everything in the sky.”
Drubinskiy feels drones have been given a bad reputation because of the possible dangers that come with them when not operated properly.
“You just have to be really responsible,” he said. “(No one) wants a close encounter with planes. If you go above 400 feet, that is a possibility.”
Drones aren't just being used for recreational purposes. Farmers, for example, are beginning to use drones and the cameras attached to them to look at their crops to determine if there are any problems.
Drubinskiy purchased his drone for $2,500, and he and his students have used it to take aerial photos at GCHS football games and of band performances.
“You will see things you normally would not see," Drubinskiy said. “They give a bird’s eye view.”
Both the Garden City Police Department and the Finney County Sheriff’s Office are reporting that they have yet to receive a call about a drone concern.
Garden City police Capt. Randy Ralston said that while the FFA regulates the air space, local officers would respond if drones were found to have done anything to affect public safety.
Garden City Regional Airport Manager Rachelle Powell said there have been no issues to date of anyone invading the local airport's air space with a drone. She believes one reason for this is the airport’s isolation from homes and businesses.
While Powell and O’Connor believe anyone flying a drone needs to have visual sight of it at all times, Drubinskiy said it is becoming more common to control them through a computer or some other electronic device.
Now that he knows there are rules and guidelines in place for safe, responsible use of drones, Hutchinson said he wants to learn more about them.
"I didn't know there were any until now," he said.
Michael is a reporter at the Garden City Telegram. He can be reached at email@example.com.