Drones may gain under FAA rules

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The Federal Aviation Administration will soon finalize rules for the commercialization of small unmanned aircraft systems, and that has some people excited and others worried.

Once primarily used by the military to track and destroy terrorist strongholds in Afghanistan, drones, as they are more commonly known, may fill the skies by 2015, the FAA's deadline to integrate unmanned aircraft into the nation's airspace as required by the 2012 FAA reauthorization.

“They're smaller, cheaper and the technology is amazing,” said Harley Rinerson, a senior adviser to the Colorado Emergency Preparedness Partnership and subject-matter expert. “This move by the FAA will certainly create jobs on multiple ends of the spectrum — everything from sales, to repairs, to drone operators and observers.”

Rinerson points out that drones are already employed by some law enforcement agencies.

According to the Mesa County Sheriff's Office website, the agency experimented with drones as far back as 2009 and now has flown more than 35 missions totaling 160 flight hours.

“I'm excited if this thing does fly,” said Jason Millsap of Denver, a former airman who once maintained drones for the Air Force. “I might actually be able to find a job other than something retail.”

But in light of creating much-needed jobs, some individuals remain skeptical and worry about privacy.

“I'm not liking the idea of something with a camera flying over my house taking pictures of me or my kids,” said Linda Ellison, a single mom from Littleton. “I'm not sure of what the legal aspects of this may be, but it certainly can't be good. I don't like the idea at all.”

Rinerson agrees privacy issues will indeed be put to the test.

“Right now, the FAA's rule-making body is concerned with airspace safety, not with privacy; that's not in their lane,” he said. “And there are no really solid test cases out there to help define it, so it will be interesting. I seriously doubt cases involving drones will be treated any differently than those using a helicopter or someone using binoculars.”

Currently anyone with a camera and a handful of cash can buy a small drone and operate it as long as they abide by FAA rules, said Rinerson.

“That pretty much means keeping it below 400 feet and away from airport traffic, and again, not using it for commercial gain. That has yet to be defined,” he said.

There are many commercial applications for the use of small drones, including search and rescue, utility line maintenance and observation, land-use management, real estate development, tourism and event photography.