As lawmakers mull restrictions, the sky is the limit for private drone use

By KBJR News 1

March 21, 2014 Updated Mar 21, 2014 at 1:23 PM CDT

Duluth, MN (NNCNOW.com) - There was a time when it was only possible to get breathtaking views of Split Rock Lighthouse from a helicopter or airplane.

That's not the case anymore.

"I don't consider it a toy, maybe a grown up toy," said Cory Fechner.

Fechner is behind the controls of his very own drone.

"The drone for me was a way to kind of test the field a little bit, even though it's hobbyist and it's not commercialized at this time, it's something I'm looking forward to, because it will be," he said.

The several pound device navigates using GPS and can capture views that are simply amazing, and Fechner admits, concerning.

"There is a sense of 'wow' this thing can do video at a 1,000 feet away, over houses, you are basically a spy, a spy drone," Fechner said.

Fechner follows suggested FAA rules calling for drones to be flown no more than 400 feet in the air and five miles away from the airport.

Currently there is no legislation regulating the private use of drones. But there are guidelines for commercial use. The FAA is watching.

Fechner learned that first hand after using his drone to capture the start of this year's John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

"The FAA did contact me after the Beargrease. They called me and said this could be considered a commercial. I said I did it as a hobbyist, but their thought was you are shooting a commercial event," Fechner recalled.

He's not alone. A federal judge recently dismissed an FAA fine against a photographer who used a drone near the University of Virginia to film a commercial.
The FAA has since appealed the ruling.

"The technology is happening so fast that laws and policies and everything hasn't been able to keep up," said Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay.

Chief Ramsay admits his department is far off from adapting the technology, but understands the potential use in police work. Minnesota lawmakers are pushing legislation that would curb how law enforcement agencies utilize drones.

"If there is a lost child, no problem get it up. Fly it up, find that lost child," said Rep. Brian Johnson (R-Dist 32A). "It's a wonderful tool that can be used, if it's used properly."

Fechner doesn't doubt private drone operators like himself will come under more scrutiny by the FAA in the near future.

"I think there will be stipulations, probably not on who can buy them, but where you can fly them, where, and when."

Legislation regulating the use of drones has been proposed in 43 states and enacted in nine states.

The FAA isn't expected to release guidelines for private drone use for at least another year.

Written by Kevin Jacobsen
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