The business of drones

Drones have become a huge hobby and commercial services business but some novice pilots don't even know they're breaking laws. 

Dutch Kepple says he got his drone as a birthday present last year and now he spends all his spare time flying it.

"It's exciting, fun and its safe," Kepple says. "It gives me all the thrill of doing extreme things."

Another drone enthusiast, Aaron Primeaux, has noticed that the air is starting to get a little crowded.

The Consumer Technology Association says that drones were big business in 2016. More than two million units were sold to the tune of almost $800 million in revenue.

Drones are being predicted to continue among the emerging growth industries. Sales are expected three million units and soar over the $1 billion mark for the first time. The bulk of the sales is projected to be for hobby and recreational use. 

The growth isn't a surprise to Gene Robinson who is considered to a be pioneer in drone development. "This resurgence in aviation has been made available by technology, and I think the technology is going to expand the use of these unmanned aircraft, these drones." 

Last year the FAA issued rules for commercial drone use. Those looking to cash in have to get a special pilots license known as Part 107. Those flying for fun don't need a license but there are still some tough rules that must be followed.

The basic rules are:

  • Drones can't reach an altitude higher than 400 feet
  • Drones can't go beyond line of sight or fly at night
  • If the aircraft weights a little more than a half pound and up to 55 pounds it must be registered with the FAA
  • Airport managers must be notified if you're within five miles of an airport
  • Drones can't fly over stadiums or over large groups of people like protest marches and rallies

Attorney Jessica Palvino says those rules aren't all you need to know. She says that Texas was the forefront of implementing drone regulations.

The Texas Privacy Act became law in 2013. It has steep penalties for violating personal privacy: a Class C misdemeanor that can be enhanced with jail time.

"In addition to the criminal penalties, if you violate someone's privacy, a person whose privacy was violated can sue you," Palvino says.

There is also a critical infrastructure law. It bans flying over dams, like Mansfield, power substations and generation plants, water tanks and prisons.

But how about the beach or taking some shots over places like the port in Galveston?

Lloyd Wright, who trains drone pilots, says think again. "That's not ok according to both state and federal law because a port is a piece of a critical infrastructure, not only that, usually there are several airports and heliports in the area as well that will require some notification."

It's still legal to fly above and around the Texas Capitol but it may soon get tougher. The State Preservation Board is in charge of the complex and managers have been told to draft up new air space rules.

Austin police are also ramping up enforcement. Officer John Buell says a lot has changed in a very short time.

Buell says, "We had probably one, maybe two calls every other month. Maybe even three or four months without any calls, now it's almost a daily thing."

Some of the calls have involved collisions with the Frost Bank Tower. During a recent gathering of local drone pilots, Officer Buell highlighted other downtown crashes. 

The incidents prompted city officials to declare all of Austin a "No Fly Zone". That ordinance was scaled back in 2015 but there's still confusion about where drones can actually fly.

Two areas in Austin are radio controlled aircraft friendly. One is located on the north shore of Walter E. Long Lake. The other is inside Searight Metro Park in South Austin. Both are operated by clubs which require membership.

A pilot may not get arrested just for flying in an Austin city park but there is a park rule against it so pilots can be asked to leave.

"If they do come to a park for a nice picture, if they come there to shoot a picture, most of the time the picture is taken, and the drone has landed, and its done, there are no issues," Buell says.

Federal officials have also stepped up enforcement especially after incidents like the drone crashing into the Seattle landmark, the Space Needle, on New Year's Eve.

FOX 7 has also learned that the pilot who flew over a crowd during the Women's March on January 21 is also facing a federal inquiry.

In 2016, the FAA received nearly 1,800 reports of drones in unauthorized airspace and unsafe operation. The most recent enforcement action resulted in a $200,000 fine.

It's a lot of have to consider but for those like Dutch Kepple, hooked by the thrill of flight, all the hoops a pilot must jump through are worth the effort.

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