Invasion of the drones - ABC 33/40 - Birmingham News, Weather, Sports

Invasion of the drones

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BIRMINGHAM - AL - A drone invasion appears eminent. For years, the military has used the technology. Now, consumers are taking them to the sky. It's expected to become a nearly 90 billion dollar business worldwide. Much of it is expected to come from nine states, including Alabama. This new technology is sparking questions about who regulates it, how it should be legally operated, and what the penalties should be for not following the rules.

Flight has always fascinated humans from Icarus' failed wax winged flight in Greek mythology to the Wright Brother's flyer at the dawn of the 20th century to the advent of the space program in 1950's. Now, drones are starting to soar.

"It's s a new and exciting way to experience flight without going through all the costs and time of getting your pilots license," explained Kevin Allred, owner of AGL Aerial Video Solutions.

Some call them drones. Others use the terms unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).  But they're still an investment ranging from 450 dollars to thousands and an addictive one.

Kevin Henderson is better known as Sky Bama. He took pictures of the January and February ice storms with his drone.

"The viewpoint when you are higher- just getting traffic information, spotting people on the ground. I had a lady ask if I could find a missing dog in Helena," he said.

Kevin Allred makes and sells them.

They invited ABC 33/40 to a Shelby County field to take a Phantom drone on a test flight. The Phantom flew with a hawk over the field even around an abandoned house. A camera captured every second.

"We may be able to see there are people down there. We can't even tell what they are wearing for the most part until we got this thing really close to them and they're going to know it's there," said Allred.

FAA guidelines restrict flight to no more than 400 feet to prevent interference with planes midair.

Hobbyists also have their own rules.

"We have a lot of rules, a lot of protocals we've set forth by our small company we follow. We don't fly over people. We don't fly near people," said Allred.

But more people and companies are purchasing drones. Right now, FAA must still approve commercial use. Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville has several. Gadsden police even have two. In the US, they're used for border patrol, agricultural monitoring, crime scene investigations, search and rescue missions and disasters, like the California wildfires and the recent tornadoes. In fact, the FAA is investigating a TV station for capturing video following the Arkansas tornado with one due to a FAA ban on use by news agencies.

"One of the advantages if cost effectiveness. It does have the safety factor of removing the pilot out of the vehicle and out of harm's way," said Cody Lemke, an engineering student at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

Texas A&M Corpus Christi is one of six test sites working with the FAA to develop flying and licensing procedures. Researchers have already identified more than 300 ways to use drones.

"It will be utilized in ways we cannot even understand yet," said Dr. Luis Cifuentes, vice president of research at Texas A&M Corpus Christi.

Drones used for spying is a major concern for many people including researchers.

"That is something that is a concern to everyone running one of these national test sites, a concern of FAA and should be a concern to everyone," said Cifuentes.

 The FAA is expected to present proposed guidelines next week. They may resemble practices already employed by enthusiasts, like staying out of airport airspace and populated areas.

"People need to be educated. Everyone who owns one needs to fly safely and be careful," said Henderson.

In Alabama, there are no rules specifically related to drones. A bill requiring law enforcement agencies to get a probable cause warrant before using a drone in an investigation only passed the senate.

Right now, Gadsden police are the only agency in Central Alabama with drones. ABC 33/40 has made numerous requests for information about them. But they have not returned our phone calls or emails.


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