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Drones beneath the Christmas tree: What to know before you fly

Rob Rees rigs his DJI Inspire 2 camera ship on his kitchen counter Thursday. Rees is a commercial drone operator who shoots mainly for the film industry. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Rob Rees rigs his DJI Inspire 2 camera ship on his kitchen counter Thursday. Rees is a commercial drone operator who shoots mainly for the film industry. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

This winter, airports have more to worry about than just snowy weather and slick runways. There’s a new source of anxiety waiting under the Christmas tree.

Drones.

“The folks that are going to get drones this year are going to see these really cool pictures you couldn’t get before,” said Robert Rees, owner of Rees Aerials and a volunteer lead representative for the Federal Aviation Administration. “People are going to say, ‘Oh, I’ll take my drone out there,’ without considering the implications on air traffic.”

Drones are the new puppies of the Christmas present world, and they can do a lot more damage than ruining the carpet.

As of Dec. 15, almost a million drones had been registered with the FAA in the United States. With even more new drones about to launch into airspace, the FAA and airport officials are asking people to be aware of rules and regulations before taking their hot new unmanned aircraft out for a spin.

The first order of business after getting a new drone is to determine if it will be used commercially. Even if it’s only used to shoot a YouTube video where the user is getting less than a penny per view, or used by a farmer who wants to inspect crops from above, a commercial license is necessary. Otherwise, drone away – within certain parameters, of course.

Perhaps the most important rule to remember is that no one can fly within 5 miles of an airport without notifying the FAA, and commercial users must be authorized by the agency.

In Spokane, this includes Felts Field, Spokane International Airport and Fairchild Air Force Base. It leaves a very small sliver of Spokane where people can legally fly without notifying an airport, from most of Wall Street to most of Bernard Street, including Riverfront Park. But even then, that area is not ideal for flying drones.

“You probably shouldn’t take your drone and fly over Riverfront Park at First Night,” said Todd Woodard, director of public affairs for Spokane International Airport.

Crowds abound downtown, and a falling drone could definitely take someone out. Also, Rees said the sliver of downtown where people can fly drones without notifying airports is also a path for helicopter ambulances.

So Rees has one message for drone flyers: Don’t be that guy.

Rees, who flew Black Hawk helicopters, completed three tours in Iraq and served in Desert Storm, knows exactly what flying is like from a pilot’s perspective. It’s nearly impossible to see and avoid “a tiny white dot” when focusing on so many different tasks while flying.

A drone crash can cause costly damage to a plane, injuries and, sometimes, fatalities.

“If a drone gets sucked into an airplane, people are going to die. It’s simple,” Rees said.

The FAA also recommends that drones remain 25 feet away from individuals and private property, steer clear of sensitive, crowded infrastructure and stay within the line of sight of the operator.

Another important thing to keep in mind is to not fly drones over crime scenes or fires. Last summer, a lone drone flew into an active wildfire zone near south Spokane, said Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer. The Fire Department had to contact the owner before they could legally fly their own drone at the scene. In the interim, the fire spread.

Even though kids might be asking for drones this year instead of train sets or dolls for Christmas, Schaeffer, along with the FAA and airport officials, stressed one main point.

“They are not toys,” he said.


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