Saturday, January 2, 2016

DARTdrones Flight Academy: Droves of drones spawn hobby flight school

Standing in the center of an abandoned Montgomery County parking lot Saturday morning, seven strangers huddled around a small remote control and waited.

"Alright, take control now," urged Brian Ozga as he handed the device off. "Just not too fast."

Five yards away, a small X-shaped drone blinked red, then green, and whirred to life, jumping ten feet off the ground. For a moment, it glided peacefully, propellers slicing the sky. Then it dipped. Lurched. And finally regained altitude as the crowd below looked on.

At this unlikely meeting spot on a cold weekend morning, a local mayor, an Ecuadorian researcher, and a sailing instructor, among others, were united by just one thing: Their desire to learn - formally - about drones.

And for now, it seems, these hobbyists may be in the minority.

Last year, the U.S. saw a proliferation of drones enter the mainstream like no year before, with an estimated 1 million projected to be sold this holiday season, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Yet the rise of the technology - and the ease in which anyone can acquire it - has also brought a slew of problems that are now tainting the reputation of the burgeoning industry.

Thus, enter drone schools - a group of businesses across the country that are capitalizing on this technology boom. Convinced that drones offer far more benefits than problems, these schools are working not only to educate hobbyists and residents about how to safely fly - but also to change how the public perceives drones.

Ozga, of Boston-based DARTdrones Flight Academy and himself a former commercial pilot, is one of these drone school instructors. Commanding the group of six students at a Residence Inn conference room in North Wales Borough Saturday morning, Ozga discusses everything from how to make a drone fly to how to handle a technology failure before allowing students to test-drive a model aircraft in the abandoned lot next door.

Courses can cost students as much as nearly $430 for a day-long class. Individual seminars run anywhere from $79 to $175 each.

The students come from all backgrounds and all ages: 70-year-old Marcella Ridenour of Gwynedd Township, who wants to use the technology to take aerial videos for the sailing and croquet courses she teaches. Deborah Buzby-Cope, 51, mayor of Bass River Township in Burlington County, N.J., who came to learn so she can better address any drone-related disputes that may emerge among township residents. And Roy Chery, 47, of Ecuador, who came to study drones in the U.S. for three weeks, hoping to take information back to Ecuador to help officials better utilize the technology for surveying the Galapagos Islands.

"How many of you saw the video of the skier?" Ozga asked as he began his course Saturday, referencing a video shared widely last month of a drone nearly hitting a World Cup skiing champion as it fell from the sky during a race. "Yeah ... that doesn't look good for us."

Indeed, a series of high-profile mishaps involving drones this year have convinced many lawmakers, regulators and citizens that hundreds of thousands of drones dotting the airspace are potentially dangerous.

Earlier this year, the technology stoked concern when a drone landed on the White House lawn. And just last week, yet another recreational drone was spotted flying alongside President Obama's motorcade in Hawaii.

These incidents are worrisome, Ozga said, but also perhaps a bit overblown. But as ordinary citizens increasingly acquire drones without backgrounds in flying or without knowledge of regulations, more opportunities for problems can emerge, Ozga said.

"Somebody could crash [a drone] into an airplane or something and the FAA could say, 'No more drones,'" Ozga said. "It just takes one guy to ruin it for everybody."

Ozga said "a lot of gray area" still exists in the industry, meaning education - even more so than regulation - is needed. But schools like DARTdrone, for now, however, are only gaining steam.

To fill the education gap, regulators and state lawmakers have come down hard on the technology, citing potential issues with privacy or even domestic terrorism. Last month, the FAA mandated that all recreational pilots and hobbyists must register drones almost as small as half a pound. And so far, 26 states have enacted drone-related privacy laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Currently, Pennsylvania has none, though Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) introduced a bill last year instituting a moratorium on most uses of drones by state and local government agencies, including law enforcement, for two years, except in emergencies. And New Jersey lawmakers have introduced multiple bills tough on drones that now await votes from the full Senate.

And last year while on City Council, Mayor-elect Jim Kenney introduced drone regulations that, among other stipulations, would prohibit the use of the technology above or near gatherings of people. Violators would face a fine of up to $1,000 or 30 days in jail. The proposal was referred; no final action was taken.

For now, drone school teachers and advocates of the technology said a focus instead needs to be on educating about the benefits of drones - which, they say, will help dispel their bad reputation.

"An overreaction, a little bit of hysteria, it's causing lawmakers and regulators to consider, if not promulgate, regulations that are overreaching and ... could hinder the growth of the technology," said Rich Hanson, government and regulatory affairs representative for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a drone advocacy organization.

"This technology is going to be the next generation of aviation," he said. "In the next decade ... people won't give it any second thought."


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