James Komsa, owner of Shore Aerial Photography, speaks about the transition from fixed winged aircraft to drones in his business.
THOMAS P. COSTELLO
When Jim Komsa launched his aerial photography business in 2013, using airplanes to shoot photos from the sky, he said there were only a handful of competitors in all of New Jersey. Now, there are dozens.
Komsa, the co-owner of Brick-based Shore Aerial Photography, credits one main factor in the growth of his industry: drones.
“The drone industry is booming very rapidly,” he said. “Anybody you talk to, it’s cool to fly a drone, just to get your hands on the controls and fly this thing around.”
Federal regulations allowing hobbyists and businesses to buy drones, led to plunging prices and explosive growth in the industry. There are now more than 1.1 million consumer drones — formally called unmanned aerial systems — in the skies over the U.S., according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Companies are using the technology in everything from utility inspections to movie sets, agriculture, real estate, scientific research and law enforcement.
Komsa owns a fleet of four drones to snap sky-high photos of construction sites and properties on the real estate market as well as to create aerial maps.
He said his company faces one main challenge, one that experts said was common across the industry: uncertain regulations governing the use of drones.
“It’s changing so quick,” he said. “That for me is the most frustrating thing because I’m abiding by the regulations now, I know exactly what I need to do now. What’s going to change next year that’s going to make things different for me or anybody else that’s in this field?”
As drones become a fixture of the skies, experts said the federal government has been slow to figure out how to integrate them into the airspace. Meanwhile, many states and municipalities have passed their own drone laws creating a shifting patchwork of regulations that aviation experts said confuses flyers and leaves several key safety and privacy questions unanswered.
“It’s a fiasco let’s just say that,” said Sarah Nilsson, an aviation attorney and law professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. “You’ve now got a hodgepodge of laws around the country that are sometimes in direct conflict with the FAA.”
The FAA is the agency solely responsible for regulating American airspace, setting the standards for flying any aircraft including planes, helicopters and drones. The agency’s current rules for recreational drone flyers are:
- Must be age 13 or older to fly
- UAS must be between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds
- Fly at or below 400 feet
- Keep your UAS within sight
- Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports
- Never fly over groups of people
- Never fly over stadiums or sports events
- Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires
- Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Be aware of airspace requirements
The FAA previously required hobbyists to register their drone with the federal government, but that rule was struck down by a federal appeals court in May. More than 770,000 people registered drones before the rule was overturned. In New Jersey, more than 1,000 people registered in 2016 alone.
James Barnes has been flying unmanned aerial vehicles since he was around 15 years old. He’s now 52.
“When I was a kid, I would build my own air frames, attach my own motors to them, and fly my own airplanes,” he said.
Now, Barnes is the founder and operator of the NJ Drone Academy, a Ringoes-based school based in Hunterdon County that teaches people how to build and fly drones. He has been flying modern drones for the past six years and has been teaching people how to build them for the past three.
Since modern drones are relatively new, Barnes has seen the regulatory reaction towards them wax and wane over the years – such as how the aircrafts were first required to be registered before the rule was rescinded in 2016.
“When we first started flying, when I first opened up my academy, there were basically no regulations,” he said. “We’ve seen it from none to where it is now, so we’ve gotten to see the progression.”
Barnes said regulation would be positive for the drone industry.
“I’m all for regulation,” he said, “so we can properly integrate them into our lives. Education is the key to safely do that.”
The issue, he said, is that a lot people buy drones without knowing the rules, regulations and basics of flying. In the future, he would like to see the FAA issue a clear set of rules for commercial and recreational flyers.
There is a lot to look forward to with the growth of drones, though, as well. FPV racing, or first-person view racing, is a sport rapidly growing that involves racing drones, Barnes said. He’s currently in the midst of opening the first FPV park in the country at his academy in Ringoes, he said. For more information on the academy, go to www.njdroneacademy.com.
The Somerset County Sheriff’s Office is now flying drones. The office became the first law enforcement agency out of 1,600 partners to get a drone for search and rescue missions through a partnership with Project Lifesaver International.
Nick Muscavage/Staff Video
Around Central Jersey, drones are becoming an increasing presence in public and private enterprises.
In February, the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office became the first law-enforcement agency in the country to receive new drone technology for search-and-rescue missions. The $40,000 military-grade, quad-rotor drone now being used by the sheriff’s department was part of a partnership with Project Lifesaver International.
Also in February, a Cranbury-based drone company, ABJ Drones, assisted in the search and rescue mission of a filmmaker who was missing in the Florida Keys.
Businesses using unmanned aircraft follow the same rules as hobbyists but beginning last summer pilots must also pass an aviation knowledge test and be vetted by the Transportation Security Agency. Companies also have to obtain a waiver to fly in restricted airspace near airports and to fly at night.
In New Jersey, there are no statewide drone laws on the books, but unmanned aircraft are banned from flying over state parks.
Some municipalities have sought to set their own restrictions. In 2015, Bernards Township, amended an ordinance to include prohibiting the flying drones and unmanned aircrafts at any parks or recreation areas in the township.
“This shall not prohibit any federal, state, county or municipal agency, law enforcement agency or emergency services organization from the use of drones and unmanned aircraft for any lawful and authorized purpose pursuant to applicable regulation,” according to the ordinance.
Breaking the township ordinance is punishable by a minimum fine of $100 and a maximum fine of $2,000.
In March 2016, minutes for the Bernardsville Borough Council show that the council discussed drone policies and collected sample drone policies for review.
A search through the borough’s ordinances, however, did not find any proposals for ordinances regulating drone use.
‘A lot of questions in the air’
Such local restrictions probably wouldn’t hold up in court, aviation experts said because the FAA is the only agency with the power to regulate the airspace.
But towns might be able to pass laws about privacy and set limits on speed, noise and flying over private property, which local governments traditionally have had the power to regulate.
There are, however, federal regulations when it comes to flying drones near airports.
The FAA’s website said that a drone pilot must give advance notice before flying within five miles of an airport.
Drone footage shows Cascades Park, the Firestone and Bloxham buildings and other landmarks. The Firestone and Bloxham buildings are part of a North American Properties project to create a mixed-used development.
Courtesy North American Properties
“The recommended guideline for people who fly drones for a hobby or as a recreation must contact the local airport if they intend to fly within five miles of that airport,” said Jim Peters, the spokesman for the east region of the FAA. “That’s a given. They have to do that.”
If the airport has a tower, then that airport’s air traffic control must be informed in addition to the airport before flying a drone within five miles. Other restrictions can be found here.
He also said that a person or an organization can apply for a “part 107,” which is a waiver to operate a drone within five miles of an airport or the controlled airspace of a commercial service airport.
There are multiple drone enthusiast websites showing the five-mile buffer zones surrounding airports across the country.
In Hunterdon County, drone pilots must advise airport personnel of their planned flights in advance when fling within five miles of Alexandria Airport, Sky Manor Airport and Solberg Airport. Van Sant Airport in Bucks County, Pennsylvania has five-mile buffer zone extending into Hunterdon County, and so does Hackettstown Airport.
There are also five-mile buffer zones surrounding airports in Somerset County including Central Jersey Regional Airport and Somerset Airport. Princeton Airport’s five-mile zone extends into Somerset County. Old Bridge Airport in Middlesex County and Linden Airport in Union County also have five-mile zones.
At the shore, there are five-mile buffer zones around Ocean County Airport, Lakewood Airport and Eagles Nest Airport in Ocean County and Monmouth Executive Airport in Monmouth County.
Congress could also force further changes. A Senate bill introduced in May would allow state and local governments to regulate the time, place and manner of drone usage below 200 feet, taking regulatory power away from the federal government.
There are a lot of questions in the air as to what the final shakedown will be,” said Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in New York. “If I’m a drone hobbyist and I want to go fly in my local park, will I be able to do that? If I want to fly in my backyard, do I have to be concerned about my neighbor shooting down my drone?”
Unlike most industries, drone companies have largely welcomed regulations saying uniform standards for all flyers will encourage growth in the industry. Last month, several industry organizations, led by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, wrote to Congress warning that moving too quickly to give power to states could have “unintended consequences” for the growth and safety of the industry.
“We think it’s important that the FAA have jurisdiction over the airspace, but if someone is using the drone in an irresponsible way, we’re certainly in favor of having local government take action,” Tom McMahon, AUVSI’s vice president of public affairs and advocacy, said in an interview.
The rules around drone use have mostly been written because of safety concerns. Last year, there were 67 unauthorized drone incidents in New Jersey reported to the FAA, most were flying too close to airports and were spotted by manned pilots. Experts said a drone can pose a serious safety risk to an airplane if it were to disable an engine
A tool for terrorists?
There have also been concerns about terrorists using drones to plan or launch attacks. Experts said unmanned aircraft could be used to bring down a passenger plane or damage critical infrastructure like nuclear or electric plants. Drones could also be used to scope out potential targets for attack.
In May, the Trump administration urged Congress to give federal agencies the power to monitor drones flying near federal facilities and if necessary disable or destroy the aircraft.
But Todd Curtis, the founder of AirSafe.com and a former airline safety engineer at Boeing, said more drones in the sky don’t necessary heighten the threat of a terror attack. He said any technology could be used for nefarious purposes, but if the technology didn’t exist terrorists would likely find another way to strike.
“Drones don’t cause evil, drones give evil more options,” he said.
The nascent industry has a lot of questions left to answer, experts said. Curtis likened the state of the industry to the dawn of the automobile age, when regulations were uncertain and ever-changing and users didn’t necessarily know how to use the new technology safely and effectively.
Meanwhile, drones continue flying off the shelves. The FAA estimates there will be 3.55 million recreational unmanned aircraft in use by 2021.
“Overtime there will be consensus about what’s reasonable and what’s not when it comes to drones,” Curtis said. “Right now there’s no consensus
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