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Science

Rogue Drones Cause Concern As Sales Surge

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Chris Geiger prepares his drone

The falling price and exploding popularity of consumer drones are causing growing concern about the nation’s newest consumer craze. Rouge drone operators are becoming a nuisance, invading sensitive and private air space, and regulators are nearly powerless to stop them.

In a dusty field in central Fresno, wedding photographer and hobby drone enthusiast Chris Geiger fires up the electric motors on his small four propeller helicopter.

The two-foot wide white and black robot leaps into the air and hovers for a moment, perfectly steady.

Geiger sends the drone, which he prefers to call an Unmanned Aerial System or UAS, shooting into the sky to demonstrate how easy it would be for a drone to reach 1-thousand feet or more.

“250...300…350…400 feet” Geiger counts of the altitude of the drone rising quickly to its computer controlled limit.

Geiger pans the helicopter’s onboard camera and watches the video on a cell phone mounted to the drone’s remote control.

“Most people with the helicopters like this model are using them to experiment and play around with the aerial view,” Geiger said.

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While Geiger’s drone cost several thousand dollars he says even a much cheaper model could fly beyond 1-thousand feet or more with ease.

The thousand foot mark is significant because that is a level where emergency service helicopters and wildfire fighting planes fly.

Recently a drone flying near the Fresno-Yosemite international airport nearly collided with a life flight helicopter.

Vince Ellis was the EMT on that flight.

He says he has never seen a helicopter have to dodge a drone before.

"It really puts a black eye on the whole hobby" Matthew Raymond, Fresno Radio Modelers

“I think we will really be beefing up our drone awareness. I think this situation has heightened our awareness of what is going on around us. So we will definitely be on the lookout for them more often,” Ellis said.

Ellis also points out many emergency response helicopters fly unpredictable patterns increasing the risk of drone collisions.

Drone sales are taking off.

An industry group expects more than 700,000 drones to be sold this year, which is a 63-percent increase over 2014.

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Matthew Raymond, the president of Fresno Radio Modelers, says reckless operators are giving drones a bad name.

“There is a lot of good uses for these platforms but when the average person gets a hold of them that is uneducated on how they should fly them or the dangers, it really puts a black eye on the whole hobby,” Raymond said.

Raymond says it is impossible to know how many drones are in the valley but he estimates the number is in the tens of thousands.

At the same time, his club has just 160 members.

The drones, according to some, are the new laser pointer when it comes to direct threats to pilots and their crew.

Todd Valeri with American Ambulance, the company that runs the Valley’s life fight service, says new regulations are necessary to protect crews.

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“As there are more incidents, you will see more of an effort to implement regulation but that will only take us so far. There are regulations against flashing laser devices at aircraft. But we do see that. While it is not common it is not exactly rare either,” Valeri said.

The FAA has regulations that limit how high or close to an airport the drones can fly.  

But those rules are widely flaunted and catching the pilot of a drone is nearly impossible unless a law enforcement officer sees it land.

Stanton Florea with the U.S. Forest Service says drones have interrupted numerous firefighting missions by flying too close to wildfires.

He says they anticipated the problem with drones and prepared a campaign called ‘if you fly, we can’t’.

“Our national interagency fire partners were aware that drone sales last holiday season had really skyrocketed. So we are seeing more drone incursions on wild fires this fire season,” Florea said.

Florea says they are working with law enforcement to catch people operating drones illegally but concedes it is a challenge.

"It has gotten just ahead of us and we need to take action, in my view, as quickly as possible," Sen. Ted Gaines

The increasing run-ins with drones has caught the attention of the state legislature.

First District State Senator Ted Gaines has filed two bills, one to increase penalties for flying near fire zones and another to allow emergency responders to take the drones out of the sky.

“It has gotten just ahead of us and we need to take action, in my view, as quickly as possible. So that we are educating people. They know what the rules are. And if they violate that there is a consequence,” Gaines said.

And other than just flying for fun the drones could have practical uses in actually helping emergency responders.

The wedding photographer Chris Geiger was recently asked by a fire department to fly into a burned out building to check its structural integrity.

And the forest service is looking for ways to use the drones to monitor fires in dangerous or difficult to reach places.