Local privacy concerns spur proposed rules on drone usage

Harry Scholz prepares a quadcopter to demonstrate its flying ability at Duncan's RC Hobby Shop in Phoenix. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Harry Scholz prepares a quadcopter to demonstrate its flying ability at Duncan’s RC Hobby Shop in Phoenix. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

As unmanned aircraft armed with video cameras become more accessible and widespread, privacy concerns are ushering in new regulation proposals from Arizona municipalities looking to allay public concerns over the new eye in the sky.

Both the city of Phoenix and Town of Paradise Valley are in the midst of drafting ordinances that apply to unmanned aircraft, at times referred to as “drones.”

A quadcopter like this can be equipped with HD camera equipment.

Quadcopters can be equipped with HD camera equipment.

The ordinances are focused on protecting privacy concerns as more and more citizens worry about the remote-controlled quadcopters flying overhead — and watching their every move. The devices are used for a variety of purposes. Real estate agents use them to obtain aerial photographs of top-tier properties. In the public sector, unmanned aircraft are often used for surveillance purposes in municipalities such as Phoenix.

In places like Paradise Valley and north Scottsdale, photography and video shot by unmanned aircraft are becoming a staple of selling homes in the luxury real estate market, says one of the Valley’s top agents.

Some quadcopter models such as the 350 QX2 manufactured by Blade have built-in GPS chips and altimeter gauges that allow the remote-controlled device to be programmable up to thousands of feet in the air.

Who controls the airspace?

Local towns and cities may feel the need to enact laws to better control how the emerging technology is used in their areas — but according to one official, regulating airspace is the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration.

All airspace — from the ground up — is regulated by the FAA.

“The FAA can take enforcement action against anyone who operates an unmanned aircraft system — whether it’s for commercial or hobby purposes — in a way that endangers the safety of the national airspace system,” said FAA Pacific West Division Public Affairs Manager Ian Gregor in a May 12 written response to e-mailed questions. “This authority is designed to protect users of the airspace as well as people and property on the ground.”

The FAA has regulations that apply to the operation of all aircraft, whether manned or unmanned, and regardless of the altitude at which the aircraft is operating, officials say.

FAA officials say all commercial remote-controlled pilots ought to have authorization for what they are flying.

“Private citizens in any state who want to operate a UAS for non-hobby/recreation purposes must have authorization from the FAA,” said Mr. Gregor.

“Additionally, the exemptions we issue for commercial UAS operations prohibit operations within five miles of airports. As you know, there are a number of airports clustered in and around the Phoenix area.”

A ProtoX nano-sized quadcopter.

A ProtoX nano-sized quadcopter.

Local eye to the sky

Some residents feel their privacy is threatened by the remote-controlled devices and they aren’t calling the FAA to complain — they’re calling their local elected officials.

Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who represents District 6, is developing an amended version to proposed local airspace regulations meant to protect local residents’ rights to privacy. Last summer Councilman DiCiccio along with Councilman Michael Nowakowski introduced an ordinance outlawing photographing or videotaping people on private property without their consent.

Last summer’s proposal would have made a violation a misdemeanor. Anyone caught violating the proposed law could have faced a fine up to $2,500. A new proposal is expected before Phoenix City Council this June, Councilman DiCiccio says.

“We have been working on this drone ordinance for six months,” he said in a May 12 phone interview.  “Every time we get it together something new comes up. We are being very careful that it is literally about privacy and individual privacy. The policy we are looking at is going to be comprehensive, but drones will be a part of that.”

While the term “drone” has been embedded within media nomenclature the true definition of the word suggest a completely autonomous aircraft with programmable GPS waypoints, according to remote-controlled aircraft enthusiasts.

“There is nothing really the police can do,” to stop a fly-by from an unmanned aircraft, Councilman DiCiccio says “We want to create an ordinance that codifies state law … we don’t really have anything that addresses it.”

Councilman DiCiccio’s new proposal won’t only apply to those in the private sector. He’s also concerned about government abuse of unmanned aircraft and his proposal will place limits on how police can use the devices for surveillance purposes.

“The city of Phoenix has drone-like equipment,” he pointed out. “When we have events going on, the city of Phoenix is recording everything you are doing. Gosh, if we are doing this, what else are we doing?”

Those concerns of “what is going on above me?” are echoed in neighboring Paradise Valley.

“I’ve received a number of calls from residents complaining about the invasive nature of low-flying drones above and around their private property,” said Paradise Valley Mayor Michael Collins in a May 12 written response to e-mailed questions. “Being an affluent community where residents greatly value and safeguard their privacy, the use of drones even for the most legitimate purpose can be in direct conflict with our expectations for quality of life.”

Mayor Collins says regulation is warranted from cited privacy concerns when it comes to unmanned aircraft flown in local airspace.

“Drones may have many beneficial uses, but deployed without proper regulation, drones could cause unprecedented invasions of the privacy rights of town residents,” he said. “If we don’t get out ahead of it to establish some guidelines for how drones are used, they will be used in a very invasive way and we’ll be left to try and pick up the pieces.”

Mayor Collins says this June Paradise Valley Town Council will prepare its own ordinance looking into possible limitations for use for unmanned aircraft within town limits.

“On June 11 our town council will consider a town code amendment restricting the use of drones in the Town of Paradise Valley,” he explained. “Our town council members care deeply about protecting the civil liberties and Fourth Amendment rights of Paradise Valley residents and are willing to devote the time necessary to closely examine this issue.”

A quadcopter hovers as Harry Scholz is at the helm of the controls.

A quadcopter hovers as Harry Scholz is at the helm of the controls.

An emerging function of salesmanship

Chris Karas of The Karas Group at Russ Lyon Sotheby’s International Realty says aerial photography is a must when dealing with luxury real estate.

“Aerial photography is the next level,” he said in a May 12 phone interview. “Everyone has the basics. We like to step it up to the next level and provide a new spin to multimedia marketing. We do use drone, aerial photography.”

Mr. Karas says the latest instance of aerial photography was to promote a Phoenix luxury development coined Crown Canyon, a gated enclave of 10 custom home sites nestled between Paradise Valley and The Arizona Biltmore.

Councilman DiCiccio agrees Realtors should be able to promote their properties through aerial photography. The action, he says, is protected by “commercial free speech.”

“We have used a wide variety of things with the drones and it really gives a whole new dimension,” Mr. Karas said of creating videos and still photography for potential suitors to high-end properties in both Phoenix and Paradise Valley. “It gives an overall view of the property and what it looks like from  up above.”

But Mr. Karas say he is cognizant of evolving regulations and privacy concerns.

“The biggest thing with drones is they can’t be used for commercial use or for profit,” he said of basic guidelines. “We do it for our clients, but it is a combination of all of the other stuff we do — it is really just a part of the package.”

As with any business on the cutting edge of technology, it oftentimes comes with an opportunity to create something superior to the existing marketplace, Mr. Karas points out.

“We have a different approach for every property,” he said. “Some properties warrant aerial photography while others don’t. It really depends on the property and how to market that property to the best of my ability. It really is a different level of marketing that we have brought to our clients.”

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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