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New regulations open skies to thousands more drones

PINELLAS PARK

Despite the wind's best efforts to knock down his drone, Josh Newby whizzed his handmade model all around a city park, landing safely each time.

He left his job as a network engineer in August and started focusing on his startup company, Aries Dynamics. Newby, 31, said the heart of the company will be custom builds, repairs and contracted aerial photography. As organizer of Tampa Drones, a local meet-up group, Newby also wants to encourage responsible drone ownership.

"We need to paint our own picture to local communities and media outlets to circumvent negative views through awareness and training," he said. "We need to lead by example."

Newby is part of a wave of entrepreneurial activity the Federal Aviation Administration and analysts expect after new agency rules recently took effect. The FAA is easing barriers to entry for commercial pilots by nixing an expensive pilots license requirement, instead requiring an aeronautical knowledge test. The agency predicts 600,000 commercial drones in the air within a year, up from the current 20,000, because of the new regulations.

The growing ubiquity of the devices has local officials wondering: Should they be regulated? Near Newby's flights on a recent morning, a fire truck rolled back into its station and kids played at a preschool playground. Newby and his friend Sean Thoms, 44, insisted nothing could go haywire, especially with their experience, but they kept talking about how expensive drone flying could be, mainly because of wrecks.

"It hurts when you have $400 and it flies over the trees and you can't do anything about it," Thoms said.

To be sure, they aren't against regulation. If anything, the two would like clarity on where and when they're allowed to fly. It doesn't feel good to be kicked out of a park.

According to the UAS Association of Florida, which represents commercial unmanned aircraft interests, about a dozen localities have considered their own ordinances. In St. Petersburg, officials in the Police Department and City Hall have tossed around a draft ordinance, but nothing has been brought before City Council. No ordinances have been brought before Tampa's City Council or the Hillsborough County Commission, either. Pinellas County officials have restricted drone flights on county-owned and managed land except when operators get permission.

Treasure Island police have firsthand experience dealing with drones. In 2014, two men got into an altercation after one man complained that the other was flying his drone on the beach and that it was "creepy." No one was arrested, but city officials remember the episode.

Reid Silverboard, Treasure Island's city manager, said the incident was a "one-time deal" but said the city is considering an ordinance mirroring rules already in place for other aircraft that ban takeoff from beaches and parks without special permission.

"What we're looking at is including unoccupied aircraft such as drones so that there's not an issue with safety of the beachgoers," he said.

David Daniel, a lobbyist who represents the UAS Association, said the "devil is in the details" with local ordinances. He is wary of city councils piling onto what is already required by the FAA.

"Should a local government be able to say you can't fly a drone in a certain park? Well, you know, I would have some people say that's probably okay," Daniel said. "Should local government be able to say if you are flying a drone for commercial purposes you must pay a fee and have $1 million in liability insurance? No, I don't think that's appropriate."

Palm Beach requires permits for commercial users. Those users also need to have $1 million in liability insurance before flying, something the FAA doesn't require.

"If something is in the sky we want to know where it is," said Jay Boodheshwar, deputy town manager.

Boodheshwar said he doesn't want to hinder the budding industry, and even ticked off the ways the technology could help the city: search and rescue, environmental monitoring, criminal investigations. Before the town council approved the ordinance this summer, drone takeoffs and landings were banned in the city.

"We're trying to embrace it and not push it away," he said. "We want to embrace it in a controlled sort of way with the powers that we have."

St. Petersburg police Officer Robert Lord raised another point: If there is nothing on the books locally, enforcing FAA regulations is reduced to little more than an "observe and report" role. If the city had rules that resembled the FAA's — for example, keeping a drone within your line of sight, flying slower than 100 mph — the city could have ticketing power.

"There's no lawful enforcement action the police can take right now," Lord said. "We don't have a tool to enforce it. It's out of our jurisdiction."

At England Brothers Park in Pinellas Park, the flights went on during the windy morning. A public works crew stared at Newby and Thoms, but no one asked them to leave. No one had to duck out of a drone's way.

The fact that the park was empty was good, because after a series of safe flights, one of Thoms' racers cut off a tree branch and crashed on the park stage.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The name of Aries Dynamics was mispelled in an earlier version.

Contact Jack Suntrup at jsuntrup@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8092. Follow @JackSuntrup.

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