Local Police Asked to Look Out for, Report Unsafe Drone Use to FAA

It was around 4 a.m. last Wednesday when Quan Ta’s small, four-propellered drone buzzed over the third base gate at Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia. Almost as soon as he launched the remote controlled flying machine into the air, ballpark security confronted him.

“I was up for not even a minute and then two security guys came out and they called the police,” the 33-year-old Upper Darby, Pa. wedding photographer told NBC10. He quickly brought the drone back to the ground.

In the encounter, which Ta recorded with the drone’s attached camera, security explained that he wasn’t allowed to fly around the stadium because it’s viewed as a high-profile terrorist target.

“I understand all that, but the stadium is empty. And all of our teams suck so I don’t think it would happen here,” he said adding he chose the deserted complex to hone his piloting skills.

“The cops, they didn’t even give me a problem at all. They said ‘Be careful. The planes were going to be flying overhead soon.’ And then they let me go,” he said.

But drone owners’ future encounters with authorities may be much different.

The Federal Aviation Administration sent a memo to law enforcement agencies across the United States earlier this month asking them to do reconnaissance for federal investigators when they see unsafe or illegal drone use. The machines are formally called unmanned aircraft systems by the agency.

Hobbyists are permitted to fly unmanned aircraft under 55 pounds under certain circumstances: they stay below 400 feet, are 3 miles away from an airport and avoid populated areas and high-profile targets like stadiums. Flying for commercial use is banned unless the FAA grants a waiver. Only 16 have been issued as the administration works to draw up rules for safe flight. Those are expected to come later this year.

Philadelphia doesn’t currently have any drone legislation on the books, so police can’t cite pilots. But the FAA would like officers to interview witnesses, collect evidence and try to find the pilot.

“In many cases the cop on the beat is in the best position to assess the situation and potentially find the operator and stop them from causing harm,” FAA spokesman Les Dorr said.

A Philadelphia Police spokeswoman said the department follows all state and federal guidelines to ensure citizen’s safety under the law.

There were nearly 200 drone sightings in or around flight paths across the county during 10 months last year. Eight were in the Philadelphia region. Police spotted a drone flying over Philadelphia City Hall last September. Two months later, a Frontier Airlines jet on approach for a landing spotted an unmanned aircraft flying around 1,500 feet high around Trenton Airport.

“We do have hundreds, probably thousands of smaller aircraft operating in the skies in the Philadelphia area. We’re not sure what would happen if an small unmanned aircraft should hit the windshield or a control instrument or even an engine,” Dorr said.

Of less concern to the FAA, but more so to police and federal law enforcement is the potential security threat a drone can pose.

Over the weekend, the Secret Service investigated a breach at the White House after a DJI Phantom — the same model drone as Quan Ta’s — was discovered on the grounds. It’s owner said the machine was blown into a tree during high winds. Officials in Philadelphia are worried a drone could be used for nefarious purposes during Pope Francis’ visit to the city in September.

City Councilman Jim Kenney hopes to have regulations in place by the pontiff’s arrival to require a permit to fly drones in Philly. He said police brought the issue to his attention.

“With all technology, there are amazing productive uses for these things. But then there are always the perverts who take advantage of it,” he said. The permit would allow drone use for purposes like architectural inspections, photography and map surveys, Kenney said.

“I’m not interested at all in banning them and I want to keep the knuckleheads from using them,” he said. Kenney introduced a bill last year and has pushed for a public hearing to hear citizen’s views. It is currently being reviewed by the Committee on Public Safety.

Lavon Phillips runs the Rotor-E Club, a drone enthusiasts group based out of Camden County, New Jersey. The 60 member strong group teaches people to build and fly the unmanned, remote controlled craft. He said some group members have insurance to fly and that they promote following all government rules.

“If I didn’t have a drone and I was a passenger on an airplane, I would want the FAA and authorities to do everything in that power to make sure some dummy with a 100 pound drone bring down the plane,” he said.

Welcoming regulation, Phillips believes the confusion surrounding flying will eventually sort itself out once laws catch up.

“They’re government. They’re just behind the technology,” Phillips said.

Ta hopes it happens sooner than later since he’s looking to incorporate aerial shots into wedding photography packages.

“I just want to take it to the next level,” he said.

Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter and Facebook.

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