Drones — small, unmanned aircraft, usually equipped with cameras, both programmable — are becoming more a part of suburban life. The police have noticed.
The prospect of a drone over the Memorial Day parade prompted the Ridgefield Police to issue a warning that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits flights over public assemblies. And drones were spotted over the Fourth of July fireworks at Ridgefleld High School.
“It’s a new technology, a new thing the FAA and everyone’s kind of learning to live with,” said Ridgefield Police Chief John Roche.
The FAA’s definition: “An unmanned aircraft system (UAS), sometimes called a drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot onboard – instead, the UAS is controlled from an operator on the ground. When you fly a drone in the United States, it is your responsibility to understand and abide by the rules.”
“All drones between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds must be registered with the FAA even if they are owned and operated by 10-year-old kids,” said Dick Aarons, Ridgefield’s Deputy Director of Emergency Management, an aviation writer and police instructor.
“I’m sure there are dozens of hobby or recreational users” he said.
New FAA regulations go into effect Aug. 29.
Drones aren’t a problem, Chief Roche said, unless people misuse them.
“We’re just concerned that if you have a drone, that it’s used appropriately,” he said.
“Someone was going to fly a drone down the middle of Main Street during the middle of a parade! I said, ‘No you can’t.’ I checked into it and learned from the FAA you can’t fly drones over people.”
There was also a crowd at the fireworks.
“There were two drones that were flying up there, during the event. One was right above the fireworks event. One was right around the high school area…
“Doing it at night? One of the drones was being flown right in the middle of the fireworks going off,” Roche said. “…You need to check FAA regulations and make sure that you’re flying legally.”
The drone over the fireworks was illegal on at least two counts, Aarons said.
“…Flying over people who are not under hard cover (a structure with a roof) or participating as part of the flight operation team is considered careless and reckless operation under the Federal Aviation Regulations. It comes with big fines,” he said. “I can also tell you that hobby operators are not permitted to fly after the end of civil twilight which occurs 30 minutes after official sunset.”
Violating FAA regulations on drones can lead to fines of up to $27,500 and suspension or revocation of any FAA certification.
Local enthusiast Sean McEvoy flew his drone near the fireworks — but said he knows the rules.
“The simple ones are, you have to have it in your line of sight, can’t fly later than 30 minutes after sundown, which is called civil twilight. You can’t fly over people or structures. Also, not allowed to fly more than 400 feet above ground level,” he said.
“I went up at about 7 and took a picture of the crowd from the far left of the field and put my drone away. There was somebody else, I heard it was high school kids, videotaping the fireworks, at night, from high up, over the crowd — so they violated all three of those.”
Ridgefield drone user Ben Morehead said they’re relatively harmless and generate undue concerns.
“Long distance snooping — that sort of thing is overrated. It’s an exaggerated risk,” he said. “The vast majority of folks are flying them for purposes other than voyeurism…
“Sometimes you read these online forums and it’s ‘shoot them out of the sky,’ stories of outraged neighbors, and police called,” he said. “Almost all of it is unwarranted and unjustified.”
Ridgefield Police don’t get many complaints.
“It’s not a common call. We just get a couple of inquiries here and there regarding the use of drones,” said Capt. Jeff Kreitz, public information officer. “More inquiring about it than anything else.
“They are allowed to fly and they are allowed to be up there in the air,” Kreitz said. “If it’s something voyeuristic, that’s something that falls under Connecticut statutes. That’s something we’d investigate.”
“If it’s using it for something inappropriate,” Chief Roche said, “certainly we’ll do whatever we can to investigate the matter and decide if there a crime being committed.”
Besides his role in emergency management, Aarons is a state certified police photography instructor, a consultant to the Ridgefield Police, and photographer for the Redding Police’s Serious Accident Investigation Team. Aarons trained at the FAA accident investigation school and took courses in Aerospace Accident Investigation at Embry Riddle.
Drones can be useful, he said. “My aviation background let me see that sUAS [ small unmanned aerial systems] could be an valuable photography tool for accident investigation, search and rescue, and tactical operations,” Aarons said.
“So I teach police officers how to use the sUAS camera platform for law enforcement photography and help investigate accidents and incidents when requested.”
The FAA regulations focus on safety — and problems do occur.
In January 2015 a recreational drone came down in a parking lot off Governor Street. No one was hurt, but a Newtown man told The Press it was unsettling to have the drone land 10 feet away.
“It came down like a rock,” he said, “four propeller blades, and they were razor sharp, and the thing never turned off.”