Drones: You can use them for fun but Phoenix could use them for safety

Drones may have been among the most popular Christmas gifts this year for residents, but cities are also exploring the evolving technology for professional uses.

Phoenix is evaluating how it can use the unmanned aircraft to simplify or speed up its operations. In the future, the city hopes to use drones to assist with mountain rescues, police situations and even marketing.

But recent meeting discussions about how the city can use drones left some council members with questions about how the public can use the popular devices.

Amateur and unlicensed drone users are a growing part of the population. The Federal Aviation Administration predicts that hobbyists’ drones will increase from 1.9 million in 2016 to as many as 4.3 million by 2020.

Vice Mayor Laura Pastor, who said she bought two drones for her children at Christmas, said at a meeting Wednesday she was surprised to learn all of the legal stipulations and ramifications of drones.

“As the mother of two drones, I now need to figure this out,” Pastor said.

The Phoenix Police Department is trying to educate hobbyists on those laws. Here’s a look at what you can and can’t to do as a hobbyist.

John Nunes pilots his drone, January 10, 2018, at Kiwanis
John Nunes pilots his drone, January 10, 2018, at Kiwanis Park, 6111 S All America Way, Tempe. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)
How to legally fly drones in Phoenix

Because drones enter airspace — which is controlled by the federal government — but could land on or take off from city land, a hodgepodge of rules applies to drone users.

The FAA requires a license for commercial and professional operators, but not hobbyists. To fly a drone without a license, an operator must follow these rules, according to the FAA:

Fly for recreation only.
Register the drone with the FAA. (It’s $5 every three years.)
Keep the drone within sight while flying.
Follow safety guidelines.
Drone must weigh less than 55 pounds.
Never fly near other aircraft.
Never fly near emergency situations.
SEE ALSO: My Turn: Sick of drones getting in the way? Blame the feds for that

In 2016, Phoenix considered adopting its own drone regulations, but a state law passed the same year limited what cities can regulate regarding drones.

That same law also made any violation of federal drone policies — like operating a drone near an emergency situation — a criminal offense under state law.

Under the 2016 law, cities can only regulate drone use in public parks. Phoenix has limited drones to eight parks:

Coyote Basin Park – 2730 E. Beardsley Road (27th Place and Beardsley Road).
Desert Foothills Park – Lower Field – 1010 Marketplace Southwest (Chandler Boulevard and Desert Foothills Parkway).
Dynamite Park – 4550 E. Dynamite Road (north of Dynamite Road at 44th Street).
El Prado Park – 6428 S. 19th Ave (19th and Southern avenues).
Esteban Park – Eastern Quadrant – 3345 E. Roeser Road (32nd Street and Broadway Road).
Grover’s Basin Park B – 17447 N. 20th St. (Cave Creek Road and Grovers Avenue).
Mountain View II Park – open space south of the ballfield, 9901 N. 7th Ave. (7th and Cinnabar avenues).
Werner’s Field Park – 17831 N. 7th Ave. (7th and Grovers avenues).
John Nunes pilots his drone, January 10, 2018, at Kiwanis
John Nunes pilots his drone, January 10, 2018, at Kiwanis Park, 6111 S All America Way, Tempe. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)
Because of the limits on what cities are allowed to require of drone operators, police departments have also struggled with how to enforce the rules that do exist.

“Law enforcement across Arizona is grappling on how they’re going to conduct drone enforcement,” said Sgt. Blake Carlson of the Phoenix Police Department’s Homeland Defense Bureau.

The Phoenix Police Department adopted enforcement policies for drone use in November, which reflect the state and federal laws regarding drones.

Carlson said the department does not plan to arrest people for improper drone use unless it puts people at a safety risk.

If an officer comes across a drone operator who’s using the device in an improper area, the officer will first try to educate. The department has not yet arrested anyone for illegal use, according to department officials.

“We see the major violators as potentially the hobbyists who don’t know all the rules, who haven’t studied up on FAA regulations regarding drone use,” Carlson said.

Here are some of the most frequent drone violations, according to the police department policies:

Flying a drone within five miles of an airport without special permission.
Flying a drone more than 400 feet above the ground.
Flying a drone out of sight of the operator.
Flying a drone over a large crowd of people, including stadiums and sporting events.
Flying a drone at night.
Flying a drone in a way that disrupts other aircraft.
John Nunes pilots his drone, January 10, 2018, at Kiwanis
John Nunes pilots his drone, January 10, 2018, at Kiwanis Park, 6111 S All America Way, Tempe. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)
How the city could use drones

City staffers are formulating a policy for professional drone usage by employees that would allow at least 10 city departments to use drones to improve or speed up their duties.

Many cities, including Mesa and Scottsdale, are already using drones for public safety situations, but Phoenix has yet to embrace the new technology.

The drone policy will balance the effectiveness of drones with resident concerns about privacy, according to city staff. A final policy will come before council later this year.

Here is how Phoenix could use the drones in the future:

Locate missing hikers.
Address active shooter situations from a distance.
Provide added security at large-scale events.
Crime-scene photography.
Evaluate water treatment facilities without being onsite.
Capture footage of Phoenix parks trails.
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