Commercial and recreational drone use is taking off in coastal Delaware, but public concerns are in the air too

By Larry Nagengast  |  Photograph by TJ Redefer
From the July 2016 issue

drones Eye in the Sky - Delaware Beach LifeThere’s plenty of buzz about drones in coastal Sussex, and not just because the small aircraft give photographers and videographers a new way of looking at their world.

Enthusiasts see the drone — known more formally as a UAV (for unmanned aerial vehicle) — as many things, all of them good: a crucial tool for a new generation of visual artists, a lifesaver for first responders, a timesaver for bridge and building inspectors, the next advance in package delivery and a vital component in a brand-new form of racing.

“The next level is pretty amazing,” says TJ Redefer, owner of Rehoboth Bay Realty and one of the first Realtors in the area to use drones to shoot photos and videos of sale properties.

But the talk about drones isn’t all positive.

Some beachgoers and homeowners say UAVs can invade their privacy. Park officials say they’re a potential threat to wildlife, including protected species. Crop-dusters and other aviators see them as a hazard to their own low-flying aircraft.

 “We need a holistic view, a consensus on the direction we’re going,” says Joshua Thomas, aeronautics coordinator at the state Department of Transportation. He has convened an informal working group of drone users and officials from business, government, education, law enforcement and public safety to try to assess where the UAV future will lead.

“There are privacy concerns, security concerns, and there is money it could bring into Delaware,” Thomas notes.

A prime reason for all the discussion, he explains, is uncertainty about the next steps the Federal Aviation Administration, which has oversight of drone usage and safety, will take to further regulate their use. Current rules make a distinction between recreational and nonrecreational use, with a special permit (known as a Section 333 exemption) required for the latter, which would include virtually all commercial applications. The current regulations also require that nonrecreational users have a pilot’s license, which Redefer and some others interested in commercial use consider a deal-breaker because they have no interest in flying a traditional aircraft and don’t want to invest the time and money to learn how.

Last year, the FAA began drafting new rules that are expected to simplify authorizations for nonrecreational use. Drone enthusiasts were hoping those rules would be issued by the end of June, but it could take longer, says Daniel Herbert, CEO of Skygear Solutions, the Wilmington-based retailer that has sold drones to a dozen or so Sussex residents. 

“The FAA is going to have to get its act together soon,” says drone user Gary Casadei of Millsboro.

Few rules govern recreational use of drones weighing less than 55 pounds, other than that they be operated “in accordance with a community-based set of safety guidelines” and “in a manner that does not interfere with and gives way to any manned aircraft,” according to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. The latter regulation stipulates that drone owners contact any airport or control tower before flying within 5 miles of an airport. 

The agency did take a significant step last fall, issuing a new rule requiring registration of drone users. By mid-March, nearly 400,000 people had completed applications nationwide, according to FAA spokesman Les Dorr. (The FAA plans to break down that number by state and by locality, but has not done so yet, he said.)

Sales figures give an indication of the aircraft’s popularity. Late last year, the Consumer Electronics Association estimated shipments of 700,000 drones in 2015, an increase of 63 percent over the previous year. 

Drone sales are cyclical, says Herbert, who sells UAVs through the Skygear Solutions website and provides training and repair services as well. Prime sales periods are during the holiday season and spring and summer, he notes. 

Most drones being sold these days are camera-equipped, and a good-quality model sells for about $1,000, according to Herbert. The next step up is a dual-control model, which sells for about $2,500. This type of vehicle requires two users, one to pilot it and the other to operate the camera. Jason Fruchtman and his photography students 

at Cape Henlopen High School use dual-control models (see sidebar, “Teacher’s Pet Project”). 

Herbert has sold more than 4,500 drones since opening his business nearly two years ago. A comparison of fourth-quarter sales shows about a 30 percent increase last year, from 463 units in 2014 to 612 in 2015.

And as sales advance, so does the technology.

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