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Tempe Councilman Joel Navarro has been spearheading an effort to determine whether local regulations of drones are needed to make Tempe safer.
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The number of pilots encountering drones while flying in the U.S. climbed over 200 percent from 2014 to 2015 as safety regulations try to catch up to the popularity of the unmanned devices.

The incidents have a Tempe councilman exploring the possibility of tighter drone rules at city parks near Sky Harbor International Airport and beyond.

In 2014, pilots in the United States reported 238 sightings or interactions with drones in the air, but in an eight-month period in 2015, pilots reported 780 incidents, according to an FAA report.

Metro Phoenix saw 25 incidents from 2014 to 2015, some involving city police helicopters and air ambulances, according to data obtained from the FAA. Only five of the incidents involved drones in a restricted area, such as over a school or low over a home.

MORE:    No drones allowed in McDowell Sonoran Preserve | Drones in Paradise Valley? Not so fast | Do new FAA drone rules go far enough

Despite the rising popularity of drones and the increase in sightings by pilots, there have been no drone-caused aircraft crashes in the U.S., according to FAA data. Drones have caused other issues, such as a 2015 incident when California firefighting aircraft were grounded for 26 minutes due to a drone in the area.

Tempe Councilman Joel Navarro has been spearheading an effort to determine whether local drone regulations are needed to make Tempe safer.

“Are we going to allow them in all parks and what parks are going to be restricted?” Navarro said.

‘You know, one of those gyro-type things’

FAA regulations on drone use is fairly new. In 2012, Congress passed a slew of laws that help the FAA regulate drones in federal airspace.

Recreational and commercial drones under 4.4 pounds, which represents most drones, must stay below 400 feet and are restricted within 5 miles of an airport without a waiver or special permit. The lighter drones also must stay within sight of the operator and be flown during daylight hours, according to the FAA.

But that’s not always happening. The 25 in-air sightings of drones by pilots in the Phoenix area included:

  • a pilot flying into the Scottsdale Airport who noticed a small drone 50 to 75 feet from the front of his Cessna Jet in April 2015. The drone was spotted at 4,700 feet and the pilot told air traffic control he had seen “you know, one of those gyro-type things” with red lights across it. The pilot told air traffic control that if it had “occurred two seconds earlier they would have hit” the drone.
  • a Mesa Police Department helicopter reporting a near midair collision with a drone that was only 50 feet above the helicopter, which was flying at 600 feet after dark in March 2015. The drone rapidly descended when the helicopter pilot held his position to get a better look at the drone. The drone and its operator were never found.
  • an air evacuation helicopter heading to Banner Estrella Medical Center in west Phoenix when a drone with lights came within 100 feet in April 2015.

Uncharted territory for Tempe

The FAA limits how local and state authorities can regulate drones. For example, states cannot require drone users to get permits or licenses within their states or put restrictions on airspace, which is controlled by the FAA.

“This is just uncharted territory,” Councilman Navarro said.

He held a public meeting on Jan. 17 to discuss the possibility of restricting drones in city parks or preserves north of Rio Salado Parkway due to proximity to Sky Harbor and flight paths.

One of those parks, Tempe Beach Park, already falls under the outer rim of the no-fly zone for drones, which ends just past Rio Salado Parkway and Mill Avenue.

But a local ordinance could further expand the airport protections to Papago and Giuliano parks, as well as a few small neighborhood parks.

“There are some parks near the airport that should be restricted,” Navarro said.

Navarro and Councilman Randy Keating have been researching the issue for about a year and plan to report their findings to the City Council.

Navarro said he hopes local drone regulations could help local law enforcement better enforce state and local laws surrounding the use of drones. In one instance, Navarro said Tempe police found a man who had been seen flying a drone near an airliner approaching Sky Harbor, but outside of the 5-mile restricted area. When police made contact with the man, they could only tell him “not to do that” since he had not broken any local laws, according to Navarro.

The FAA asks anyone who sees someone flying a drone in a reckless manner to contact local law enforcement who can then contact the FAA if needed. If the FAA investigates and discovers improper use, the drone operator could face fines between $1,100 and $2,200.

If the misuse doesn’t fall under FAA regulations the pilot would not face any charges, which is where Navarro sees local rules filling the safety gap.

Community weighs in

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Drones in restricted airspace was not the only concern for residents who met with Navarro at the Tempe Library. Residents were concerned that amateur drone pilots could crash into people or vehicles, and that they also raise privacy issues.

“The first 20 minutes of someone using a drone with no training is the most dangerous time,” Navarro said.

Tempe resident Darlene Justice said she would favor prohibiting drones in nearly all city parks.

“When someone’s dog hurts a person at a dog park they’re responsible for that injury,” she said, noting it should be similar for drone users.

“It’s a privacy issue as well as a safety issue.”

Tempe resident Darlene Justice

She also expressed concern about drones with high-definition cameras flying over schools. “It’s a privacy issue as well as a safety issue,” she said.

State regulations passed in 2016 address both of those concerns. The state Legislature added several restrictions on drone use in Arizona, including:

  • adding improper drone use to the definition of disorderly conduct.
  • making it illegal to operate a drone in a way that interferes with public-safety officials. 
  • making it a crime to use a drone to kill or harm an animal. 
  • restricting drone flying over a “critical facility” such as an oil refinery, school or government building.

State Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said he proposed those state rules in order to prevent “restrictive measures” put in place by local municipalities which were “not uniform.”

Drone stigma

The meeting with Navarro included about 20 residents, about half of who were drone users concerned about increased restrictions.

Bill Mar oversees the Phoenix Chapter of the Drone User Group, which aims to educate the public on drones and create an environment for enthusiasts to explore the growing technology.

Mar said stigma around drones is damaging what he see’s as the “future of flight.”

“There needs to be a place for people to use drones because we want the best drone pilots out there,” Mar said, adding that restricting certain parks will create unfair barriers to people or children looking to learn more about the developing technology.

“If you want kids to be a part of the next generation of flight, then don’t tell people not to use drones,” Mar said.

Mar said he worries about privacy or plane crashes due to drones are unsubstantiated. “They are talking about crimes that haven’t existed yet,” he said.

Tempe resident John Nunes owns a business that teaches local law enforcement and fire officials how to start their own drone programs.

“For the longest time we called them UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) cause drone has such negative connotations,” Nunes said.

Nunes said ordinances such as the one Navarro is exploring can hurt lawful drone pilots and stops constructive conversations about drone use.

“We can’t criminalize everything,” Nunes said, adding that Tempe Beach Park has “bigger issues” then local drone pilots or “kids playing with their new toy.”

At the meeting, Mar proposed designating specific parks for drone usage as a way to find a “middle ground” with those who worry about safety and privacy.

“When you’re learning to drive a car you use an empty parking lot,” Mar said, adding that the same principle could be applied to a new ordinance.

Navarro plans to hold another public meeting, although it has not yet been scheduled. He said he doesn’t yet know when it would go to the full Council.

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