The hobby of flying drones faces many legal complications

A HIGH-FLYING ADVENTURE. Sevier technology specialist Zach Welch holds one of his drones. Welch has a thriving side-business using drones for aerial photography.

Kaylee Hughes

A HIGH-FLYING ADVENTURE. Sevier technology specialist Zach Welch holds one of his drones. Welch has a thriving side-business using drones for aerial photography.

By Kaylee Hughes, John Sevier Middle School

Drones have made a big impact on society. The military uses them to fight wars. Amazon and other companies have begun to use them for deliveries. Many people love flying drones as a hobby, but there are laws surrounding drones that make it difficult to enjoy them.

Zach Welch is the technology expert for Sevier Middle. He also owns several drones.

“In 2012, I went to the beach with my family and I and my stepdad got the weird urge to do a helicopter tour,” Welch said.  “I loved it so much, getting to see stuff from a whole different perspective.”

Welch enjoyed this new perspective so much that, when drones became available to the public, he jumped in with both feet.

“I found a Parrot Bebop drone and purchased it and really got into it,” Welch said. “Not only was I getting a close feeling of flying, but it offered cool camera tricks. I learned to do cool stuff and it opened the door to aerial photography.”

Preston Parker is a seventh grade student who also enjoys drones.

“I first got interested in drones because I went to Streamworks Robot Drone League,” he said. “I love that you can do flips or turn it off in mid-air and turn it back on.”

Drones aren’t just aircrafts that people fly around for fun. They can also be used for many different jobs.

“The jobs I take on are voluntary,” Welch said. “I film for 2 major airsoft groups and an airsoft event company. I travel with a small group of airsofters to different areas and states trying to catch good shots and videos of the firefights and usually get to explore after the games and check out areas I have never been to.”

While there are many freedoms when it comes to the use of drones, there are still laws that drone pilots have to follow. They cannot fly over 400 feet or out of line of sight. Drone pilots also have to always check their flying map to see if they need special clearances.

“Don’t hit people, don’t fly too high or too low, and stay away from people and other drones,” Parker said.

Drones also cannot fly at night, fly over large crowds of people, or fly with anything attached to the drone, such as a payload.

“It has progressively gotten stricter because other drone people are ruining it for those that use it as a living or as a relaxing hobby,” Welch said.

Not only are there restrictions for drone pilots, but there are also restrictions for their manufacturers.

“Laws have definitely made the drones sold in stores harder to buy.” Welch said. “It has really cut the market down on what’s available since small company drone manufacturers have to comply with so many rules and implement technology they may not be able to afford.”

There are also many privacy laws related to drones.

“People that own drones are trying to spy on people; that is a big misconception that I hate,” Welch said. “It has given pilots a bad reputation. I’m just out to fly and see the world from a broader view or take a simple scenery and give it some flare. I could care less what some random family out for a stroll in the park is doing.”

Laws surrounding drones don’t only have to do with privacy.  There are also laws surrounding other peoples’ safety.

“Drones, although fun and very capable little machines, are not perfect,” Welch said. “Sometimes glitches do happen, sometimes user error takes place. Drones typically weigh in the 1 pound range, which isn’t much but if you drop a pound from say 200 feet onto someone, it will do damage and injure someone.”

Welch thinks that many of these laws are a good thing.

“I think laws are very much needed for drones as the technology continues to get more advanced and people begin to experiment with them,” he said. “People are building and programming their own drones for cheaper, but in the process they could be cutting safety guideline measures to achieve the cheap price or they may think they are above the law.”

Parker believes that privacy concerns are probably most important.

“There should be no cameras on drones unless you are being supervised,” he said.

Why put up with all of these rules? Why is it fun to fly drones? To Welch, it’s all about changing perspective.

“Take a tree, for example; you can take a very basic shot at ground level or you can take a top down shot with a drone,” he said. “You could also use a drone to take a 360 panorama of that same tree and now you have incorporated background. You could step it up and video and have the drone start close to the tree and fly backwards and up and take that tree and put it as the main focus and pull background in or vice versa, start far away and fly in and pull that one tree into focus.”

Students who wish to get involved with flying drones have to make sure they do their homework first.

“Do your research and know your intent,” Welch said “Drones are tools. You need a different tool for a different job. Don’t cheap out, but don’t spend your life savings on one if you’re just gonna fly it in the house.”

This story was originally published on The Sequoyah Scribe on May 5, 2022.