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February 25, 2015

No-fly zone prevents drones from invading residential airspace

A new website enables people to place their homes in a 'no-Fly Zone,' barring drones from entering airspace

Privacy Drones
02252015_drones_AP.jpg Bertrand Combaldieu, File/AP

A drone.

The booming drone industry has sparked privacy concerns among some residents who have little desire to see unmanned aerial vehicles flying anywhere near their homes.

Now, there is a way to prevent at least some drones from doing just that. 

Aviation fanatic Ben Marcus founded, a website where people can join a list preventing some drone  from flying in the airspace above their residences. More than 20,000 people have signed up since the website launched two weeks ago.

“By and large, drone companies want to take a leadership on privacy issues...It’s something that will allow them to extend the benefits of drones to a more widespread audience.” – Ben Marcus, drone proponent

The purpose, Marcus said, is to provide an outlet where homeowners can articulate their privacy preferences to the drone community.

“We just wanted to create an opportunity for the drone community to lead on these privacy issues, which has been expressed by a large portion of the population,” said Marcus, a drone proponent who formally ran jetAVIVA, an aircraft brokerage firm. “We want to give people a say as to what happens to their homes.”

The free service enables residents to register online by providing their property address and basic contact information. Registering additional properties requires proof of residence.

The latitude and longitude coordinates for the registered addresses are filed in a global database accessible to participating drone companies, which use GPS technology to prevent their devices from entering restricted airspace like airports. 

“If an operator tried to fly into one of these geo-fenced areas, the drone would come to a stop,” Marcus said. “It would hover in mid-air rather than continuing forward into that airspace. That’s a technology that’s available to the drone community.”

A similar technology prevents most retail drones from flying above 400 feet, the maximum height permitted by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The list will not completely prevent drones from flying over a property. Compliance is voluntary, but seven drone companies have pledged to tailor their products to avoid the addresses registered in the database.

Marcus anticipates other companies will participate, too.

“By and large, drone companies want to take a leadership on privacy issues,” Marcus said. “They recognize that this is something that is very important. It’s something that will allow them to extend the benefits of drones to a more widespread audience.”

Marcus, 32, of Santa Monica, California, said he sold his stake in jetAVIVA to invest in the burgeoning drone industry. Drones are expected to be used for cinematography, crop monitoring and delivery services, among myriad other purposes. 

Eventually, registrants will be able to customize their airspace preferences, Marcus said. For instance, a registrant might forbid camera drones from entering a property but permit delivery drones. 

Drone sales have skyrocketed – revenue is projected to surpass $1 billion within five years, according to the Consumer Electronics Association – but public response has been mixed. 

A Reuters/Ipsos online poll conducted in January found 42 percent of respondents opposed private ownership, suggesting drones be restricted to officials trained in safe operation. Another 30 percent approved of drone ownership while 28 percent was unsure. 

Matt Satell, owner of Philly By Air, uses drones to produce aerial photographs and videos of Philadelphia. He supports technology that improves safety and protects privacy, noting many drones do not work within one mile of an airport.

“Everyone is really trying to figure out the best way to do it,” Satell said. “At the end of the day, it’s a balancing act. You want to balance the concerns of private citizens who have privacy concerns, but, at the same time, you want to be careful about stifling this new technology.”

Satell compared drones to cell phone cameras, saying society is undergoing an adjustment period that will determine a set of norms for the new technology. 

“There’s going to be a natural apprehension about it,” Satell said. “There’s going to be some misunderstanding about it. I think drone usage has been sensationalized with the media coverage of it. Any time you see a drone in the paper or on TV, it’s because there’s been an accident.”

In reality, Satell said, thousands of drones are operated without incident.

More are getting ready to take flight once the FAA finalizes its regulations for small commercial drones. Last week, the FAA released a proposal of regulations that prohibit drone use to daylight and visual line-of-sight operations while also addressing height restrictions, registration and operator certifications. 

State legislatures across the country also have been drafting laws restricting the use of drones by governmental agencies and individuals. Neither Pennsylvania nor New Jersey has passed a law, but both states have proposed bills limiting their uses.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International has stressed educating consumers and business users about responsible drone operation. The drone trade organization launched a "Know Before You Fly" campaign advising users on where they can fly drones and for what purposes. 

"Providing prospective (drone) users with the information and guidance they need to fly before they take to the skies is essential to ensuring the safe and responsible operation of (drones)," chief executive director Brian Wynne said in a statement.