WJTV News Channel 12 - Drone debates impact southwest Virginia

Drone debates impact southwest Virginia

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The debate over the use of drones continues across the United States but the impact is already being felt right here in our area.

As we've reported back in March, Virginia Tech is fronting an application to the FAA to become one of six test sites for research on unmanned drones.  State law enforcement is also interested in the technology.

Starting in 2015, the FAA will expand airspace to allow unmanned aircrafts.

People in southwest Virginia are already experimenting with the growing technology currently available.

"It all comes down to how dedicated you are. This is a hobby. this is a very good hobby" said Kori Ellis who sells thousands of lightweight, model aircraft every year at the Melkor RC kiosk in Valley View Mall and online.

You can attach a $15 camera and take pictures and video from the air with the push of a button on the remote control.

"After you play with it for weeks and weeks and months and months, you're going to want to more. You're going to be curious about what else it can do" said Ellis. "You can have a missile shooter that shoots little plastic missiles. You can have a hook that will pick up objects."

Ellis says he has hunters that use it to find deer in the woods, survey their homes from the air and track their kids headed to the school bus but he's worried about the future.

"Knowing there are going to be some people, some individuals that are going to misuse these products and unfortunately that day is going to come and the FAA is going to shut it down" said Ellis.

Right now, the FAA allows you to fly model aircraft under 400 feet for fun. If you fly higher or start using it for business-- like selling videos or making money off the pictures—it becomes an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) or what's been called a drone.

You have to have a special certificate to operate a UAS. As of mid-February, there were only 327 of the active authorizations for law enforcement, the DEA and researchers like Virginia Tech. Without the special FAA approval you could be investigated and fined.

"Just like every product you're going to have people who misuse it. Basically the difference is your mind. You can take these guys to take a picture of your property. At the same time, you can spy on your neighbor with it" said Ellis.

The FAA says the small drones are likely to catch on the quickest and can be used for business and law enforcement. Universities are already training future pilots.

"I've always wanted to fly, when I found out liberty university had a flight program it was kind of a no brainer" said Steve Backof, a Liberty University student.

"This is something new to the public and a growing industry. [I] Just kind of wanted to get in on the ground floor" said Jonathan Beesley, also a student.

New technology is being developed to help pilots avoid these in coming years.

"Nobody wants to see anything bad happen" said John Marselus, the Associate Dean of Flight Operations at the Liberty University School of Aeronautics who says right now  there aren't any safety concerns because the FAA hasn't allowed wide spread use. "As we build the systems together and we get to a level where we see the risk of an unmanned aircraft system flying is the same or even less risky than an aircraft with the person out there that's actually flying it."

Marselus says his students get hands on training and learn everything a pilot learns including courses in weather and how to talk to flight control, something he says is crucial.

"One of the areas that they've had problems with his when they have an operator that truly doesn't understand the airspace the national airspace system or doesn't understand what the control is asking them to do because they may not of experience that" said Marselus.

The Liberty classes do everything except launch the lightweight plane because right now they can't under the FAA rules.

"The public has some concerns about UAS but you really need to balance that with what it can surely do it can really help us in a lot of areas" said Marselus.

"You've got to have faith in people, but at the same time you have to be cautious" said Ellis.

The FAA said they haven't had any problems or investigations in Virginia about these small aircraft. Several pilots WSLS talked to say they're not concerned right now but as 2015 approaches and the airspace opens, it could become an issue.

For more information about drones, visit the FAA website.

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