Drones Outpacing Rules as Popularity Soars in New York

The New York Times – by James Barron

Jeremiah Johnson was flying his battery-powered drone above a park in Brooklyn on a recent weekend when he saw something in the distance.

Faster than you could say “speeding quadcopter,” Mr. Johnson, a design technologist, realized it was a small, remote-controlled aircraft just like his — and it was only about 150 feet away. “We were eyeing each other,” he said, “sizing each other up.”

Not long ago, drones were a relatively rare sight over New York City, usually piloted by photographers. But now drones are soaring as never before, deployed more and more by those who just love gadgets, as new models come on the market at lower and lower prices.  

But their proliferation has also resulted in problems.

Two men were charged with reckless endangerment in July after the police said a drone they were flying in Upper Manhattan came within 800 feet of a New York Police Department helicopter near the George Washington Bridge.

Also in July, the Federal Aviation Administration opened an investigation into whether a drone sent aloft by the photographer at the wedding of Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, Democrat of New York, in Cold Spring, N.Y., broke rules on airspace restrictions. Mr. Maloney, who is on the House subcommittee that oversees the F.A.A., said last week that he had been “amazed” by the technology “but wasn’t up to date on the lack of regulations around it.”


Senator Charles E. Schumer, referring to New York as the Wild West for drones, called on Sunday for quick federal regulation. CreditAndrew Renneisen/The New York Times

More recently, a building manager on the Upper West Side of Manhattan sent a stern email to residents. Do not even think of launching a drone from the building’s circular driveway, the July 14 email said before explaining that the last drone that had taken off from there had crashed on a neighbor’s terrace.

“Right now, unlike a manned-aircraft pilot who can get a license from the F.A.A., there’s no official training program for small drones,” said Brendan M. Schulman, a lawyer in Manhattan who represents a number of drone operators and enthusiasts. “What you’re seeing is popularity because they don’t require any particular expertise to get going. What you’re seeing is people buying these devices off the shelf and operating them without any experience or training because they’re easy to use.”

There are no specific regulations for local enforcement of drones in the city. Sgt. Brendan Ryan, a police spokesman, said the local law that covers drones is in a section of the city’s administrative code titled “aviation in and over the city.” “The circumstances determine the seriousness,” he said in an email. “Individuals could potentially be charged with reckless endangerment if, for example, it falls out of the sky, or unlawful surveillance, if one videotapes the inside of private property.”

On Sunday, Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat from New York, said the city had turned into the Wild West for drones. He said it was time for new federal rules and urged the F.A.A., which is considering regulations for drones, to issue them by the end of the year.

Other officials have also expressed concern. In Lower Manhattan, Community Board 1’s quality of life committee discussed drones at a hearing convened after two reports of drones flying in or near a park, and after a member of the board saw a drone hovering outside an apartment in Battery Park City.

Unquestionably, affordability is one reason more drones are taking to the skies. Lower-priced models, some costing less than $80, have propelled drones beyond their early niche as specialized equipment for committed hobbyists and professional photographers. Drones are now what Mr. Schulman called “more of an impulse purchase” for many buyers.

Retailers agree. “This is the summer of the drone,” said Henry Posner, the director of corporate communications for B&H Photo and Video, which stocks drones from half a dozen manufacturers. The least expensive model with a video camera costs $79.99.


Jonathan Atkin, a photographer, sought permission before flying his drone over the conservatory dome at the New York Botanical Garden. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

Mr. Posner would not provide sales figures but said, “It’s as if I woke up one day and realized, lo and behold, they’re extremely popular.”

Time magazine recently published an article by Martha Stewart with the headline “Why I Love My Drone” in answer to a satirical essay in The New Yorker. She wrote that her drone was a birthday present. She said that “one of my farm workers” had flown his own more expensive-looking drone over her farm in Bedford, N.Y. She described the images of the horse paddocks and chicken coops as “amazing.”

But with the increase in popularity have come privacy and safety issues. Some operators have lost control of their drones — but managed to recover video of the ensuing crash — while others have lost them entirely. Drones have been known to fly off and not come back, no matter how hard their owners worked the controls.

On the Upper West Side, the building at 201 West 70th Street, at Amsterdam Avenue, warned residents not to launch drones there after one “unfortunately landed on another resident’s terrace,” according to the email to residents from the building’s assistant manager. The email threatened to make violators pay the co-op’s legal fees if the matter went to court.

“We really do frown upon anybody flying in that manner,” said Steve Cohen, an aerial photographer who is a leader of the New York Drone Users Group, a loosely organized two-year-old group with 700 members that promotes “responsible use of flying robots.”

“People think, you buy something off the shelf, you charge it up and you fly it,” he added. “But New York is a densely populated place. There are so many different wind patterns, and if there’s a gust, suddenly, you’re out of control.”

The F.A.A. permits amateurs to fly unmanned aviation systems — the agency’s term for drones and other devices governed by remote control — if the aircraft stay under 400 feet and well away from any airports. The agency also says the person with the controls must keep the device in sight at all times once it is in the air.


A photo of the New York Botanical Garden taken from a drone controlled by Jonathan Atkin, a Bronx photographer. CreditJonathan Atkin

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department has no rules that specifically apply to drones, a spokesman said. It does have rules about unmanned model aircraft — the same rules that apply to balloons, parachutes and hang gliders. They can be flown only in designated areas, and there are no designated areas in Manhattan or the Bronx. There are two in Brooklyn, two in Queens and one on Staten Island.

The spokesman, Philip Abramson, said a drone was discovered in a tree in Central Park a couple of months ago. Where it was going and why it ended up in the tree remain a mystery. “As it was unclaimed,” he said, “it was turned over to the N.Y.P.D.”

Jonathan Atkin, a photographer from the Bronx, took no chances before flying his drone over the white dome of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at the New York Botanical Garden. He got permission from its officials.

“I’m not interested in putting myself at risk by being a cowboy,” he said after a flight of more than 15 minutes.

Mr. Johnson, the design technologist, works for the Barbarian Group, an interactive marketing agency, and has flown his drone at the office and at a photo shoot. He said he crashed it five or six times in the first week he had it.

“It’s like a cross between playing a video game and playing with a remote-control car,” he said. “It’s remarkably easy to control, but it’s also remarkably easy to make a mistake.”

A day or two after he saw the other drone in McCarren Park in Greenpoint, two girls about 5 years old ran to where he was flying it about 20 feet off the ground.

“They started jumping for it,” he said. “I started taunting them, bringing it down and then taking it up. They wouldn’t leave until their mom dragged them away.”

A 6-year-old boy was more direct, he said. “He came over,” Mr. Johnson said, “and tried to grab the controller from me.”


One thought on “Drones Outpacing Rules as Popularity Soars in New York

  1. You don’t ‘taunt’ children with quadcopters. If they managed to grab it or hit it the operator could have lost control. here are some pictures of the types of injuries these can cause to operators and innocents.
    WARNING: Some of these are graphic

    PS: Check out the huge RC Jet about half way down the first page

    PPS: And this video shows the attraction and the things these helis can do in the hands of the talented.

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