published Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Ringgold residents abuzz over plan to buy drone

The $700 Phantom drone, made by Chinese company DJI, is at the forefront of bringing drone technology to the masses. The roughly foot-square, four-propeller craft is sold as a complete unit with only minimal assembly required.
The $700 Phantom drone, made by Chinese company DJI, is at the forefront of bringing drone technology to the masses. The roughly foot-square, four-propeller craft is sold as a complete unit with only minimal assembly required.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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When thousands descend on Ringgold, Ga., on Memorial Day weekend for the annual 1890s Day Jamboree, a drone may fly overhead taking video of the crowd below.

Promoting tourism -- not surveillance -- will be its goal. The five-member Convention and Visitors Bureau board in Ringgold voted unanimously Tuesday to explore spending up to $1,200 for a video camera-equipped drone with four helicopter rotors to fly overhead and capture footage of events to help promote the city.

"This is going to give us a sweeping view of the whole town," Ringgold's Director of Downtown Development Joseph Brellenthin said. "It's something unique that we can do that's not too expensive."

The drone idea already has Ringgold residents buzzing.

"People are like, really? A drone?" said Vice Mayor Nick Millwood, the member of the Convention and Visitors Bureau board who pitched the drone idea.

Ringgold is not alone in its interest in drones.

The unmanned aerial vehicles that got their start doing military duty have evolved into easy-to-fly, relatively affordable, gee-whiz recreational gadgets for the masses. Area high schools are among the early adopters to use drones to film events, including sports. Drones have been seen hovering over football games at Calhoun High School in Calhoun, Ga., and at McCallie School in Chattanooga.

"It will take me two minutes to teach you how to fly it," Daniel Millbank, Girls Preparatory School's director of educational technology and information services, said of his school's drone. It's a Phantom model, made by the company DJI, that the Chattanooga private girls' school received in January as a gift from a benefactor who wanted to remain anonymous.

Dubbed the "Bruiser Drone" after the school's team name, the device is about as wide as a large pizza box. Millbank downloaded an app to his iPhone that lets him see video that the drone's camera shoots in real time.

It's so easy to fly that, after 20 minutes of practice, Millbank made a two-minute Youtube video "Introducing Bruiser Drone" that shows the girls' school from the air.

"That's the ease of use," Millbank said. "That's why I'm so surprised we don't have more people using them."

Feds OK with hobby drones

A permit or license is not needed to fly a recreational drone. They're regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration in the same way as radio-controlled aircraft: Drones are supposed to fly a maximum of 400 feet above the ground and away from populated areas.

"Flying model aircraft solely for hobby or recreational reasons doesn't require FAA approval, but hobbyists must operate according to the agency's model aircraft guidance, which prohibits operations in populated areas," the agency states in a Feb. 26 news release titled "Busting Myths about the FAA and Unmanned Aircraft."

Commercial drone use is a murkier area.

Drones made headlines after Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced in December on the TV news show "60 Minutes" that the online retailer hoped to use "octocopters," or satellite-guided drones, in about five years to deliver items from its huge warehouses. A Domino's franchise in England last year sent two pizzas by drone to a home, and an app called the TacoCopter promised to deliver tacos to people's front doors.

However, the FAA's stance is that commercial drone use is banned -- no ifs, ands or buts.

"The FAA ... expects to publish a proposed rule for small drones -- those under 55 pounds -- later this year which is likely to include provisions for commercial operations," the release states.

The agency was mandated by Congress to come up with rules for commercial drones by the end of September 2015.

Meanwhile, a judge on Thursday dismissed the FAA's first-ever fine against a commercial operator who shot a promotional video over the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 2011. The FAA objected to such things as the drone's flight underneath bridges and over pedestrians. But an administrative law judge for the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that the FAA has no authority over small, unmanned aircraft -- a decision that's being hailed as a victory for the fledgling commercial drone business.

Tennessee lawmakers may ban the use of drones for surveillance of agricultural operations.

A Farm Bureau spokeswoman said proposed legislation is meant to protect farmers' property rights, but animal welfare activists say the anti-drone proposal and related legislation is another attempt to pass last year's "ag gag" bill. It would have made it illegal for whistle-blowers to hold undercover footage of animal abuse for more than 48 hours without releasing it to law enforcement. Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed that law.

Millwood looks forward to the day that Ringgold gets its drone.

"It's really an amazing little machine," the vice mayor said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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