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Drones

Photo from Flickr/David Rodriguez Martin

Huntington town officials’ proposal to create a permit to allow drones to fly over town parks and beaches has hit turbulence with hobbyists and commercial pilots.

Huntington town board held a public hearing June 5 to consider creating a permit process that would allow the recreational and commercial use of unmanned aircraft systems, such as model aircrafts or drones, on town-owned parks and beaches for the first time since 2015.

“We are seeing it happen anyway,” said Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D). “We want to be able to regulate and have a say about it.”

In October 2015, the town adopted a law sponsored by Cuthbertson that made it illegal to pilot an unmanned aircraft on private property or town property without the owner or the town’s consent. It defined an unmanned aircraft as “a non-human carrying aircraft weighing no more than 55 pounds, capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere intended exclusively for sport, recreation, education and/or competition and is typically guided by remote control or onboard computers.”

Drones have been a fantastic tool for getting students involved in STEM and aviation.”
– Scott Harrigan

While the original law said the pilot of the craft would have to receive consent from town board to fly at town-owned property, parks and beaches, it did not lay out a process.

Under the proposed changes, if approved, a model airplane or drone pilot will have to file an application with the town attorney’s office for a permit to take off and fly their aircraft over town-owned property at least five days in advance. The pilot will be required to provide: a specific date and time the aircraft will be flown; a full description of any photo, video or audio recording capabilities; the location over which the activity will take place; and a statement confirming whether it is for commercial or recreational activity.

Several drone hobbyists and commercial operators stepped forward June 5 to offer feedback on the town’s proposal.

“I care very deeply about keeping Long Island a place where people can freely fly drones for business and pleasure. Drones have been a fantastic tool for getting students involved in STEM and aviation,” said Scott Harrigan, CEO of the Oyster Bay-based Harken Aerial that offers commercial drone photography. “A lot of people call it a gateway drug to aviation.”

Harrigan commended town officials for considering a permit process but had concerns regarding how the detailed information required could restrict drone use.

“The biggest logistical issue you run into is weather, requiring X amount of days for notice of operation is difficult,” Harrigan said. “What I’d like to see addressed is some relief for weather or rescheduling.”

Ed Anderson, a recreational model airplane pilot from Syosset, agreed that requiring five days notice before flying would eliminate possible recreational use by hobbyists.

The biggest logistical issue you run into is weather, requiring X amount of days for notice of operation is difficult.”
– Harrigan

Both Harrigan and Anderson suggested the town look closer at modeling its laws after the Town of Oyster Bay’s regulations, which offer a seasonal and nonseasonal permit rather than for one-time use.

Harrigan also took issue with the town’s stipulation that any camera, video or audio recording by a drone couldn’t take place where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

“That’s a vague and meaningless term,” he argued. “I can walk out onto a beach with a camera and there’s no right to restrict. Now, I have a $40 drone that I picked up from Toys ‘R’ Us with a camera on it at 15 feet over head, and I have violated a law.”

Cuthbertson, who is a practicing attorney with experience in municipal and land use law, said the phrase “reasonable expectation of privacy” is commonly accepted legal term that has well-defined limitations.

The proposed changes will not affect the current punishment for those who violate town code consisting of a fine exceeding $1,000 or imprisonment for up to 15 days. Massapequa Park resident Kenneth Kramer, a model airplane enthusiast and licensed commercial drone pilot who often flies in Huntington area, asked the town to reconsider amending this.

“The Town of Oyster Bay is having a problem with people knowing about the permit process,” Kramer said. “If you are going to be charging people, that it is going to be a hardship on the average family.”

Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R) assured that the town was soliciting feedback and would consider some of the suggestions made prior to changing the code.

“It’s a good start, and we would love to make it better,” he said.

A drone carrying medicine and lab samples lands in a village in Madagascar. Photo courtesy of SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Stony Brook University is taking to the skies to help people on the ground in Madagascar. Through its Global Health Institute, SBU plans to bring drones to the island nation off the southwest coast of Africa that will carry medical samples from hard-to-reach villages to its state-of-the-art research facility, Centre ValBio.

Late last month, Peter Small, the founding director at GHI, brought a drone to Madagascar, where it flew from the research station to a nearby village. The drones can fly like an airplane over 40 miles of terrain, while they take off and land like a helicopter, enabling a smooth ride to protect the samples inside the cargo area.

“Our challenge is to align the most pressing challenges that are amenable to supply chain and specimen transport and intervention,” Small said. Madagascar is dealing with “high rates of tuberculosis” among other health challenges, he said, adding that a university like Stony Brook can take complicated problems and find solutions in the real world.

The drones can provide two important functions for Madagascar: monitoring the outbreak of any unknown and potentially dangerous disease and offering health care for people who live in areas that are inaccessible by road, Small said.

A view of Madagascar from the SBU drone. Photo courtesy of SBU
A view of Madagascar from the SBU drone. Photo courtesy of SBU

“Diseases like Ebola and Zika frequently pop up in remote areas,” said Small, a medical doctor who worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation prior to joining Stony Brook University in 2015. Having sites where drones can land and collect specimens will allow village health workers to send off specimens for analysis, providing greater clarity on the incidence of specific diseases throughout the country.

Additionally, people in remote areas can send samples back to a lab to test for medical conditions, such as tuberculosis. After medical technicians run tests, the drones can return not only with drugs that can treat the condition but also with instructions on how to treat patients.

The drones can carry a special box to record whether a pill bottle is opened. The box also can carry a sound recorder that can recognize and count coughs, Small said. When the drone returns with another supply of medication, the previous medicine can make the return trip to the lab, where doctors can determine whether the cough is getting better and can see how much medicine the patient took.

Medicine is delivered to villages in Madagascar by way of drones. Photo courtesy of SBU
Medicine is delivered to villages in Madagascar by way of drones. Photo courtesy of SBU

Ideally, the drones will not require any specialized knowledge to fly. Once people in rural villages have a signal, they can request a drone, which can transport samples to a lab or bring medicine back to the village.

“We want to put these drones in the hands of the village health workers and the local health system,” said Small. He said those working with this project hoped people in the village would welcome this medical service but were unsure how it would be received. “We had no idea how people would respond to these” drones, Small said. The initial run, however, was successful. GHI plans to bring two more drones to Madagascar in the next few months.

A company in Michigan called Vayu manufactures the drones, which weigh 35 pounds, are about the size of a picnic table and can carry up to a 5-pound payload, said Daniel Pepper, the company’s chief executive officer. Using an electric, rechargeable battery, the drones can travel up to 40 miles. In the near future, Pepper hopes to increase that distance to as many as 65 miles.

Vayu has manufactured dozens of these drones. The recent Madagascar test was the first time they had used the unit in an international setting. Pepper is “speaking to partners and potential customers in over a dozen countries,” including the United States, where drones might offer a connection between medical centers in urban areas and harder-to-reach rural communities.

Pepper said the drone was the only one on the market that’s electric powered and can carry this payload over this range. “It takes off automatically and lands vertically,” he said and described the landing as “soft.”

According to Small, Madagascar could benefit from these drones, particularly in diagnosing the myriad health challenges of the area. “Madagascar is a remarkable area to start addressing some of these problems and bringing innovation,” he said.

In some villages, as many as 90 percent of people have intestinal parasites, which contributes to malnutrition and stunts growth, Small said. Small and Patricia Wright, the founder and executive director of Centre ValBio who has been working in the area for 30 years, are hoping to broaden and deepen the connection between Stony Brook and Madagascar.

The dental school has coordinated dental missions to treat hundreds of patients a day. Small said the dean of the dental school, Mary Truhlar, recently visited Madagascar to go beyond medical missions to “engage in improving the quality and training, care and health system issues.”

Small is excited with the way computational science and high-end mathematics are coming in to describe the complexities of health problems to the government of Madagascar. This will assist the government in generating medical priorities. Small has set some large goals for his role: “If life is not palpably better in five, 10 or 15 years” in Madagascar, “I will have failed at my job.”

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Photo from Flickr/David Rodriguez Martin

As a community newspaper, we find ourselves tossing around the phrase “NIMBY” — standing for “not in my backyard” — from time to time. But it’s usually more of an expression, and a negative one, than a literal translation of residents resisting something from going into their actual backyards.

But in the case of drones, NIMBY could not be taken more literally.

Call them drones, call them unmanned aircraft systems — either way, the public perception of these flying devices is still developing as they buzz around the skies.

Huntington Town attempted this week to ground concerns over these drones when it introduced a resolution that would regulate their use for the betterment of public health, privacy and safety “so that operation of same is respectful of community standards [and] the concerns of residents, as well as protect property and privacy rights,” the resolution said.

Huntington wasn’t alone in its efforts to come out a step ahead of drone regulation, either. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer and several other elected leaders have been banging the drone drum for months now, calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to require drones to fly below 500 feet and limit where they can fly.

While we understand the legislative urge to keep an eye on the sky for the sake of public privacy and safety, we hope our public leaders don’t turn the drone debate into a droning drain on resources.

There are several things to consider when it comes to drawing the legislative line for drones. At what point would new laws encroach upon our personal freedoms? Whose job is it to regulate them? Does the regulator depend on how high the drone flies or what jurisdiction is underneath it? Should regulations vary based upon the type of drone?

Moving forward, our local municipalities should not jump the gun. Officials should properly investigate all the nuts and bolts of the drone industry and be careful when determining where governments should step in.

Flying a drone is not like flying a kite, and we, like many of our neighbors, are concerned about personal privacy and public safety. All we ask is that our elected officials consider the whole subject carefully before inking laws.

Photo from Flickr/David Rodriguez Martin

Huntington officials have their eyes on the skies.

The Huntington Town Board voted to schedule a public hearing that would regulate the recreational use of unmanned aircraft systems “so that operation of same is respectful of community standards, the concerns of residents as well as protect property and privacy rights,” according to the resolution authorizing the hearing.

Huntington Town Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D), who sponsored the measure, said he was inspired to do so in part by an experience he had shooting a promotional town video outside.

“And lo and behold up above, a drone,” he said.

Cuthbertson said he couldn’t tell who was operating the device.

“It all could be for very benevolent purposes, taking pictures of the boats on the water, but it could be something more nefarious,” Cuthbertson said. “You don’t know. So I think we need to at least start a discussion of how these things are used and what they’re used for.”

The proposed law defines an unmanned aircraft, also known as a drone or a model aircraft, as “a non-human carrying aircraft weighing no more than 55 pounds, capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere intended exclusively for sport, recreation, education and/or competition and is typically guided by remote control or onboard computers.” Restrictions would apply to all properties in the unincorporated parts of town — residential, commercial and otherwise.

Under the new rules, if approved, no one would be allowed to use the aerial devices to collect images or information on individuals, homes, business or property at locations where there is “a reasonable expectation of privacy.” That conduct would be prohibited unless permission is obtained from the individual property owner or manager.

It would also be illegal to pilot an unmanned aircraft on private property or town property without the owner or the town’s consent; pilot an unmanned aircraft that interferes with manned aircraft; or pilot an unmanned craft outside the operator’s visual line of sight.

The new rules would prohibit piloting an unmanned aircraft higher than 400 feet from the ground, near or over unprotected persons or moving vehicles at a height less than 25 feet from same; operate the devices under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol; use the devices in adverse weather such as high winds or reduced visibility; or pilot an unmanned aircraft near or over sensitive infrastructure or property like power stations, sewage treatment facilities and heavily traveled roadways in Huntington Town.

Those who violate the proposed law could be punished via a fine not exceeding $1,000 or imprisonment for up to 15 days.

The board voted to schedule the public at its meeting on Tuesday. Councilwoman Susan Berland (D) was the only one who voted against the measure.

“I think it’s premature, at best,” she said, noting that she had questions about how this law would be enforced and whether it would interfere with the Federal Aviation Administration or other jurisdictions looking into the matter.

In an interview after the meeting, Supervisor Frank Petrone (D), who seconded Cuthbertson’s resolution, said it was worth it to start the conversation with a public hearing.

“It’s a problem,” he said. “Bring it up, let’s air it.”

Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) called on the FAA to employ sweeping drone regulations, including limits on how high the devices could fly and where or when they can be used. He and several other lawmakers zeroed in on drone regulations after an incident in which a drone operator flew an aircraft onto the White House property in Washington, D.C.

The FAA released several proposals for the usage of drones, requiring them to fly below 500 feet, away from airports and other secure airspaces and more, which Schumer applauded as a step in the right direction.

“Overall, the American public is a lot better off today with the FAA’s proposed drone regulations than we were yesterday, particularly related to the safety of our air travelers,” he said in a statement in February. “However, I will continue to work with the FAA to expand eligible commercial uses for drones and further protect privacy and safety.

The town board public hearing will take place on July 14 at 2 p.m.