“Bzzzzttthhhhppp,” whirs the drone quietly, zipping straight upward into the blue.
I’m standing far below in the parking lot at the Amherst Junior High ball fields, watching as city councilman Steve Bukovac remotely pilots the tiny aircraft.
The drone sends him high-resolution images in real time as it soars over the school, its white body banking almost invisibly against the clouds. Bukovac taps a tablet screen mounted to the controls and his quadcopter gives us a birds-eye view stretching all the way to Lake Erie.
Twenty minutes later, he recalls the drone. It zips home at 30 mph and drops 400 feet in seconds.
The day’s flight wasn’t just for fun. It served as the launch point for a discussion about the councilman’s worries.
“We as a society have to be wary of technological advances and how it impacts privacy,” Bukovac said before take-off.
A longtime photography buff, he’s flown “small unmanned aerial vehicles” for two years now as a hobby, capturing images all over the region.
In that time, drones have become far more popular as price tags have dropped. Now a decent quadcopter can sell for as low as a few hundred dollars while quality craft run into the $1,500 or $2,000 range.
That’s led Bukovac to look into privacy concerns surrounding drones: “The fear when people see drones is, unsurprisingly, that they automatically assume they’re being spied on,” he said.
He’s had personal experience.
When the councilman is out flying his model, he is typically approached by two distinct crowds. There are those who are curious and those who are furious. Just last month he was approached by an angry spectator.
“I didn’t go 10 feet and he came up and said, ‘Dude, don’t you follow me in my pickup truck,’” Bukovac recalled. “The biggest fear of anything is the fear of the unknown. They just don’t know what I’m doing at that moment, so their first reaction is to protect themselves against what they see as invasion.”
Now he is weighing options for drone legislation in Amherst to regulate flights “where privacy is expected” without flying into First Amendment issues.
It’s unclear exactly where “public” ends and “private” begins in the air. On the ground, sidewalks, treelawns, roadways, and similar areas are considered fair game for photographers — though there are still limits on, say, snapping shots through the windows of a home.
A lot of drones, including Bukovac’s model, have built-in software that prevents them from zipping into “no fly” zones such as anywhere close to Hopkins International Airport.
In town, Bukovac believes there needs to be protection for other sensitive airspace such as the helicopter landing area at the University Hospital Amherst Health Center.
There should also be a law to protect crowds, he said.
On Memorial Day, the councilman used his drone to capture images of the parade stretching from Washington Avenue to city hall. The feat generated some amazing aerial photos but Bukovac said he would not fly over the parade again for fear of what could happen in the event of a crash.
“There’s always that opportunity for mechanical failure that would cause a problem. I’m trying to be a good drone steward,” he said. “The equipment is very reliable, very stable, but you can make mistakes.”
He would like to use his drone to photograph downtown’s Dancing on Main Street event Aug. 1 but said it’s his plan to hover over buildings, not the action, and seek permission first from Main Street Amherst.
In the meantime, he has to abide by the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules, which are evolving much more slowly than drone technology.
The FAA puts a 400-foot ceiling on drone activities and all but bars their use “for commercial purposes,” which it interprets broadly.
Recently, for instance, a Florida drone operator was sent an FAA take-down notice for a purely recreational video posted to YouTube. The agency argued that sharing the footage was inherently commercial and not protected by the First Amendment.
Jason Hawk can be reached at 440-988-2801 or @EditorHawk on Twitter.
Photos by Jason Hawk | Amherst News-Times Amherst city councilman Steve Bukovac launches his quadcopter Thursday at Amherst Junior High School.