WTVM Special Report: Drone Dangers

WTVM Special Report: Drone Dangers

(WTVM) – They've targeted terrorists, spied for surveillance, and now personal drones are taking off.

They're flying the friendly skies a lot more these days.

Drones have also taken out more than 500 suspected terrorists since 9/11, sparking controversy... but are the mini-aircraft dangerous when flown in your city or neighborhood?

We investigated how local groups are using these popular gadgets, like the Russell County Sheriff's Office flying their drone to survey tornado-damaged homes in Fort Mitchell recently.

News Leader 9's Jason Dennis has more on the benefits and "Drone Dangers" in this special report.

Drones have been the weapon of choice for the Obama administration, authorizing 450 strikes by the unmanned aircraft, operated at U.S. bases to kill enemies accurately with little risk to troops.

"The drones get a negative view because of how they view it overseas, but those are attack drones," said Muscogee County Marshal Greg Countryman.

Like more and more law enforcement nationwide, the Muscogee County Marshal's Office has a recreational drone which supervisors steer with a cell phone. It was a gift from the Georgia Marshal Training Network.

"Our drone is not a tactical drone, it's not a surveillance drone," Countryman explained.

Neither is the one operated by Auburn University freshman Phillip Settlemeyer. He's in flight school and uses the drone in his love of photography and videos, making his friends very curious.

"A lot of them (friends) are like, 'you fly drones? That's awesome. They're like, is it hard?' You have to get used to it, it does take practice," Settlemeyer said. "It's not something you should just go and do on your own for fun. I've got a couple friends that have property and when we go up there, I'll get some great shots and videos."

Bill Hutto, the director of AU's Airport and Aviation Center, is excited about breaking new ground in offering commercial training for drones.

They're already in use for everything from photos at sporting events and Facebook beaming internet access to pizza delivery and Amazon delivering packages. But what about consumers using drones as a hobby?

"They are literally, pardon the pun, flying off the shelves now," Hutto said.

But reasonable prices and easy access could make it difficult to keep drones out of the wrong hands.

Still, most people fly these responsibly, like a local multimedia business owner who gets video at events like Unity Night last week at the Phenix City Amphitheater.

"On Auburn game days, planes aren't allowed to fly near the arena, neither are drones," Settlemeyer said.

"We certainly don't want to be flying over heavy traffic," Hutto said.

Along with restricted flight levels, many states have also started pushing laws to govern the UAS or Unmanned Aircraft System.

"They don't want something to happen to one and it go down over people," Settlemeyer said.

"The FAA has been trying to monitor improper use of USA now," Hutto said. "They just don't have enough staff to monitor it all."

The FAA works with law enforcement to keep an eye out for suspicious activity with drones.

Countryman remembers the eviction that prompted them to get one.

"He also told us, if your deputies come out, I'm gonna kill them," Countryman recalled.

They spent thousands of dollars on a sheriff's entry team and Columbus police flying their helicopter, but the marshal says this $232 drone can do the job and help neutralize threats.

"If we can take that drone and go up and look in the backyard to see if there's any weapons, tools, anything we can get intel on, we need that," Countryman said. "We're not using it to look through anyone's windows unless necessary, unless there's a perceived threat."

The Muscogee County Marshal's Office doesn't fly their drone higher than 100 feet. They let us try it out.

"It's not too easy to go out and fly one of these, one has to get a feel for the aircraft, which way it's going," Hutto explained.

Now, Auburn University is the first in America to get FAA approval to have a drone flight school - which will be a tuition or fee-based program for students, teachers and the general public.

"What our goal is to be able to teach people how to fly properly and appropriately, so that the technology can be used in a safe and efficient manner, used as intended," Hutto said.

While drones are used often for military intelligence and surveillance in war zones, the future of their flight is growing fast in your backyard.

Even though local experts say more research is needed to make drones safer, the Federal Aviation Administration plans to release more rules on the unmanned aircraft in the next two years.

The FAA also will require a written test and possibly practical test if somebody wants to fly a drone for commercial means, which is what Auburn University will be able to train you to do.

Join the discussion on social media by using the #dronedangers.

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