BELEN — Flying drones can be a lot of fun but they can be very dangerous, too.
On the evening of July 12, the Belen Fire Department responded to a vehicle accident on Interstate 25. Crews requested a medevac helicopter for the patient and, once the helicopter arrived, the patient was loaded up and the crew began the care.
The pilot was performing the preflight check when a drone suddenly appeared, causing a brief delay before takeoff.
“From crew’s perspective, it was a near miss due to their not being able to view the drone, busy with a patient,” said Maggie O’Donnell, director of Lifeguard Emergency & Critical Care Transport with the University of New Mexico Hospital.
This incident turned out to be nothing more than a nuisance for the pilot but the drone operator, who was never found, violated some major Federal Aviation Administration laws.
“Operating drones around airplanes, helicopters and airports is dangerous and illegal,” Rick Breitenfeldt, a public affairs specialist with the Federal Aviation Administration, wrote in an email. “Unauthorized operators may be subject to stiff fines and criminal charges, including possible jail time.”
Two of the main federal laws broken when the drone flew over the helicopter on the interstate are known as Operations Over Human Beings and Operation Near Aircraft, both from Section 107 of the Federal Code of Regulations.
Operations Over Human Being states that operating unmanned aircraft above people is prohibited unless the person is located inside a stationary vehicle or under a covered structure that provides reasonable protection from the drone crashing.
In other words, if people are in a building or a stationary car, you can fly a drone over them, but on a highway, vehicles are considered covered structures that are not stationary. This law is to protect drones from crashing into vehicles and prevent people who are driving from getting distracted by drones flying overhead.
Obtaining permission from the FAA to fly drones over people can be a challenging process but it is possible. To operate near aircraft, the right-of-way rule states that each small, unmanned aircraft must yield the right of way to all aircraft, airborne vehicles and launch and reentry vehicles.
People who operate drones might unknowingly break these laws while operating their drones. It happens more often than people realize and for law enforcement, it is difficult to enforce.
Deputy Fire Chief Michael Wessels, of the Belen Fire Department, said that during this year’s National Night Out on Aug. 1 at Anna Becker Park, a drone was flying right over the dunk tank. Nearly all the Belen police and firefighters were at the park and nobody knew who was flying it.
The Belen Fire Department does use a drone in a professional capacity. Wessels said the drone has had multiple uses so far, including aiding the police department to investigate fires and its been used for training and public events.
“But be responsible about it and take into account that especially on a vehicle wreck or something bad, that’s somebody’s mom, that’s somebody’s daughter, somebody’s son. I’m pretty sure they would not appreciate it if their family’s trauma or family event is being publicized across whatever social media platforms or however it gets out.”
Because there are people who want a closer look at emergency situations when there is a medivac helicopter, there is a landing zone command officer on board that makes sure people do not get too close to the chopper.
Drones have become a new challenge for the LZ commanders on the scene, who are dealing with the situation at hand.
“There was an incident about six years ago, I think with Gallup Med Flight, where their aircraft actually got struck by a car that was on the road and doing a scene call and some yahoo decided he just wanted to get up close and personal to the helicopter and he knocked it over,” said O’Donnell.
In the case of the incident on the highway near Belen, the Lifeguard helicopter’s landing zone commander was watching the drone and the fire department also had to divert personnel to watch for the drone.
“Now we have to keep eyes on that drone to ensure that if the pilot loses control or that drone starts to come down too low, it can strike our truck or strike our personnel. We have an idea of what’s going on,” says Wessels.
The drone eventually moved away so the helicopter was able to take off safely but then the drone came back over the scene. The emergency crews working on the scene could not determine who was flying the drone but they could see it was flying in the direction of Belen High School, where there were numerous people.
“I just know that to operate a drone, you don’t need to be licensed and there’s potentially people out there operating drones that don’t have any idea what FAA rules and regulations are,” says O’Donnell.
To avoid fines and potential legal issues, Wessels and O’Donnell recommend people follow FAA regulations when flying drones. Prioritize safety and take guidelines seriously.
All the regulations for drones are enforced by the FAA, and the state of New Mexico only has two laws pertaining to drones.
One law prohibits the use of drones for surveillance without consent, except for state agencies with a warrant to gather evidence or data. The other law is to stop the use of drones to hunt. It is illegal to use a drone to pursue, harass, harry, drive, or rally any protected species or to assist in locating or taking them.
There are drone rules recreational flyers need to know to safely operate and the FAA has an app called B4UFLY App that has interactive maps showing where people can and cannot fly.
Recreational flyers are individuals who operate drones weighing less than 55 pounds and are not required to register their drones with the FAA but are encouraged to do so.
If people want to learn how to fly drones locally, check out the Belen Area Radio Controllers group. They fly radio-controlled planes and drones on an airfield near Valencia High School, and when the weather is bad they sometimes fly inside the gymnasium.
A summary of some of the important federal drone laws that people should know are:
- Recreational flyers must take The Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST).
- Always give way to manned aircraft, such as airplanes and helicopters.
- Fly within your visual line of sight (If you cannot see the drone, you are breaking the rules).
- Do not fly over people or moving vehicles.
- The maximum altitude is 400 feet above the ground in uncontrolled airspace.
- Do not fly in or near controlled airspace unless you have prior authorization (airports and military bases).
- Do not fly your drone in a dangerous manner, including interfering with law enforcement or operating while under the influence.
The full list of rules for recreational flyers can be found at faa.gov/uas/recreational_flyers.
Jesse Jones lives in Albuquerque with his wife and son. Jesse graduated from of the University of New Mexico twice. This spring, he graduated with a degree in multimedia journalism and, in 2006, he received a bachelor’s degree in university studies with an emphasis in photojournalism. He is a current fellow of the New Mexico Local News Fund.