Delight and disquiet

Spectacular footage, birds-eye-view vantage points and mounting concerns about privacy and safety.

Drones — those helicopter-like fliers the Federal Aviation Administration defines as Unmanned Aircraft Systems — are here to stay.

Like many other tourist destinations, Kauai has become a magnet for the technology, which more often than not are fitted with a camera. A quick search turns up dozens of dazzling videos, from tours of Waimea Canyon to professional surfer Laird Hamilton foilboarding along the North Shore.

“Overwhelmingly, drones are amazing,” said Justin Edwards, a drone photographer on Maui who has filmed everything from humpback whales to big wave surfing.

However, not everyone approves of where and when the devices are being flown.

“(Kauai Police Department) has received a few complaints and this appears to be an issue of increasing concern,” county spokeswoman Sarah Blane wrote in an email. “However, there are no laws currently in place for police to enforce.”

Blane said that with the exception of one, all complaints received by KPD were informal.

In late May of this year, one was lodged with the Kauai County Council by a resident who, Blane wrote, claimed a “tourist flew a drone with a camera above the swimmers and about 20 feet above myself and a friend on the beach. I was very uncomfortable with how close the drone was, and felt that it was dangerous for it to be flying so low over people in the water.”

Attempts to contact the complainant to initiate a record of the incident were unsuccessful.

Richard Alao lives in Waialeale Estates, off Kawaihau Road in Kapaa. Last week alone, he spotted a drone flying above his house on three separate days, as recently as Tuesday evening and as late as midnight.

“We don’t know what they’re using it for,” he said. “At that time of day, your thought would be they’re up to no good.”

Alao said this particular unmanned vehicle is big, loud and bright, capable of flying long distances, and causes his and other dogs in the neighborhood to whine and bark. In addition to small LED lights on the body, he said it features a spotlight that the controller, wherever he or she is, shines into people’s yards and windows.

Alao said it has reached a point where he feels his privacy is being invaded.

“When you’re hovering above people’s homes in the wee hours of the morning, it gets kind of suspicious,” he said.

Brian Gray, a drone photographer on Kauai, said irresponsible users, including the one described by Alao, drive him nuts.

“They’re going to ruin it for the responsible owners,” he said.

Gray owns a video production company, Gray Hope Productions, and said he is waiting for the FAA to come out with its new regulations so that he can comply and use drones commercially. Unfortunately, with so many unregulated areas, Gray said he and other drone owners have been forced to learn as they go.

“It’s really a common sense kind of thing,” he said. “At least it should be.”

For example, flying over houses at night, or over people sunbathing by a hotel pool, is likely to cause problems, Gray recognized.

Edwards, who operates a website called DroneAbove, agrees.

He said drone pilots and hobbyists must be aware of what they’re doing. With that said, he believes the majority of users are just having fun with their toys and not intending to invade anyone’s privacy.

“I think most people are not being inappropriate,” he said.

At the end of the day, Edwards said the conversation about privacy is kind of ridiculous since there are already laws in place to protect people’s privacy.

“The laws don’t need to be rewritten,” he said.

Last legislative session, Hawaii Sen. Clayton Hee introduced a bill aimed at protecting privacy rights from the potential abuse of drones by restricting their use primarily to law enforcement. The measure ultimately died in committee.

Kauai Police Chief Darryl Perry said his department respects the privacy of individuals and is aware of the issues concerning drones and unmanned aircrafts.

“It is imperative to regulate this type of activity from both the state and federal levels in order to preserve individuals rights, therefore KPD will be monitoring this situation and is committed to taking proactive measures to support initiatives that maintain privacy issues relative to public safety,” he said in a statement.

Recreational use of airspace by model aircraft is covered by FAA Advisory Circular 91-57, which generally limits operations for hobby and recreation to below 400 feet and within sight of the operator, and requires permission within five miles of airports and air traffic, according the FAA website.

“The law is clear that the FAA may take enforcement action against model aircraft operators who operate their aircraft in a manner that endangers the safety of the national airspace system,” the FAA website states.

Derek Inoshita, a spokesman for the Hawaii Department of Transportation, said there have been no reports or complaints about drones near Lihue Airport.

The FAA also bans the use of unmanned and remote controlled aircraft near stadiums. The agency has granted only a handful of companies exemptions to use drones commercially.

Alao doesn’t have a problem with drones in general. In fact, he said he “wouldn’t mind having one” himself. However, he does have concerns about people flying over his house at night, and thinks it would be appropriate to have their use be restricted to certain hours of the day and public areas, such as parks and beaches.

Gray agreed that in light of how loud they are, a curfew makes sense.

“My drone sounds like a hive of bees coming at you,” he said.

The FAA sets all rules and regulations for unmanned aircraft, which can be found at www.faa.gov/uas/. The agency is currently drafting new regulations and expects to finalize them by September 2015.

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Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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