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The drone age?

In the wake of the Federal Aviation Administration's decision last year to begin granting waivers for commercial use of drones, hundreds of companies nationwide have flocked to what local entrepreneurs describe as a business opportunity existing in a legal gray area.

In the Rogue Valley, as elsewhere, miniature computer-controlled aircraft quickly have filled a niche in the commercial photography market, providing aerial images at costs and from angles that would be impractical using conventional aircraft.

"We were the first agency in the valley," says Ben Bachman of Rogue Aerial Productions, which first opened for business in May 2014. "I think our first (drone) was nearly $15,000."

Bachman’s company provides aerial video recording for everyone from real estate brokers to seaside labyrinth artists, who depend on the drones to provide a complete picture of their work.

Prices for popular quadcopter models range from around $680 for the DJI Phantom to more than $3,000 for larger, more complicated models such as the Walker Voyager 3. Cameras can range from cheaper internal models to the popular GoPro Hero action camera series, typically mounted on a stabilized gimbal for shake-free video.

Bachman says his business currently uses an XPX quadcopter built by Bend-based XPro Heli and a DJI Inspire, the latter equipped with an ultra-high-definition camera.

Michael Carlini, who has been doing business since May under the name Southern Oregon Drone, says he relies on a Phantom for most of his work, preferring its internal camera system.

Like many drone photographers, Carlini says he got his start filming real estate for brokers. "My boss was very particular about the angles I was filming and the quality of the footage," he says. Since then, he’s filmed everything from regattas to paddleboarding tutorials on the Columbia Gorge. “I’ve filmed stock footage for people all over the country,” he says.

Both Carlini and Bachman are licensed pilots, a current requirement for commercial use of UAVs, or unmanned aerial vehicles.

"Really, to be legitimate, you need to get a Section 333 exemption," Bachman says, referring to the FAA regulation restricting commercial drone use. The application process for an exemption can cost several thousand dollars and take months, and to legally use it, you still need to hold a pilot's license.

Under current FAA guidelines, recreational drone operators who fly aircraft weighing less than 55 pounds, below 400 feet and within line of sight for non-commercial purposes aren’t required to obtain a pilot’s license or exemption from the agency.

The current proposal for long-term regulations, announced by the FAA in February, would require commercial drone operators to complete a knowledge test in lieu of obtaining a pilot’s license, a scenario that doesn’t sit well with everyone in the field.

“If you’re manipulating the controls of the aircraft, you’re responsible for it,” Carlini says. “If just one of those rotors goes out, the whole thing will spiral out of control and crash.”

Bern Case, director of the Medford airport, says the FAA considers the five miles around the airport as Class D airspace under direct supervision of air traffic control.

So far, he says, pilots of manned aircraft operating out of the airport haven’t reported any major conflicts with drones in their airspace. “We’ve been fortunate in that regard,” he says. “I think drones are here to stay."

Bachman says the possibility of a collision with a drone is a very real threat to pilots of manned aircraft. “I’d be lying if I said I could get into the cockpit right now without thinking about it,” he says.

Conflicts with other aircraft aren't the only potential issues posed by drone use. In June, a 25-year-old woman was knocked unconscious when a drone plummeted from the sky during the Seattle Pride Parade. Earlier that month, the British Daily Mail newspaper reported that a famous cathedral in Milan, Italy, was damaged when a group of tourists accidentally crashed a drone into its roof. Locally, the Mail Tribune has received dozens of letters from readers concerned about neighbors flying drones over their homes and yards.

Where drones conflict with existing property and privacy laws is a legal area whose boundaries are still being defined. Local law enforcement officers have said that unless the drones are being operated in a way that directly endangers another person, such as being recklessly flown into automobile traffic, there aren’t any criminal charges that can be filed. While the FAA can impose civil penalties on drone pilots violating its regulations, any federal criminal actions have to be investigated and prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice.

State law does provide civil protections for homeowners who feel their privacy is being invaded by the tiny aircraft. House Bill 2710, passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2010, allows property owners to pursue legal action against drone pilots who fly their aircraft less than 400 feet over private land without permission.

The law requires that the property owner notify the drone pilot of his wishes prior to pursuing a lawsuit, which could recover any damages resulting from future trespass and create an injunction against further flights.

The long-term prospects of the drone industry on the local level are unclear. Bachman says that although the UAV industry is valued at several billion dollars, “the money really lies in the (drone software) programming and applications.”

“It really requires a lot of marketing to stand out (in the drone photography field),” he says, explaining that people going into the industry with an established customer base have an easier time. But while many people have quickly backed out after discovering it wasn’t a viable get-rich-quick plan, Bachman says he thinks there will continue to be a market for local drone photographers for years to come.

“I think that even small towns will have at least one guy doing it,” he says.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471, or by email at tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.

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Ben Bachman's Inspire One drone flies in Eagle Point Thursday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
A drone was used to capture this aerial view of U.S. Cellular Community Park in Medford. Photo by Mike Feiring