17 Jul

Drone explosion points the way to a traffic jam in the sky

BEAVERTON – Right between the bagel shop and the conveyor-belt sushi place is the future. It’s a narrow storefront from right to left, but upward is a different story.

In fact, the sky is literally the limit.

Drones Plus, the local outpost of a swiftly expanding national chain, has been here for a couple of months, a flash of high tech in a shopping mall otherwise marked by spices, kebabs and dietary supplements. It’s a polished steel window into a time when the skies might be as crowded as the parking lot out front.
The store displays drones – from a baseball-sized $30 version, a kind of kite with batteries, to multi-thousand-dollar versions that look like miniature alien landing ships, with connections underneath for movie cameras that would cost a lot more. Customers include people you might expect to see in the sky, and some you might not: fire and rescue departments, real estate agents, roof inspectors, photographers – as well as buyers who just want to play with the 60 mph racing drones.

“We’re doing very well,” says store manager James Older, who’s been working with drones for four years. “They’re very popular. Every day, the skies are getting more crowded.”

Considering that a century after Henry Ford, we still haven’t quite worked out the details of traffic on the ground, this could be a little unsettling. But it seems inescapable that the newest transportation land rush isn’t on land at all.

Oregon has three FAA-approved drone testing sites, in Warm Springs, Tillamook and Pendleton. It also has a burst of drone start-up companies, especially for agricultural uses. The last Oregon Leadership Summit offered burbling suggestions that drones could be the economic engine for Oregon that aerospace was for Southern California – although the course of that industry has been one more demonstration that what goes up must come down – and Gov. Kate Brown, announcing a state economic development investment in Pendleton in March, declared, “We hope to be the hub of the future.”

Not all of this Oregon activity, of course, comes out of this small store in Beaverton. But the Las Vegas-based company, calling itself “the largest drone retailer in all of North America,” also has stores in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Toronto, suburban Seattle and suburban New Orleans, and this year plans to open in Honolulu, Orlando, Phoenix, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, Vancouver and other locations.

This comes out to a lot of people, and a lot of hardware, up in the air. Downtown July 4, using a drone to film fireworks, Older noticed three others flying around the vicinity.

To use drones commercially, to charge for filming roofs or real estate or ryegrass, operators are supposed to get a commercial pilot’s license. Hobbyists have no requirements; as Older says, “Technically, a 10-year-old kid could come in and buy what we have here.”
There are some limits in the air; drones aren’t supposed to go higher than 400 feet, and to stay away from airports. Practically, most of Drone Plus’s offerings have a range limited to a mile or a mile and a half.

But the limits don’t always hold. Last week, a plane coming into Charlotte (N.C) international airport had a near-miss with a drone at 2,100 feet, one of an estimated 200 close encounters of the drone kind in the past year. At Seattle’s gay pride parade at the end of June, a drone crashed and injured a woman, and this year a drone operated by three South Korean tourists crashed into the cathedral in Milan, Italy.

It’s unnerving to imagine that the watchword of the new era of aeronautics might be “Duck.”

Then there’s the prospect of your neighbor sending a drone over your property to look around, something that Older wants to make clear that he absolutely does not recommend.

Still, if you see something moving slowly over your house, maybe, just to be neighborly, you should wave.

The Oregon legislative session that ended last week took a couple of pokes at drones, ending any 400-foot altitude limit on liability and banning hunting or trapping (or interfering with hunting and trapping) with drones, which should at least ease the concerns of elk. The legislature also voted that drones should now be known as “unmanned aircraft systems.” A legislative interim work group will consider the issue further before the next session.

“Don’t be scared of it,” insists James Older of Drones Plus. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”

Maybe not.

But as things get more crowded, we may need some traffic signals in the sky.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 7/15/15.

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