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Amid Safety Concerns, New Laws Fall On Gainesville Drone Pilots

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As the FAA’s new drone laws are presenting more hoops to jump before flight, Gainesville officials are echoing safety concerns that brought the laws about, and one local pilot agrees.

The laws, enacted in late February, have forced all drone owners to register their aircraft with the FAA and have their registration number displayed on the drone before it can take off. The criminal penalty for flying an unregistered drone can be up to $250,000 in fines and three years in jail.

The drone pilot, Alachua County resident James Hegenbarth, said people call him “the drone man” and that he bought his first a few months ago. He explained that he has seen many changes in the FAA’s handling of drones and was initially skeptical about the new regulations.

“I really didn’t want to do it because they’re just watching us,” he said. “You know everyone has that hypothesis that they just want to know what you’re doing.”

But after research into the FAA’s new laws, Hegenbarth concluded that they made sense and would help ensure safety around drones.

“[From] what I’ve gathered, the reason behind the numbers being on the drone is so that if something does happen, they can actually go after that individual, which is a smart move,” he said.

The new laws also say pilots must keep their drones within sight and fly them no higher than 400 feet and at least five miles away from an airport, which could present difficulties in the area around the Gainesville Regional Airport.

The University of Florida enacted tough regulations on drones in January, and UF Health hospital also doesn’t want them around.

Staccie Allen, director of the hospital’s ShandsCair flight program, said a drone flew over the heliport at ShandsCair heliport at Southwest Archer Road and Southwest 16th Avenue.

“We would like to see no drones in the area of the hospital or the Gatorport because we could be leaving at a moment’s notice and be coming back at a moment’s notice,” she said.

Gainesville police spokesman Ben Tobias emphasized the safety concerns that come with drones.

“We’re constantly having helicopters deliver patients into the area,” Tobias said. “So around downtown Gainesville, there are constantly aircraft flying at a low altitude. When you have these drones that are capable of flying at pretty high altitudes … when you put the two together, you’re bound to have a problem.”

Hegenbarth, who has recorded nearly 300 drone flights, said he understands the safety concerns but that accidents could be avoided if the FAA did a better job of educating drone pilots.

“There are things that can happen,” he said, “but if you’re a responsible drone owner, the odds of that happening are very slim.”

Hegenbarth said he hopes that better education among drone pilots will lead to lessening restrictions on drones.

“I make it a point to send it up above my house, straight up right at sunset,” he said, “because you can see purples and oranges and just an amazing sight.”

About Richard Whitely

University of Florida Journalism student, sports fan to the core, nerdy at heart.

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