Mikko Wilson demonstrates his DJI Phantom 4 drone during a meetup at the Makers Space in Douglas on Thursday, June 28, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Mikko Wilson demonstrates his DJI Phantom 4 drone during a meetup at the Makers Space in Douglas on Thursday, June 28, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Drone group takes flight

As number of local hobbyists and pilots grow, quadcopter enthusiasts start meetup

  • By Kevin Gullufsen Juneau Empire
  • Sunday, July 1, 2018 11:43am
  • NewsLocal News

On a Thursday at Juneau Makerspace on Douglas Island, nine drone hobbyists talked shop around a few folding tables pushed together, an array of quadcopters before them.

The gadgets, one of them DIY, others store-bought, range from a pocket-sized toy to about the length and height of a basketball.

Makerspace President Sam Bornstein showed off his self-built drone, complete with a skull and crossbones flag streaming at an angle from the backside. Each of the other drone enthusiasts at the meetup had bought theirs at a store. Juneau’s Costco now sells them, as well as other places around town.

“It all goes through this power distribution board, where the battery comes in, and it sends power out to the motors, the board and the camera. The camera is connected to this antenna,” Bornstein explained.

The number of certified drone pilots and recreationalists in Juneau — the Federal Aviation Administration distinguishes between the two — has grown in recent years. Makerspace’s drone meetup is first of what Bornstein hopes grows into a regular event.

The FAA began requiring drone hobbyists to register their model aircraft in 2015. In May of 2016, the FAA listed 67 registered UAS in Juneau. By April of this year, that list has grown to 162.

The quickest way to fly is to register a drone for recreation only under the FAA’s Special Rule for Model Aircraft (Section 336). Drone owners can also apply to fly as commercial operators, but they have to pass a test to earn a Remote Pilot Certificate. One of the enthusiasts who showed up Thursday, Greg Strong, is one of about five people, he estimates, qualified to sell their drone flying services locally.

Earning a Remote Pilot Certificate takes some studying, he said. It isn’t something you can pass using just common sense. The FAA draws 60 questions from a pool of 2,000, he said, which they pose to prospective commercial pilots.

It took Strong about a month to study, he said. He’s since worked for the cruise lines and national television programs like Good Morning America, shooting drone video under the company name of G-Force Productions.

The FAA is leaning more toward education than enforcement right now, Strong feels, as the hobby grows. That might change down the line as hobbyists have ample time to learn newly-established safety rules.

The big concerns? Flying over crowds or near airports, Strong said. All the rules can be found online at the FAA website.

“Go out of your way to be extra safe,” Strong advised, and take advantage of Juneau’s wide open spaces as you’re learning to fly. He suggests Eagle Beach at a low tide for beginners.

The FAA might hold a drone outreach expo in Juneau sometime in the fall, Strong said, something they’ve done in other Southeast communities. It could go a long way to helping educate users and allay any concerns about drone use.

Makerspace’s meetup formed out of the Southeast Alaska Filmmakers Facebook page. There isn’t yet a date set for the next drone meetup, but Bornstein hopes to have that set soon and posted on the Makerspace Facebook page. Bornstein said he’s hoping to run drone tutorials or workshops at the meetups.

Most over-the-counter drones are user friendly, but there is a learning curve to flying, meetup attendees said. Juneau’s vertical, wet landscape can also complicate learning to fly and care for a drone. There’s a lot of air traffic in the area, Strong said, especially in the summer when helicopter and float plane tours run.

Attendee Paul Rodriguez said he’s lost two drones in Juneau and is now on his third.

His second drone ran out of battery and dropped out of the sky. Another, “Just veered away from me. I’ve heard of them doing that … I don’t know what happened, it just lost connection,” Rodriguez said.

• Contact Reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 and kgullufsen@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @KevinGullufsen.

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