Kenai airport takes caution against drones

Three public areas near the Kenai Municipal airport have received new signage dealing with a new problem: remote-controlled hobby drones that city and airport officials fear could enter approach paths to the airport and damage incoming planes.

Pilots and airport staff have recorded three instances in the past year of drones flying dangerously near the airport airspace, Kenai Airport Manager Mary Bondurant wrote in an email. Kenai’s airport commission and airport staff are now launching a campaign to increase public awareness of the problem.

Kenai has several wide open public areas well-suited to drone flying. Unfortunately, three happen to abut the airport — The Kenai Sports Complex soccer fields alongside the Kenai Spur Highway, the baseball diamonds on Main Street Loop, and the Fourth Street Park. These are now locations of newly-installed “no drone” signs created by the Federal Aviation Administration to make more drone flyers aware of FAA rules that prohibit flying unmanned aircraft within five miles of an airport without notification and permission from the controllers.

Some consumer drones can fly up to 400 feet — about the altitude of an airplane approaching the Kenai airport’s runway.

John Parker, a Kenai-based drone entrepreneur who advised the airport commission on the possible hazards of unmanned vehicles in trafficked airspace, said that although most consumer hobby drones are small and fragile, the velocity of an encounter with a plane can create a heavy impact.

“Most people think because (hobby drones) are small they can’t cause much damage if they run into something,” said Parker. “Typically if you run them into a house or tree or something it breaks the props and they fall on the ground. But in a situation where you enter an airspace where you might encounter an aircraft, it’s not the size of the aircraft or the materials the basic aircraft is made of. The real danger is the batteries in these things. They’re heavy and solid, fairly dense, and they can cause a lot of damage.”

Parker’s business, Integrated Robotics Imaging Systems, designs sensor packages for drones used for scientific or engineering purposes. He’s also a member of the state legislature’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Task Force. He described one dangerous drone incident that occurred in Kenai in November 2015, during the Christmas Comes to Kenai post-Thanksgiving parade.

“It was dark, and we had somebody flying a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle, a term for drone aircraft) right there by the Chamber (Kenai Chamber of Commerce Visitor’s Center), and that’s right by the end of the runway,” Parker said. “Immediately my phone starts ringing. ‘Was that your UAV out there last night?’ Absolutely it was not. My UAV weighs 31 pounds. It could cause tremendous damage.”

Large commercial drones, Parker’s aircraft require licensing from the FAA, heavier than 0.55 pounds have to be registered in a national online database. However, drones below that weight belong to an unregulated class intended for use by hobbyists. These must weigh less than 0.55 pounds, fly below 400 feet, and be for non-commercial use.

Drones of both types are becoming increasingly common. The shelves of Soldotna’s Hobbies, Games, and Crafts store display a variety of remote-controlled aircraft. Recreational drones range from indoor toys that might take off from inside a cereal bowl —priced around $40 — to sophisticated 4-foot-wide drones that sell for between $1,000 and $3,000. Manager Eldon Smith said those prices have come down dramatically in the past year, and that the larger drones tend not to stay on the shelves for long.

As hobby drones become more sophisticated, Parker said the problem of airport interference could be solved through engineering. He said drones have already been created with “geofencing” programming, in which the boundaries of airports are put into a locating system along with software that won’t allow a drone within a certain distance of those boundaries.

“You can imagine what it took for them to get all these GPS coordinates around these airports all over our country, plus all these other countries they’re doing this in,” Parker said. “So the industry as a whole is really reacting quite well to this.”

For the present, however, pilots and drone flyers will have to rely on awareness and caution.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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