ASHEBORO, NC -- The first time 25-year-old Josh Hagan from Asheboro touched a drone, he thought he was picking up a cool new hobby.
"I had a cousin bring a little drone over as a toy," he remembered.
His wife, Jennifer, knew better.
"He actually started with remote control helicopters, so the first day he flew a drone, I was like oh gosh, here we go," she laughed.
Hagan said, "I didn't really expect to get 10,000 views on my first video of simple Asheboro here. At that point, I realized people are going to want to see more and more of that."
He was right. Hagan quit his manufacturing job, got certified as a commercial drone pilot and created his company SkyHound. His four-and-a-half-pound mechanical bird captures reality, landscapes and events for clients. He makes a few hundred dollars a video doing a job that doesn't feel much like work.
"Whenever I'm out filming, it sounds crazy, but I feel like a bird. I feel like I'm up there doing whatever I want to do, seeing whatever I want to see."
But with drones, there is more than meets the eye. Behind the lens is a slew of complex, yet vague regulations. The FAA considers drones real aircraft in real airspace.
Before he puts his drone in the air, Hagan typically has to call the nearest airport to get permission to fly in the airspace. The airport then operates the control tower, which notifies nearby pilots.
The 2016 drone incident report shows more than 1,200 cases -- including one in Thomasville -- of drones too close to airplanes. In 2013, a drone crashed into the Virginia Motorsports Park grandstands at the Great Bull Run. A few people had minor injuries.
Hagan said fortunately, newer drones like his are built with safety precautions. If his drone loses contact with the remote or malfunctions, it is programmed to automatically return to the spot where it launched.
"It knows where it took off from."
So advanced technology address drone safety but not drone privacy.
Elon Law associate professor David Levine studies drone privacy laws in depth.
"Understanding them from a practical perspective falls to a lot of common sense. If you decide if you want to fly your drone up to your neighbor's bedroom window, there are other rules that have been on the books for decades that would make that behavior problematic," Levine said.
There's a big ethics question, too, when drones become weapons.
"Because those weapons can have not only loss of life but sometimes loss of human life that is sometimes not intentional," Levine explained.
He added, "There is a raging debate among lawyers, technologists about whether engineers – those that create the technology and write the code -- have a responsibility themselves to think about the ethics of how those technologies are used."
But Hagan sees the drone's downsides outweighed by the good.
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"I see it (the drone) doing a lot of things with roof inspections and power line inspections, bridge inspections... the future of drones."
"The future of drones -- I see it saving lives."
So for this pilot, sky's the limit.
- Fly below 400 feet and within your direct line of sight
- Don't fly near airports
- Don't fly at night
- Don't fly near stadiums, public events or directly over people
- Commerical UAS/drone operators operating under 14 CFR Part 107 or a 333 Exemption within North Carolina are required to have a valid NC UAS Commercial Operators Permit.
- Commercial operators must take and pass NCDOT's UAS Knowledge Test and then apply for a state permit.
- To obtain a permit, operators must provide the state proof of their remote pilot certificate or other authorization to conduct commercial UAS operations from the FAA (see Federal above).
- Government UAS/drone can operate under 14 CFR Part 107, also known as the Small UAS Rule, as of August 29, 2016.
- As an alternative to operating under Part 107, a government operator may obtain a federal Certificate of Authorization (COA) from the FAA. The FAA reviews all COA applications on a case-by-case basis.