Drones have been used in the military as an alternative to putting troops on the ground in dangerous situations. Now, people here are using them for recreational purposes. For example, James Grimaldi, of West Seneca, New York, used a drone to record video of the 7 feet of snow that fell in his suburban-Buffalo neighborhood.
With the increase in the number of drones in the skies comes new safety concerns. On January 26, a government worker caused a security scare when he flew his drone onto White House property.
There are some rules governing the use of drones, but they aren't uniform -- leaving many people wondering about the future of the unmanned aircraft.
John Culkin and Lee DeAngelis are co-owners of Access Aerial. It's a start-up business specializing in video taken by drones. But the two men are limited with what they can do because the FAA doesn't allow drones to be flown higher than 400 feet. They also can't be used to make money.
"The FAA is saying that commercial use of drones is not allowed," says DeAngelis. "In different parts of the country, people are basically ignoring that statement from the FAA and opening commercial businesses of their own."
Culkin and DeAngelis say they see the rules eventually changing, and that flying drones for a living doesn't sound like a bad idea.
"As soon as we saw that different perspective from the sky, it really let us know that 'wow, this is a unique tool that should be used for a lot of different things,'" says Culkin. "I think it's almost going to look like 'The Jetsons,' you're going to have a line of traffic for drones doing transportation and drones doing photography and things like that."
"I think in the next five to ten years, you'll probably see these in package deliveries. A lot of news outlets... will be using them to get aerial video for stories," says DeAngelis.
AERIAL VIEWS COULD HELP EMERGENCY CREWS
Last year, FOX43 covered a major warehouse fire on Cameron Street in Harrisburg. Tyler Smith heard about what was happening, so he took his drone to shoot video as smoke rose hundreds of feet into the air. Parts of his video then aired as part of FOX43's coverage.
Duane Hagelgans, the commissioner of Blue Rock Fire Rescue in Lancaster County, says the use of drones at fires and other emergency situations could be helpful to first responders.
"The most difficult fires, searches for people, searches for lost kids... it's something you can cover a lot of ground with from an aerial view," he says. "It's very rare to come to a major incident and get us a view from above."
Hagelgans says he supports the public being allowed to use drones, but says lawmakers should only allow emergency crews to use them when responding to calls.
"Whether it's law enforcement, or fire, or EMS... we're worried about this emergency. So if we have our flying craft up there getting us video, that's good. But we can't be worried about what everybody else is doing. That just makes it that much more dangerous for the responders."
DRONES CAUSING "NEAR-COLLISIONS" IN SKIES
As the use of drones increases, some pilots and air traffic controllers are raising concerns. The FAA recently released a list of near-misses between aircrafts and drones. 25 of them took place between June and December of 2014. Most involved commercial jets flying near major airports, but one incident in Schuylkill County left emergency responders on edge.
On November 19, after dropping off a patient at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, a Geisinger Life Flight medical helicopter was heading to the Schuylkill County Airport, when it nearly collided with a drone. According to an FAA report, the pilot missed the drone by "50 to 100 feet" after making an evasive turn.
"They were able to safely maintain a distance to avoid the collision and maintain control of the aircraft with no damage," says Red Lines, Regional Manager for Life Flight. He says if the drone had hit the helicopter windshield at the right angle, it could have severely injured the pilot or anyone on board. Lines also says a collision could have forced an emergency landing, potentially slowing down a rescue mission.
"We're unable to respond to needs for patient transport, and unable to respond to accident scenes. So that cost is probably a higher concern than the actual monetary concern of fixing the aircraft."
Officials at Life Flight and the Schuylkill County Airport don't know who was operating the drone, but reports show the near-collision took place between 700 and 800 feet above ground, a violation of FAA regulations.
"Anyone could go out and buy one that doesn't have any aviation training whatsoever," says Lines.
"It's going to become more prominent, it's going to be a bigger and bigger issue as these things develop," says Bill Willard, manager at Schuylkill County Airport.
DRONE USE IN THE MEDIA
FOX43's parent company Tribune Media is one of more than a dozen media outlets listed in a lawsuit against the FAA. The outlets are seeking permission to use drones for news coverage.
Just in the past few weeks, the FAA granted CNN permission to test the drones in their reporting. The administration says it will monitor the testing and use that data to create rules for newsgathering and other purposes.