An MCAT board member wants Missoula’s community television station to buy a drone.
“Don’t say drone, say helicopter,” said Joel Baird, MCAT general manager. “It’s less threatening.”
Missoula Community Access Television helps people produce their own public interest programs, and a board member plans to pitch the purchase of a $3,000 to $4,000 Quadrocopter to the full board, possibly later this month. The copter would be used as an educational tool for youth.
“He thinks it would be so fun, and we could teach kids to use it,” Baird said.
They could fly it up the Clark Fork River, circle around Missoula, and get “great aerial views of the valley.” Naturally, the idea faces some barriers before getting off the ground, not the least being the “menacing” idea of a drone in an era of government surveillance.
In an email to MCAT, city attorney Jim Nugent said he is not aware of any city ordinances that address drones, or “mechanical hovering/flying drones. He said the Montana Legislature prohibits information collected by drones to be used in prosecution of crimes or in applications for search warrants.
“I suspect that if drones were being utilized inside the city limits, there could be some citizen concerns/complaints to city officials about invasion of their privacy,” Nugent said in the email.
There could even be some tongue lashing, as Andrew Rizzo witnessed in his use of the flying devices. In November, Rizzo bought a Blade 350 QX Quadrocopter to gather camera footage as part of his digital filmmaking degree at the University of Montana.
“You have to be very respectful of people’s bubbles, and when you’re flying a drone with a camera on it, the bubbles get a lot bigger,” said Rizzo, a graduate student, teaching assistant, and graduate assistant in Media Arts.
Once, a man on the Oval approached Rizzo and asked if he was flying a drone. When Rizzo explained he was flying a Quadrocopter, the man became agitated: “He told me to go eff myself and land that thing and get the hell out of Montana.”
A lot of people think he’s collecting information for the government, so Rizzo likes to fly the copter in places with few people, such as McCormick Park and the campus Oval on quiet days. He tends to get permission from those in the area, and people often are both captivated by the novelty of the device and alarmed by its potential.
“It’s a really weird mix,” Rizzo said. “You’ve got this toy, and people get really excited, but then they’re like, wait a second, this thing can follow me and take pictures.”
In the movie business, collecting helicopter footage costs some $20,000 for 10 minutes, he said. The upgraded flying camera he wants, a CineStar, can do the same job for under $1,000.
As Rizzo sees it, the distinction between a “drone” and a Quadrocopter is the former is synonymous with government surveillance: “There’s a very big difference between aerial photography and surveillance photography.”
Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft in the U.S. needs “some level of authorization from the FAA,” said Allen Kenitzer, spokesman for the FAA Northwest Mountain and Alaska Regions. “Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” though, are challenging for the agency.
“This is all still cutting edge here, so we are still finding our path and moving forward,” Kenitzer said.
Hobbyists using model aircraft for recreation as opposed to commercial use don’t require FAA approval, but they must follow agency guidelines, such as staying below 400 feet above ground level. According to the FAA, a number of states and cities have limited or are considering limits on unmanned aircraft.
One hurdle for MCAT is cost, Baird said. He said amateurs use the equipment, so MCAT typically doesn’t put anything fancy in their hands.
However, he saw a model that looks like a spaceship and costs just $869, and it’s functional even though it doesn’t have the same capability. A user can’t use a remote control to shoot footage, but someone can mount a Gopro on the device and let it collect film as it flies.
“You’d probably get something really groovy, though,” Baird said.
If MCAT does buy a Quadrocopter or other model, he would want to take the kids out to a very large field so they learn to use it in “a very low-risk situation.” In other words, he doesn’t want a newbie flying a drone down Higgins Avenue.
“MCAT is all about empowering amateurs, but we’re not going to empower them to cut somebody’s head off,” Baird said.
Not to worry, said Rizzo. Drones crash, but if the copter he uses ever bopped someone on the noggin, the person would probably end up with just “a little mouse on the head. It wouldn’t really hurt anybody.”