LEWISTON — Colby Michaud is serious about piloting his drone.

A filmmaker and owner of Lewiston’s Praxis Production Studios, his Phantom 3 is less a toy and more a window on different vantage points.

“It’s one thing about flying that I love — you get to see the world from a different place,” Michaud said. “It’s not every day you can be in an airplane. So, if you can see the world through the eyes of a drone, it’s a pretty cool thing.”

Drone pilot Kristopher Pulk’s DJI Phantom 4 is a bit more of a hobby.

“I’m up three to four times per week, or as often as humanly possible,” Pulk said. “Coos Canyon was the last place I took it. I took it up Tumbledown Mountain and that was really cool. I’ll bring it anywhere I can shoot some good photography.”

Michaud and Pulk are just two of 500,000 drone pilots — serious and otherwise — across the country who have registered their crafts with the Federal Aviation Administration since December 2015.

Drone popularity has exploded in the past three years as the prices for the battery-powered flying, camera-toting devices has plummeted, their functionality has increased and publicity about them has grown.

Speaking at a Whitehouse workshop on Tuesday, FAA Director Michael Huerta noted that his agency tracks 320,000 registered passenger aircraft and that it took more than 100 years to reach that number.

For Rick Lanman, director at the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport, that popularity means it’s high time the FAA comes up with regulations.

“Right now, we are assimilating this new technology into our airspace with the idea that they will operate as an aircraft, under the same rules,” Lanman said. “So if they are in the airspace around an airport, they have to act like an aircraft.”

That’s the idea behind new regulations on commercial drones that go into effect on Aug. 29.

Any individual can own and operate a drone under current law for their own personal use current rules don’t address commercial drone piloting over U.S. soil.

The new rules let pilots take an exam and qualify as a certified drone pilot, meaning they can use their drones commercially and sell their pilot skills to make videos, inspect bridges and cellphone towers and help police and safety agencies with rescues.

Both Michaud and Lanman agree the new rules are a step in the right direction.

“Requiring an operator’s certificate that has a penalty of loss for violations and penalty for flight without a certificate — I really like that,” Lanman said.

Michaud figures he’s clocked between 50 and 75 hours flying time in the past year, taking his drone out over lakes and forests and downtowns.

“People think it’s against the law sometimes, but it’s not,” he said. “There just really haven’t been laws written about it,” Michaud said. “That’s what’s exciting about Aug. 29. They are actually doing that, and that will really separate the pros from the amateurs.”

Michaud said he’d flown model aircraft and toys for years but didn’t get really interested until the technology caught up with his imagination. The latest generations of drones pair high-quality video cameras with remote controls and GPS stabilization. They’re still pricey, ranging from $500 to $1,500. But prices are coming down.

Unlike a model aircraft, where the pilot has to constantly manage the controls to stay aloft, a drone will stay hovering in place if not told to move — even in winds.

“That’s why you see them everywhere now — they are so accessible and so affordable and they are really easy to fly,” Michaud said. “That’s why I’m looking forward to August 29, to see if the new rule draws a distinction between recreational and commercial pilots.”

According to the Part 107, the FAA’s new unmanned aircraft rule that takes effect Aug. 29, drone pilots don’t need to get any kind of license if they’re just flying for fun. Recreational drone pilots must be at least 13 years old, they must register their craft and get a registration number from the FAA and they must mark that number visibly on their drone.

Commercial drone pilots have a steeper path. They must register and mark their drones as well, but they have to pass an aeronautical knowledge test — the FAA has a sample of the test on its website, FAA.gov/uas — with a score of 70 percent or better, must be at least 16 years old and must be vetted by the Transportation Safety Administration.

No matter what, all drone — or unmanned aerial system — pilots must follow the same basic rules: don’t fly at night, don’t fly higher than 400 feet, always yield to passenger aircraft, keep your drone within your line of sight — even if you have an onboard camera — and don’t fly over people.

There are restrictions on where to fly for both recreation and commercial flyers and the FAA has published a smartphone app, B4UFLY to make understanding those restrictions easier. It’s available for both iPhone and Android users.

But Lanman said he prefers a private alternative, Airmap.com because it notifies him when pilots use it to register their flights.

Michaud said he plans on taking the exam this fall to become certified.

“I take careful safety consideration already,” he said. “I pride myself on the quality of my flying skills and I’m always striving to be better. This is one way to do that.”

Pulk said he might eventually. But right now, he plans on having as much fun as possible. He has two drones, his Phantom 4 and older but nimble Walkera Runner 250.

“I’ve always loved taking pictures that other people can’t get,” Pulk said. “This separates me from the rest. It draws a crowd everywhere I go. One thing about photography is that people don’t really get to see you taking the photograph. With this, they get to participate and it’s a crowd favorite.”

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Rules to fly by:

• Drones that weigh more than 0.55 pounds must be registered with the FAA.

• Drones must weigh less than 55 pounds, and that counts any payload they might be carrying. That’s about how much a small window-insert air conditioner weighs. Most popular drones run about 10 pounds.

• Only daytime flight is allowed, a period that runs from 30 minutes before sunrise to 30 minutes after sunset. Visibility must be a minimum of three miles.

• Pilots must keep unmanned aircraft within sight. First-person onboard cameras and visual observers are not substitutes.

• They cannot be operated from moving aircraft and can only be flown from a moving vehicle, like a car or boat, in sparsely populated areas.

• Drone pilots can only fly one aircraft at a time.

• Unmanned aircraft cannot fly faster than 100 miles per hour and no higher than 400 feet above ground — or 400 feet above buildings.

• Drones cannot be flown over people, especially if the people are not involved in whatever you’re doing. That means you can’t fly over a crowded stadium, marchers in a parade, a community festival, etc.

• Yield to other aircraft.

Source: Federal Aviation Administration

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