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Droves of drones spawn hobby flight school

Standing in the center of an abandoned Montgomery County parking lot Saturday morning, seven strangers huddled around a small remote control and waited.

Instructor Brian Ozga shows his students how to fly a DJI Phantom 3 quadcopter, in an empty lot in North Wales.
Instructor Brian Ozga shows his students how to fly a DJI Phantom 3 quadcopter, in an empty lot in North Wales.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

Standing in the center of an abandoned Montgomery County parking lot Saturday morning, seven strangers huddled around a small remote control and waited.

"All right, take control now," urged Brian Ozga as he handed the device off. "Just not too fast."

Five yards away, a small, X-shaped drone blinked red, then green, and whirred to life, jumping 10 feet off the ground. For a moment, it glided peacefully, propellers slicing the sky. Then it dipped. Lurched. And finally regained altitude as the crowd below looked on.

At this unlikely meeting spot on a cold weekend morning, a local mayor, an Ecuadoran researcher, and a sailing instructor, among others, were united by just one thing: their desire to learn - formally - about drones.

And for now, it seems, these hobbyists may be in the minority.

Last year, the United States saw a proliferation of drones enter the mainstream like no year before, with an estimated one million projected to be sold this holiday season, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Yet the rise of the technology - and the ease in which anyone can acquire it - has also brought a slew of problems that are tainting the reputation of the burgeoning industry.

Thus, enter drone schools - a group of businesses across the country that are capitalizing on this technology boom. Convinced that drones offer far more benefits than problems, these schools are working not only to educate hobbyists and residents about how to safely fly - but also to change how the public perceives drones.

Ozga, of Boston-based DARTdrones Flight Academy and himself a former commercial pilot, is one of these drone-school instructors. Commanding the group of six students at a Residence Inn conference room in North Wales Borough on Saturday morning, Ozga discussed everything from how to make a drone fly to how to handle a technology failure. Then he allowed students to test-drive a model aircraft in the abandoned lot next door.

Courses can cost students as much as nearly $430 for a daylong class. Individual seminars run anywhere from $79 to $175.

The students come from all backgrounds and ages: Marcella Ridenour, 70, of Gwynedd Township, wants to use the technology to take aerial videos for the sailing and croquet courses she teaches. Deborah Buzby-Cope, 51, mayor of Bass River Township in Burlington County, came to learn so she can better address any drone-related disputes that may emerge among township residents. And Roy Chery, 47, of Ecuador came to study drones in this country for three weeks, hoping to take information back home to help officials better utilize the technology for surveying the Galápagos Islands.

"How many of you saw the video of the skier?" Ozga asked as he began his course Saturday, referencing a video shared widely last month of a drone nearly hitting a World Cup skiing champion as it fell from the sky during a race. "Yeah . . . that doesn't look good for us."

Indeed, a series of high-profile mishaps involving drones last year has convinced many lawmakers, regulators, and citizens that hundreds of thousands of drones dotting the airspace are potentially dangerous.

Last year, the technology stoked concern when a drone landed on the White House lawn. Just last week, yet another recreational drone was spotted flying alongside President Obama's motorcade in Hawaii.

These incidents are worrisome, Ozga said, but also perhaps a bit overblown. But as ordinary citizens increasingly acquire drones without backgrounds in flying or without knowledge of regulations, more opportunities for problems can emerge, Ozga said.

"Somebody could crash into an airplane or something and the FAA could say, 'No more drones,' " Ozga said. "It just takes one guy to ruin it for everybody."

Ozga said "a lot of gray area" still exists in the industry, meaning education - even more so than regulation - is needed. But schools such as DARTdrones, for now, however, are just gaining steam.

To fill the education gap, regulators and state lawmakers have come down hard on the technology, citing potential issues with privacy or even domestic terrorism. Last month, the FAA mandated that all recreational pilots and hobbyists must register drones almost as small as half a pound. And so far, 26 states have enacted drone-related privacy laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Pennsylvania has none, though State Sen. Mike Folmer (R., Lebanon) introduced a bill last year instituting a moratorium on most uses of drones by state and local government agencies, including law enforcement, for two years, except in emergencies. New Jersey lawmakers have introduced multiple bills tough on drones that await votes from the full Senate.

Last year while on City Council, Mayor-elect Jim Kenney introduced drone regulations that, among other stipulations, would prohibit the use of the technology above or near gatherings of people. Violators would face a fine of up to $1,000 or 30 days in jail. The proposal was referred to committee; no final action was taken.

For now, drone schoolteachers and advocates of the technology said a focus instead needed to be on educating about the benefits of drones - which, they say, will help dispel their bad reputation.

"An overreaction, a little bit of hysteria, it's causing lawmakers and regulators to consider, if not promulgate, regulations that are overreaching and . . . could hinder the growth of the technology," said Rich Hanson, government and regulatory affairs representative for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a drone advocacy organization.

"This technology is going to be the next generation of aviation," he said. "In the next decade . . . people won't give it any second thought."

610-313-8113 @mccabe_caitlin