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Drone dangers go beyond deployed areas

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio - Modern conflicts have proven it doesn’t take multimillion-dollar jet aircraft and smart bombs to cause significant damage. Stopping it also requires more than advanced technology.

A vigilance is needed on everyone’s part, including Wright-Patterson Air Force Base personnel.

Combine warfighting ability to employ cost- and mission-effective drones in combat with the popularity of consumer drones in the United States, and it’s not hard to see how small unmanned aircraft systems could pose dangers in the U.S.

Global drone sales are expected to reach $43 billion by 2024 while accelerating technological improvements to increase the range, lift capacity, speed and battery life of the small systems, according to a report published by the Association of the United States Army.

Officials said these same types of drones are available both online and in stores nationwide and could be flown over the base to provide adversaries with information on daily operations at Wright-Patterson AFB and installation layout, or even drop materials if left unchecked.

“The use of sUAS has grown significantly in the last few years,” said Master Sgt. Joseph Jolley, the 88th Security Forces Squadron’s Antiterrorism Program manager. “The ability for a novice to unknowingly gather data that can be pieced together by our adversaries is a real danger.”

Wright-Patterson AFB rules for recreational flying of small unmanned aircraft systems are easy to understand: Unless the pilot is part of an authorized club, all sUAS and model-aircraft flights on base and within off-base housing are strictly prohibited. Authorized remote-control flying club members operate from the flightline behind the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force and do not fly over the installation or off-base housing.

While the Federal Aviation Association requires both recreational and business sUAS to be registered, there is nothing in place to stop someone with nefarious intentions from purchasing a drone and flying it close to high-interest areas, officials cautioned. The same can be said for FAA rules on flying in restricted airspace; while the rules exist, enforcement can be difficult.

With their slight visual profile, it’s critically important that potential unauthorized activity involving small unmanned aircraft systems on base is reported immediately so it can be investigated.

“It is imperative we report them when spotted near any federal installation because it is a violation of federal-aviation regulations,” Jolley said. “And just as importantly, it may be an attempt to gather information for our adversaries.”

For those interested in flying sUAS for fun, it’s important to know the rules to avoid being mistaken as potential adversaries.

For hobby and recreational flights only, the FAA does not require pilot certification beyond 5 miles of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. However, the drone cannot interfere with and must give way to all manned aircraft. In addition, if flying within 5 miles of an airport, the drone pilot must provide the airport operator and air traffic control tower or air traffic facility with prior notice.

Drone operators must also maintain visual line-of-sight with their aircraft at all times and follow community-based safety guidelines.

Full details on laws applicable to recreational drone use can be found in Public Law 112-95 (Section 336) or at www.faa.gov/uas. In addition, the FAA’s website hosts a wealth of information for new flyers.

If a drone operator wants to fly within the 5 miles surrounding WPAFB but not on the installation itself, there are a few more factors to consider. The base’s sUAS policy, dated May 12, 2017, states that beyond checking the “B4UFLY” app and adhering to rules posted on the FAA’s website, drone operators must email the 88th Operational Support Squadron for coordination. Submission details and points of contact are in the policy letter.

Unless the drone would endanger National Airspace System operation, flyers will likely be approved but must wait for confirmation, base officials said.

Even if a drone operator has permission or is legally allowed to fly in an area, there are still several guidelines, according to the FAA:

  • Fly at or below 400 feet, and stay away from surrounding obstacles.
  • Keep your small unmanned aircraft system within sight.
  • Never fly near other aircraft.
  • Never fly over groups of people.
  • Never fly over stadiums or sporting events.
  • Never fly near emergency-response efforts.
  • Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Understand airspace restrictions and requirements.

Knowing sUAS flight rules will allow pilots to enjoy the flying experience, ensure the safety of others, and protect the base and people who live and work here.

Anyone who sees small unmanned aircraft systems flying on or near WPAFB or any other type of suspicious activity should call the EAGLE EYES hotline at 937-257-EYES or contact the Base Defense Operations Center at 937-257-6516.