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Parrot’s quadcopter flies high in the city. Just before 7 a.m. on Aug. 7, Mike Ford unpacks his quadcopter drone – a small black contraption with four spinning blades and a palm-sized camera – and launches it into the airspace above the O’Donnell Park parking structure. The footage he captures that day reveals a bird’s-eye […]


Parrot’s quadcopter flies high in the city.

Just before 7 a.m. on Aug. 7, Mike Ford unpacks his quadcopter drone – a small black contraption with four spinning blades and a palm-sized camera – and launches it into the airspace above the O’Donnell Park parking structure. The footage he captures that day reveals a bird’s-eye view of the Marquette Interchange, cars flowing between Downtown buildings as well as sweeping shots of the skyline. It’s like a cut-rate Imax shoot. And, for now, it’s perfectly legal. The Federal Aviation Administration permits hobbyists to fly drones so long as they stay below 400 feet and avoid airports. The one thing they can’t do is make money.

And that’s where things get dicey for Ford, who illustrates how quickly the DIY drone industry is evolving. In 2013, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International estimated that “civilian” drones could grow into an $82.1 billion industry worldwide by 2025, leaving state governments, Congress and the FAA to play catch-up. Although he never sold the Aug. 7 footage, Ford occasionally creates splashy videos using drone footage for real estate agents at large firms such as Century 21.
Charging roughly $500 per video, he’s even captured chase-cam shots of motorcyclists barreling through the countryside for a law firm’s PSA on motorcycle safety. But he’s not worried about regulators pursuing him. “I don’t sell the service of flying,” he says. “I sell the footage people want.” While the FAA may not agree with his interpretation, the agency has never successfully fined a drone user. In March, a federal judge threw out the only one it’s ever levied, against a hobbyist and photographer in Virginia.
Wisconsin is now one of 20 states with its own restrictions. Enacted in April, the rules prohibit drone operators from weaponizing or flying the aircraft in an area where a person might have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Police were barred from using drones to collect criminal evidence without a warrant, and the state Legislature could pass more limitations. State Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee), co-author of the April bill, says lawmakers “were just trying to lay the foundation,” and added that the Legislature will “continue to look at the privacy implications as the technology advances.”
Milwaukee Police Department spokesman Lt. Mark Stanmeyer says that the MPD “does not use drones, nor are we considering using them,” and he’s not aware of any drone-related “incidents,” such as one falling from the sky. Still, they’re becoming ever more common. Taylor herself, along with representatives from the All-Terrain Vehicle Association of Wisconsin, used a drone in September to survey Joseph Lichter Park on the North Side for possible redevelopment as a multiuse area.
Also in September, the FAA announced that it was permitting six Hollywood production companies to use drones in the filming of movies, so long as they follow an extensive list of safety procedures, from using only licensed pilots as operators to flying in what the agency calls “sterile” areas, where the public and drones cannot mix. Should Congress or the FAA adopt these rules as procedures applying to all users, Ford’s legal footing could go out completely. But would he voluntarily ground himself?
“It’s probably something I need to re-evaluate,” he says. “But until I see them enforce the law,” he feels undeterred. “It’d be a shame if I was the first one.” ■

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Hear more about the story WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Nov. 24 at 10 a.m.



This story appeared in the November, 2014, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.Click here to subscribe.

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