Flagstaff resident Cynthia Perin never worried much about drones.
But all that changed about two weeks ago on a beautiful, sunny Friday while she was gardening near a small crabapple tree in the back yard of her quiet Coyote Springs home.
“There were some bees buzzing around because I had flowers and all of a sudden the buzzing got really loud,” Perin said. “I thought to myself, ‘My God, they’re Africanized bees.’”
Perin ran inside the house with her beloved dogs, Rascal and Delta Millie. When she could no longer hear any buzzing, Perin went back out, this time to a different part of the yard. Suddenly, the buzzing got loud again.
That’s when she got really nervous. Fearing that she and her dogs were about to be attacked by bees, she tried to get away as quickly as possible – a difficult task for Perin, who is legally handicapped due to problems with her knee.
To make matters worse, Rascal would not follow her into the house. The pooch sat on the porch barking frantically at the sky. Perin was shocked when she finally realized what had really caused all that buzzing.
“I looked up and not 30 feet above us was a drone watching me,” Perin said.
Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles that are controlled autonomously or by remote control. They range in size and design depending on their functions. The consumer drones popular with hobbyists tend to be remote-controlled, multi-rotor devices that are equipped with cameras. They can range in price from about $100 to thousands of dollars.
In May, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law legislation that prohibits cities, towns or counties from adopting their own rules regulating the use of drones, except for their takeoff or landing in a park or preserve.
Drones are not allowed to fly in protected airspace, such as near airports, military installations, courthouses, or national parks and monuments. Initially, the bill included a provision that would have made it illegal for drone operators to videotape or photograph someone in their own yard, but lawmakers dropped that restriction.
“I don’t understand why they’re banned at Wupatki (National Monument) but they’re not banned in my back yard,” Perin said. “There’s something wrong there.”
Rules adopted this summer by the Federal Aviation Administration require anyone flying a drone that weighs more than 0.55 pounds to register the aircraft. The FAA rules do not include provisions about privacy.
When Perin saw the drone flying over her head, she called the Flagstaff Police Department. An officer told her about the new state law.
“She said she was very sorry but their hands were tied and there was nothing they could do,” Perin said.
The drone flew away, but that did not make her any less concerned about the operator’s intentions. What if it was a pervert trying to take pictures down her shirt, she wondered, or a child molester looking for victims or a burglar staking out her home?
“It could be a predator, whether they’re looking to rob your house or attack you,” Perin said. “When I told one neighbor about it, he laughed. Then I said to him, ‘I hope the next time your wife is out maybe in her see-through nightgown feeding the birds, perhaps a drone will come over your house and look at her.’ He didn’t laugh then.”
Perin said some people suggested shooting down the drone if it ever returned, but it is illegal to discharge any firearm in Flagstaff within a quarter-mile of a residence.
The officer Perin talked to on the phone the day she spotted the drone did not take a police report. However, FPD Deputy Chief Dan Musselman had another officer interview Perin again this past Friday and complete a report after he found out about her case.
“If a drone is just flying over your head, it’s free airspace, but if it’s following you around in a manner that harasses, that can be considered harassment,” said Musselman. “The officer should have taken a report on that.”
Musselman said officers should determine whether a drone has been operating carelessly, recklessly or in a criminal manner. If so, he said, the next step is to try to find the person operating it, send the report to the FAA and submit it for charging.
In March, FPD issued a training bulletin about how officers should deal with drones that they suspect are operating in an unsafe or unauthorized manner. Musselman said the department is working on training officers, but it is complicated.
“There are a lot of moving pieces to the various drone laws and who has jurisdiction over what,” Musselman said. “With that comes a big learning curve for new officers.”
The FAA’s rules prohibit all unmanned aircraft from operating “over any persons not directly participating in the operation,” but the law is vague, Musselman said.
“It’s just such a new area,” he said. “At what level is it OK? Is it OK if they are 50 feet above you? What about 100 feet? There are a lot of judgment calls that need to be made on the part of the officer.”
He recommends that anyone who plans to operate a drone for personal use go to knowbeforeyoufly.org to learn the rules first. He also said anyone who sees a drone on their property that they suspect may be doing something criminal should contact FPD.
Perin’s case appears to be at a standstill. The police have asked her to call them if she sees the drone again.
“We don’t know whose drone it was or who was flying it,” Musselman said. “If it happens again, hopefully we can get out there a little quicker.”
Perin is still angry that Arizona lawmakers would allow such lax rules for drones.
“I don’t think any drone should be allowed to invade somebody’s privacy,” she said. “They’ll tell you that you don’t own the sky, but you know, I pay federal income taxes. I pay state income taxes. I pay property taxes. I think part of that is meant to be used for protection. Why should I pay my taxes if no one’s going to protect me?”
"Why should I pay my taxes if no one’s going to protect me?”