Earlier this month, on a crisp afternoon, Kelly Wala prepared to lead a calming yoga class on the Tombigbee Bridge near downtown Columbus.
As class began, a low hum, coming down from above, broke over the crowd gathered on the bridge.
“I couldn’t see it, but you could hear it,” Wala said recently. “It was like the neighbor was mowing the lawn.”
The buzz could only be heard for about a minute, Wala said. But its source hung around long enough to capture an image that Bliss Yoga, Wala’s employer, now displays on its Facebook page. The image gives a stunning, bird’s eye view of the nearly 30-person class posing in unison.
It was taken by a drone in the sky, fixed with a high power camera.
That drone belongs to Mississippi University for Women and it was being operated by a university photographer.
Drones have taken off across the U.S. in the past five years. When it comes to when and how they can be used, though, no one seems to have a clear view.
The Dispatch reached out to MUW for this story. The university declined to comment because they are reviewing regulatory issues related to drones and can’t comment while those questions are pending.
Recreationally speaking, drones have no federal rules.
The Federal Aviation Administration has established guidelines for what can and cannot be done. A literal list of “Dos” and “Don’ts” outline how to operate an unmanned aircraft.
The only official law guiding drone use in Mississippi is the recently passed Senate Bill 2022, which makes using drones for “peeping tom” purposes a felony.
Capt. Ryan Rickert with the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office said his department has received no drone complaints.
It is worth noting that there is no registration process for personal drones. That means it is impossible to determine how many fly through the Golden Triangle.
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It takes about five minutes for Tim O’Bryant’s DJI Phantom 2 Vision Plus drone to calibrate. It needs to contact at least six satellites to fly properly. In flight, the drone maneuvers based on specific GPS points bounced off of those satellites.
O’Bryant works for T.D.K. Logging in Columbus. On Friday, he demonstrated his drone at the Soccer Complex in Columbus.
Lifting off the ground, it hums like a swarm of wasps. As it ascends, O’Bryant is able to stream back the live feed on the camera to his iPhone, which is mounted on to a remote control and able to access WiFi from an attached router.
“I can see which direction it’s flying,” O’Bryant explains. “I can see what the camera sees. I can start or stop video or I can take pictures. It tells me how far it is from me, the altitude. It gives me all of that stuff right here on my phone.”
Downtown Columbus unfolds before the drone’s camera at 405 feet, giving an overhead perspective of the businesses and churches below. The wide angle camera allows the user’s eye to pan from the water tower on Second Street South to the post office along Main Street. The camera sits on a three-axis gimbal and can rotate to shoot whatever the user desires no matter what angle the drone is flying at.
O’Bryant said Friendship Cemetery is his favorite place to fly the drone, because of the unique views of the historic graves.
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The FAA guidelines say a person should “fly an unmanned aircraft for personal enjoyment.” The guidelines say a person should not “fly model aircraft for payment or commercial purposes,” which is why O’Bryant only uses his drone to recreationally examine job sites in his work in the logging industry.
In order to use a drone for commercial purposes, individuals must apply for federal exemption via Section 333.
The FAA has approved 1,658 exemptions for commercial use as of last week. O’Bryant does not hold one of those exemptions, so when he is examining a grouping of timber he is only doing so for personal interest.
“There’s a lot of beneficial uses for it,” O’Bryant said. “But the problem is these things have come on so quick and so fast that the FAA was not ready for them, and to have the rulings that they need.”
Another “Don’t” is flying a drone near an airport. O’Bryant’s has airport coordinates plugged into his drone’s GPS. If he is close to Golden Triangle Regional Airport, it won’t even take flight.
GTRA director Mike Hainsey told The Dispatch on Saturday his airport has had no conflicts with drones.
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The commercial world is waiting for drones to be given new regulations by the FAA to open up commercial use. Companies such as Amazon have discussed the possibility of using drones to deliver packages.
Drones present seemingly endless potential uses — a quick YouTube search for drones reveals footage of teeth being pulled and weddings being filmed.
O’Bryant on Friday said many times that the best policy is to use common sense.
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