Christopher Rosacker
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August 28, 2013
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Grass Valley man uses remote aircraft for photo business

Look. Up in the sky. It’s not a bird or a plane, and it certainly is not Superman.

It’s Grass Valley resident Nicholas Swartzendruber’s hand-built, unmanned aerial vehicle that he uses in his photography business, Eclipse Aerial Solutions.

Some people call it a drone, but to Swartzendruber, who has been building and flying small aircraft since childhood, it’s simply a tool — one that combines two of his passions.

“When I was a kid, I built my first model airplane with my dad,” Swartzendruber said.

He was hooked, he said, building radio-controlled planes until he eventually attached a camera to one and fell further in love.

“I was always doing this, but I was just doing it for fun,” Swartzendruber said.

“But then I thought I would give it a shot.”

Swartzendruber built a six-propeller aircraft that is closer to a helicopter than a model airplane and attached a camera to its multi-axel arm, all of which he controls from the ground.

Whereas traditional photographers are bound to angles they can snap from the ground, Swartzendruber is unencumbered by gravity and free to explore a third dimension.

His equipment allows him a range from 5 feet off the ground up to 400 feet in the air, capturing stabilized photos and videos in high definition.

“(W)e can capture perspectives that can’t be captured any other way,” Swartzendruber notes on his website and in his pamphlet.

With this tool, he has covered the Downieville Classic mountain bike race and created three-dimensional video tours of real estate developments; he has plans to capture a Tough Mudder competition in September at Lake Tahoe.

“I love doing action stuff,” Swartzendruber gushed.

“Pictures are great,” he also said.

“But videos are the best way to get a sense of something.”

While Swartzendruber aims his airborne lenses at real estate developments, weddings and sports events, Grass Valley attorney Lorraine Reich has her sights set on banning such aircraft.

“There are some people who are concerned about our privacy and other abuses that could occur with the use of these domestic drones,” Reich said. “Citizens could buy these $300 drones and peek into people’s back yards. There are other abuses we are concerned about, including criminal abuses for planning theft or a burglary.”

Reich drafted an ordinance she submitted to the Nevada County government that would ban all civilian unmanned aerial vehicles and require public agencies to get a Federal Aviation Administration licence to operate them.

Her drone ban would require law enforcement agencies to get a warrant from a judge before peering into private property from above, she said.

“There are concerns of law enforcement uses for enforcement purposes,” Reich said, pointing to the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which protects citizens from unwarranted search and seizure.

“It’s an invasion of privacy,” she said.

The military and the White House have come under scrutiny in recent years for their use of so-called drones in combat situations with opponents decrying the oversight structure that allows for the use of the tech- nology, which has been implicated in the deaths of civilians.

Domestically, law enforcement agencies are eyeing the technology, as well. Proponents also argue that it could be used for everything from monitoring oil rigs to farming.

Firefighters battling the Rim Fire along the rugged river canyons of Yosemite National Park’s northern border have employed a drone to detect and direct resources to new blazes they otherwise wouldn’t have seen so quickly, the Associated Press reported.

“There are good uses and bad uses,” Reich said.

“I do recognize legitimate commercial uses of drones. The problem is to allow them for any purpose is to allow them for all.”

Reich submitted a first draft of her drone-ban ordinance July 16, which the county responded to with a “pretty significant legal challenge,” she said.

“Instead of processing it as an ordinance, county counsel took the position that they don’t have the jurisdiction to pass any local law,” Reich said.

In February 2012, Congress passed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which called on the agency to integrate unmanned aircraft by 2015, according to the AP. The airspace agency in turn mandated that states integrate drones into their airspace by that year, Reich said.

“States are hot on the job to develop regulations on the airspace of their territorial borders,” she said.

In the meantime, California has no laws governing the technology and its employment into airspace beyond those applying to radio-controlled planes, Reich said.

“At the rate things are going in Sacramento, it may be another year before we have something in California,” she said.

Reich withdrew her initial ordinance, cleaned up some of its technicalities and resubmitted it Aug. 23.

She said the county has not yet responded, although she expects them to challenge her resubmitted ordinance, as well.

A call to Nevada County Counsel Alison Barratt-Green Wednesday was not returned as of press time. Calls to the Northern California press offices of the FAA were also not returned Tuesday and Wednesday.

“This time I am not going to withdraw it,” Reich said. “I will respond and leave it up to a judge to decide if the people of Nevada County have the authority.”

Reich’s ordinance would not allow Swartzendruber to use his aircraft to photograph, she said.

“Every time I fly it, I get questions,” Swartzendruber said. “I’m not spying on anyone.”

Swartzendruber, 25, recognizes the potential safety dangers of unmanned aircraft, cautioning the untrained from piloting the aerial devices.

“You need to have some experience to fly these,” he said, noting he only flies above people at high altitudes where a fail-safe mechanism will steer it far away in the case of a loss of control.

Swartzendruber’s flying camera is only one aspect of Eclipse Aerial Solutions, although it is the most visible component of what he offers.

“When it comes down to it, I take it very seriously,” he said. “Most of the work is maintenance of equipment and editing (pictures and film).”

However, he notes, the work is worth it.

“It is something I love,” he said. “So it isn’t nine to five.”

For more information about Eclipse Aerial Solutions, visit eclipseaerialsolutions.com.

To contact Staff Writer Christopher Rosacker, email crosacker@theunion.com or call 530-477-4236.


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The Union Updated Nov 4, 2013 05:51PM Published Aug 30, 2013 09:29AM Copyright 2013 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.