- By Sophia Perez – firstname.lastname@example.org – Variety Feature Writer
SEVERAL hobbyists who have flown drones on the quasi-abandoned island have confirmed with Variety that they received restriction notifications and experienced corresponding signal interference when attempting to operate their drones over Pagan’s active volcano as well as the Three Sisters rock formation. But according to Joint Region Marianas and the FAA, there is no reason for such a restriction to exist.
Brad Ruszala, public affairs specialist for Joint Region Marianas, said there was not a no-fly zone over Pagan, and that Variety’s coverage of it “was the first anyone at Joint Region Marianas had ever heard of it. That’s why they contacted the Federal Aviation Administration, who confirmed that there was not a no-fly zone and there never has been.”
Tim Cornelison, FAA air traffic manager, said: “There is no restricted airspace over Pagan or in the immediate vicinity of Pagan and to the best of my knowledge there is nothing there that would interfere with a drone,”. Cornelison said that everything within a 250-nautical-mile radius of Mt. Santa Rosa falls under his jurisdiction — and while Pagan is technically outside of this airspace, any no-fly-zones on the island would presumably be brought to his attention.
“There are certain types of airspace; if you were flying within approximately five miles of the Saipan airport, there’s a control tower at the Saipan airport so there’s a different kind of airspace there classed ‘delta’ airspace,” he explained. “And there are certain requirements to fly in that airspace.”
He added that many drones are programmed with software that recognizes class delta airspace. If the drone is within that space, it may be forced to land, or not take off at all.
“Even in some popular sports areas like an arena, sometimes FAA will restrict drone hobbyists from flying there,” said Jack Diaz, a local enthusiast who has been flying drones in the Marianas for the past five years. “If in a couple months, I don’t turn on my drone, then it gives me that FAA regs 107 [message]; you have to update your safety zones.”
“But to the best of my knowledge, on the island of Pagan there would be nothing,” Cornelison said. “I can’t possibly explain that. if they were by the Farallons, there’s restricted airspace there. But nothing on Pagan.”
But Sylvan Tudela claims to have experienced these restriction notices and otherwise inexplicable signal interference problems on Pagan twice over the course of several years. His first time receiving a restricted fly zone notice was in Aug. 2016, when his photography company, Chelu Photos, was hired to capture footage of Pagan for a documentary. He said his crew received a strange warning on their iPad when, after hiking to Mt. Pagan, they attempted to fly their drones.
“Normally for the airport, it would tell you you’re flying near an airport. But this one here, it just said something to the effect that it’s a ‘restricted fly zone’ — that the drone is not supposed to fly in that area,” he told Variety.
Like most drone operators, Tudela uses a remote and an iPad to control his flight. He also consistently updates his drone’s software, keeping his drone’s GPS and air maps, which include restricted zones, current. This software is what enables such restriction notifications to pop up on his iPad, and it enables a drone’s flight to be interrupted when it enters into a restriction zone.
“Before we left on both occasions, I made sure that our drone was updated,” Tudela said.
He and his crew were surprised to receive a restriction notice on an abandoned island with no functional airport. But things got even stranger when they attempted to fly their drones anyway.
“We were starting to go over [the volcano] and then the camera has this system where it makes the camera stable even if the drone is flying in high winds — the gimble system — and it just broke,” he said. “It just fell down and it didn’t want to look up anymore, so we had to bring it back and we couldn’t figure out why it would do that.”
“On the iPad there was a notification when I first opened it, connected the drone to the remote,” remembered Carlo Domingo, who was actually flying the drone at the time. “But I always get that notification somewhere around Saipan so I was comfortable with it. But when I flew it like 60 meters from me, just to figure out the place, that started the problem.”
According to Carlo, the drone’s range was usually 500 meters.
“The problem was the connection,” he continued. “It was like coming in, coming out, like cutting the connection, and I couldn’t control [the drone] from the remote, I couldn’t control the camera…it was like something was pulling down the camera.”
“I was trying to search through experiences of the same thing that happened to me online but I never found anything,” he added.
The crew returned home disappointed, having failed to capture footage of Pagan’s active volcano.
“I was mad and sad about the situation that was going on,” said Domingo.
Chelu Photos returned to Pagan in early May of last year. They ran into trouble attempting to capture footage by the Three Sisters rock formation.
“We started losing signal,” remembered Tudela. “Normally when you send a drone out, it will give you the distance and all that, but the distance where we sent out the drone wasn’t far enough for us to lose signal…”
They tried a second time, but again the drone began to lose signal despite being within its standard flying range.
Domingo said he received a vague notification on his iPad that “something is going wrong.”
“There’s something out there… it’s like giving me a heavy interference on this spot, that’s the message the drone was giving me,” he said. “I just continued, but after that, before the Three Sisters, it just cut out. The signal just went off.”
He said the drone continued hovering outside of his control, flying forward for ten or fifteen seconds.
“I thought the drone was flying away but after that [the signal] returned, so right away I just returned it home because I panicked,” said Domingo.
“That was on a new drone also, back in 2018,” added Tudela. “That’s kind of weird, that some parts of the island we’re losing signal, in another part we’re getting restriction notices.”
Patrick Reyes, another drone hobbyist, said he received a restriction message on Pagan last June. He was flying his drone over Old Village on the west side of the island.
“I was flying it over the island around there and it was ok, it was fine, but then the minute I tried to fly it towards Mt. Pagan, that’s when it started to warn me,” he said. “At first the message was ‘Runway ahead’ and ‘airport’… I was losing control so I landed on the sand just to be safe.”
He had the same issue further north, by Pagan Lake.
When JRM public affairs specialist Brad Ruszala was asked to comment on the men’s findings, he did some digging.
“The Department of Defense does not have any restricted airspace over Pagan,” Ruszala reiterated.
“Representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems department in mainland informed me the Pagan airstrip still carries an active designation (TT01) and this is potentially the source of the advisories received as the airstrip appears on the charts used by drone software manufacturers. They informed me the FAA has a process to ‘de-register’ the airstrip, should the CNMI government wish to pursue the matter further.”
Said Reyes, “It’s so upsetting because I really want to fly my drone up towards Mt. Pagan and then it just stops you. I don’t know if they’re hiding something but seriously come on, it’s not Area 51.”
“As a small island, we’re [always] close to the airport,” Jack Diaz added. “Even in Rota, when I tried to fly my drone next to the elementary school, there was a really huge restricted zone… it’s just frustrating for us living on a small island… we’re not trying to take spy pictures or something, we’re just enthusiasts, just flying around and stuff like that.”
As for Tudela, his major concern is people losing their drones.
“I don’t want people to go and fly their drones and think, ‘Hey, what happened?’ A drone ain’t cheap,” he said. “People need to know: don’t fly your drone near the mouth of that volcano because you’re going to lose it!”