Paul Wellman

Combine an engineering background, love of the sky, and enduring passion for photography, and you get Omer Komili, founder of the new Santa Barbara Drone Club. Komili has been flying planes since 1988 and a few years ago bought his first drone. Like all fledgling pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles ― or UAVs ― he relished the chance to zip around Santa Barbara airspace and capture incredible images of our picture-perfect community.

Komili quickly educated himself on drone regulations, but he also observed that many other operators, especially young ones, were unaware of the dangers and liabilities. “There are strict laws for drone flight,” he explained, “especially around places like the Santa Barbara Airport, for obvious reasons.” Less obvious, he said, are other regulations that apply to commercial photography and videography. “And the FAA is very vigilant about enforcing those.”

To clear up any confusion, and to stop short potential issues with local law enforcement, Komili created the Drone Club as a place where remote pilots, both experienced and novice, can come to learn the rules, talk shop, improve their flying skills, and develop relationships with others who use the shared airspace. “You can’t get on the highway without a driver’s license, and it’s the same with drones in flight paths and airspace,” Komili explained. Liability insurance is also critically important.

The club meets every third Thursday of the month at 6:30 p.m. at the Santa Barbara Airport Visitors Center (45 Hartley Pl.). Komili thanked the city for generously offering them the space. “They were very open-minded to do that,” he said. The meetings, which attract a few dozen drone pilots every time, often feature guest speakers who discuss best practices. Malia Sharkey from Santa Barbara Air Traffic Control spoke recently, as did Paul Foster, an FAA flight-safety inspector.

The club also functions as a lobbying group that coordinates with other drone organizations across the country to ensure the industry isn’t regulated into the ground. “We explain how drones can be really useful in the community,” Komili said. “The applications are everywhere ― security, firefighting, construction, agriculture. You name it.” A few UCSB geologists just joined the club, Komili happily reported. The group’s youngest member is 14 years old, while the oldest is 83.

Komili is especially excited about the club’s new youth program, headed up by his 17-year-old son, Kaan, who’s reaching out to junior high and high school students. “You need to know what you’re doing and be responsible for your actions,” he said.

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