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It’s one thing to fly a paper kite at the beach and another to control a metal drone that can weigh more than a watermelon. But both objects can be played with in public, which has led to many close encounters with the metal kind. And then, calls to ban them.
On June 13, the Encinitas Traffic and Public Safety Commission revisited an issue they’ve been studying since last summer due to complaints and mishaps. Are drones — unmanned aircraft — a public safety threat, and should a regulatory ordinance be drafted?
Poway has passed the county’s first such law, banning use of commercial and hobby drones during emergencies, when they might get in the way of helicopters.
But what happens when a drone disrupts a picnic or playtime?
Last August, a young boy was frightened by a hobby drone that flew low and loud over an Encinitas park. His father, John Herron, approached the city council about the need for a local ordinance, which several California cities, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, have enacted. Herron, a commercial airline pilot, suggested a ban on low-flying drones in public places like parks.
At the commission meeting, Rob Blough, with the city’s traffic engineering division, reported that there will be 7 million drones owned in the country by 2020. They’ll be used by realtors, photographers, utility companies, and others.
“Hobby drones are the big one,” the type that affect most people, he said. The issue with creating a law is, “there isn’t a ‘drone police.’ Who will enforce it?”
Recreational drones are exempt from FAA regulations if they weigh less than 55 pounds and fly below 400 feet. The hobby drones flown around North County generally weigh about three pounds, Herron says, and while some are mostly plastic, “many others are metal.”
A few days after Herron’s son was upset by a hobbyist’s drone, a group of friends at Moonlight Beach were harassed by a “working” drone used for business. As the City of Poway defines one type of use, a drone “carries a payload consisting of one or more cameras for still pictures, video recording, or video streaming.”
Augustine Lehecka of Carlsbad was enjoying the beach with friends when one swooped in. “A powerful drone with a mounted camera started circling us. We gestured for it to move away,” he says. It didn’t. He threw his T-shirt at it, which caught in the blades, downing the drone. Soon after, the police arrived and he was arrested for felony vandalism.
“I have no regrets about my action on the beach that day — except the $1000 it cost to get bail from jail,” he says. “I felt that flying the drone on the crowded beach was not safe and filming us from close distance was violating our privacy.” Since then, he says he has seen several other people preventing drone pilots from operating on that beach.
Encinitas resident Gene Chappell spoke at the meeting, saying one problem is that hobby drones “carry no signature” to track them to the owner. But due to many users ignoring the law and flying above 400 feet, the FAA now requires hobbyists — with drones weighing more than 0.55 pound — to register as pilots.
Commissioner Peter Kohl said there are a lot of concerns about drones crashing in public, but could they enact an outright ban on drones in the city? Blough replied that the council will want to know why. The FAA doesn’t allow a strict ban on them, he said, adding that Poway’s rule only prohibits their take-off and landing during emergencies.
Herron —who couldn’t attend the meeting but provided written comments — agrees that the FAA has little control over small consumer drones. “The only time the FAA can flex its regulatory muscle for hobby drones is for careless and reckless operations,” he says. And such incidents, while often reported, are hard to prove. “Local enforcement is the only way to go,” since drone operations are local due to speed and battery-power limitations.
One concern of the commission was if the FAA passes a nationwide law, it could preempt that of cities and states, upending their work on an ordinance. Herron calls this “a non-issue” for hobby drones. And for commercial kinds, he says, new FAA rules in the works aren’t expected until 2017. He suspects that local, commercial uses are occurring in Encinitas that skirt current FAA rules. In the meantime, the big concern is “low-flying drones that occasionally fall from the sky.”
As for the many drone enthusiasts, Herron says there are at least four model-aircraft parks in the county, but if the city wants to zone a large open park for drones, “I think that would be terrific.”
With all in favor, the commission passed a motion to take the next step on drafting an ordinance, which will first be vetted by the city attorney.
“I think there’s an obvious public safety issue,” said chairperson Brian Grover. “An ordinance is definitely needed.”