Drone hobbyists have been given official notice by the Town of Bethany Beach: Flying those increasingly popular unmanned aircraft over any property but their own is likely to get them in trouble.
On a second reading of the new Chapter 12, Article 3, of the town code, council members voted 6-0 (with Mayor Jack Gordon absent) on June 17 to regulate the use of drones within town limits, citing the proliferation of the devices and concerns about their safety and impact on privacy.
Councilwoman Rosemary Hardiman, in introducing the ordinance, said that, due to the increasing number of drones and the number of people using them, the council felt it was “important and necessary to be proactive in this area,” leading the Town to limit flying of the craft by hobby and recreational users to only over their own property or over another property with the permission of the owner.
The law prohibits flying an unmanned aircraft:
• directly over any person who is not involved in its operation, without their permission;
• over property that the operator does not own, without the property owner’s consent (and subject to any restrictions the owner places on its operation when they do permit it);
• at an altitude higher than 400 feet above ground level;
• outside the visual line of sight of the operator, using their natural vision (no binoculars, first-person goggles or magnifying devices);
• in a manner that interferes with, or fails to give way to, any manned aircraft;
• between dusk and dawn;
• whenever weather conditions impair the operator’s ability to operate the craft safely;
• over any outdoor assembly, place of worship, police station, public right-of-way, beach, boardwalk, boardwalk plaza, waterway, public thoroughfare or land zoned MORE (Municipal, Open space, Recreational & Educational);
• within 50 feet of the Town’s water plant or within 25 feet of a public right-of-way or facility, or (in an increase from the 25 feet in the initial proposal) within 100 feet of any electric distribution facility or of any overhead wire, cable, conveyor or similar equipment;
• for the purpose of conducting surveillance, unless expressly permitted by law;
• while under the influence of alcohol or other drugs;
• that is equipped with a firearm or other weapon;
• with intent to use the aircraft or anything attached to it to cause harm to persons or property;
• in a reckless or careless manner; or
• in violation of any federal or state law.
The law allows for the commercial use of drones, provided those and other rules are followed, and provided the operator obtains permission from the Town for each day’s use. That permit will require proof of FAA registration for the craft and a specific identifier for it, as well as FAA Certificates of Waiver (COA).
The Bethany ordinance does not prohibit use by those authorized by the FAA to operate in national airspace from operating in the town, nor would it prohibit any legal use by law-enforcement or government.
The law allows the Town to seize any drone found to have violated those restrictions and to assess daily storage fees until the disposition of any charges.
The council added before last Friday’s vote a set of fines for violations of the ordinance, assessing fines of $50 to $100 for a first offense, $100 to $500 for a second offense and up to $1,000 for a third offense.
They also changed the hearing period for a violation from seven calendar days to seven business days, citing how busy thing are in the town during the summer.
Councilman Jerry Morris asked how the Town would make visitors aware of the new restrictions. Town Manager Cliff Graviet said that, in addition to anticipated media coverage, the Town would initially approach violators with a warning.
“This is not a significant problem for us,” he said. “Generally, what we see is people flying over very populated areas, and those are the kinds of people who would probably want to come at the ordinance as commercial operators.”
Hardiman suggested the Town also notify local Realtors, so they can inform renters.
Vice-Mayor Lew Killmer said he found the potential safety impacts of unregulated drone use to be compelling.
“To have a 55-pound thing flying over you, and they lose power … That’s a very dangerous thing,” he said.
Resident Josh Fried, who himself is a drone hobbyist, said he applauded the council’s efforts.
“The safety is incumbent on some people who use drones incorrectly and thoughtlessly,” he said. “There are many drone hobbyists — myself included — who feel differently.”
Fried said he feels drones can be handled safely and that he agreed with the restrictions the council had put in place.
He did, however, wonder where a hobbyist like himself, who is registered with the FAA, would be allowed to use a drone and be in compliance with the law.
Hardiman referenced a recent event where drone users were able to get together and fly their craft in a state park, though Delaware’s state parks are one of the few areas of the state where flying of drones is specifically prohibited unless permission for that specific use has been granted by the State.
“That’s very different than on the beach here in the summer,” she said. “I think, in Bethany Beach, that would not be possible except over your own home.”
Graviet encouraged Fried to contact state parks officials about whether flying over remote areas of state park parking lots might be permitted, and he confirmed that the Town would not permit drones to be flown by hobbyists in the town park.
Resident Joan Thomas also said she supported the regulations and recommended the Town send emails with the information to residents who might have visitors over the summer.
Industry aims to overcome fears of new technology
While there were no objections heard publicly to the new restrictions in Bethany Beach, which are among the first in the state on the flying of drones, the new ordinance raised strong concerns from some in the industry, including Adam Lisberg, corporate communications director for North America for DJI Technology Inc., which, as the world’s largest marketer of drones, manufactures 50 to 70 percent of the drones on the market.
“FAA rules are strict,” he told the Coastal Point. “You can’t fly drones directly over people.”
Lisberg was addressing the incident that may have started the ball rolling on the regulations in Bethany Beach, in which an unknown drone was seen flying overhead at the town’s New Year’s Eve beach-ball drop.
“Safety has to come first and is our first priority,” he said.
But Lisberg said the issue the industry is dealing with now is fear.
“The larger question is fear of something new,” he said. “Drones are new technology, and most people don’t have experience with them. It’s exciting to some people who see it and get into it, and scary to others.”
Lisberg said that, over time, he believes people will see that the technology follows the path of other technologies, such as the cameras in cell phones that were once considered a major privacy concern.
“When camera phones were new, they had signs saying, ‘No phones in the locker room.’ It was a reasonable expectation wrapped in a lot of hysteria. People ended up being able to integrate it into their daily lives,” he explained.
“Twenty years ago, logging onto the Internet from home, people feared someone would get their credit card number. There’s a kernel of reasonable fear there, but by and large society adopted its standards and learned to put up with some new risks because of the incredible benefits it brings. Drones will be the same way.”
Drone manufacturers look to enhance safety
Lisberg said that drones are safe when they are used to fly safely and legally, obeying all applicable laws and regulations. DJI, he said, has been working on ways to make drones even safer.
“The industry is constantly evaluating ways to increase safety and to ensure things that need careful monitoring now can be automated,” he said, noting that DJI’s flagship consumer model already has collision avoidance, so that when it is going forward, optical sensors will tell it to slow down and eventually stop it as it approaches an object.
“It’s not impossible, but it’s harder to fly into a tree or building or other obstacle,” he said, noting that the company is also developing “geo-fencing” systems that will prevent a drone from flying outside a permitted area or into a prohibited one.
“The law says you can’t fly within 5 miles of an airport without notifying the tower. This will stop you from entering that area. There are other places where it doesn’t allow you to fly or take off … such as near a nuclear power plant,” he explained.
“This is a rapidly changing industry, and you’re seeing us and our competitors putting more safety features in drones.”
Addressing a concern some council members expressed, about mechanical failure of the craft or loss of battery power, Lisberg said, “Our drones are programmed so if they lose their signal, they simply return to home, so they go to the last place where they were when they took off. They fly at a high enough height to clear any obstacles, still using the obstacle-avoidance technology.
“The batteries beep when they’re at one-third strength, and when it’s at a critical level, it returns to the first point and lands, so it does not simply drop out of the sky,” he said.
“No technology is infallible, but this is rapidly improving technology, and when the FAA takes a look at the risks and benefits and comes down strongly in favor of drones, you need to take that informed opinion.”
“Cars kill people, but we still buy them and drive them,” he pointed out. “I think drones’ safety record is pretty impressive.”
White House, FAA aim to expand use of technology
Lisberg noted that the FAA and White House had acted on that pro-drone opinion this week, coincidentally within days of the new Bethany regulations being adopted.
“Today, the White House put out new regulations that make it easier to fly commercially for business purposes, and non-profit and government uses,” he said. “A drone pilot needs to pass an aeronautical test but not actually get a license. They need to check that the craft is airworthy before each flight. But it makes it easier for commercial use.”
In fact, Delaware Technical Community College announced last week that it is adding an aeronautics class to its fall offerings in Georgetown that would prepare a potential drone pilot for the FAA test they would need to pass to be approved for commercial drone piloting.
“For personal use,” he said, “you need to register your drone, which you can do online and pay a $5 fee. The idea there is to get an idea of how many drones are out there and how many people are using them. It gets people into the system and makes individual users make sure they are educated about their use, so they can experience all the fun stuff they have to offer, while they do it safely.”
Lisberg said the White House’s effort was intended to expand drones for new uses, producing “benefits for the whole country” and demonstrating how they can be “integrated into the nation’s airspace.”
“They strongly believe in drones and that we need to keep pushing the envelope on making this a technology people use.”
As to the council’s concerns about drones potentially violating people’s privacy, Lisberg said, “Lots of times, the first time you see a drone is over you on the beach,” he said. “But a drone on the beach isn’t seeing anything that you on the beach aren’t seeing.”
“If you look at some of photos and videos that people are able to take with drones, it opens up incredible opportunities for people to see the beauty of a place like Bethany Beach from a new perspective.”
Moreover, Lisberg argued, “There are few things people fear about a drone that aren’t already covered by an existing statute. It’s already illegal to peek through someone’s window. Unlawful surveillance is unlawful surveillance, no matter how you do it. And a drone flashing lights and making a lot of noise is not a great spying tool.
“There are municipal laws against nuisances, and those kinds of statutes are often adaptable toward drones,” he added.
“We think that, for a city or a town to try to say what kind of vehicles can fly in the national airspace, that’s really getting into the FAA’s jurisdiction,” Lisberg said. “You wouldn’t see a town passing a law regulating what kind of airplanes they fly overhead. And, from the FAA’s perspective, it’s the same thing with drones. The FAA’s primary job is to ensure the safety of aviation, for people in the air and on the ground.”
Lisberg said Bethany is “not the only town in America to come out in a knee-jerk way in response to something that’s new.” He said the drone industry is trying to “educate people about its benefits and uses, and overcome some of the hysteria that we see out there.
“We’re trying to deal with it on a federal or state level, but I do expect that, as it becomes clearer that a lot of these local ordinances are treading into FAA territory, I would not be surprised that the FAA would make clear that some of these won’t stand.”