At their meeting on Friday, June 17, the Bethany Beach Town Council will consider new rules restricting the operation of unmanned aircraft — drones — within town limits, which could make it among the first municipalities in the state to adopt such measures.
Ahead of an expected council vote on new Article III of Chapter 212 of the town code, the council has already discussed the issue several times, including at workshops and at the measure’s first reading in May.
Councilwoman Rosemary Hardiman noted at the council’s May 20 meeting, when the proposed ordinance was introduced, that in the latest FAA forecast report for 2016-2020, hobbyist drone purchases were expected to increase from 1.9 million in 2016 to 4.3 million by 2020. The same report has commercial drone purchases increasing from 600,000 in 2016 to 2.7 million in 2020.
“They’re associated with a number of problems,” Hardiman said, including dangerous encounters with commercial aircraft, as well as privacy issues. She noted reports of drones hovering over beachgoers, as well as a New Year’s Eve incident in which an unknown drone hovered over crowds attending the town’s first midnight “beach ball drop.”
Some bystanders that night assumed it was the Town’s own “mobile aerial camera,” which was purchased in 2014 with the intention to use it for video and still images of “summer fun in Bethany Beach,” as well as of flooding and storm damage, for the Town’s website. That included Mayor Jack Gordon, who recalled his experience in March.
“There must have been 500 people on Hollywood. And I saw this green drone flying over. I didn’t think the Town was going to be looking at doing that,” he said. “And then I found out it wasn’t the Town. I have no idea who was flying a drone over 500 people. If it had fallen out of the sky, who knows who’s liable?”
That incident, along with other concerns and a general proliferation of the unmanned aerial devices, has led the Bethany Beach Town Council to propose restrictions on the operation of drones within town limits.
“They can be inherently dangerous to the public health, welfare, privacy and safety, and the Town finds it necessary to be proactive by issuing this ordinance,” Hardiman explained in May.
As currently proposed, the new Article III permits hobby or recreational use of drones in the town, so long as certain rules are followed. It also allows 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.
The law would prohibit 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 any electric distribution facility or of any overhead wire, cable, conveyor or similar equipment … or along any public way within the town, without the facility or equipment owner’s consent, and subject to any restrictions that the facility or equipment owner may place on such operation;
• 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.
Additionally, commercial drone operators must get a permit from the Town’s code compliance officer, which will require proof of FAA registration for the craft and a specific identifier for it, as well as FAA Certificates of Waiver (COA). The permits will be issued on a daily basis and require the day, date, location and purpose of the proposed flight and will be valid for 24 hours from issuance.
The council had previously discussed the use of drones for commercial purposes in the town, noting that Realtors might use one to get an overhead view of a property they’re selling and would generally have the property owner’s permission for that. Now, they would also have to meet FAA registration guidelines and obtain a permit from the Town.
Drone pilots caught in violation of these rules would be subject to having their drone impounded until any administrative hearing was held and, if found guilty, hit with a $20 charge assessed for each day that the drone was in storage with the Town.
Drone operators urged to be cautious
The rules for flying a drone in Bethany Beach go hand-in-hand with many of the recommended rules of flight for the craft, such as these from registrationfordrones.com:
• Fly no higher than 400 feet and remain below any surrounding obstacles when possible.
• Fly within visual line of sight.
• Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations, and you must see and avoid other aircraft and obstacles at all times.
• Do not fly near emergency response efforts, like fires.
• Do not fly for payment or commercial purpose.
• Do not fly over groups of people.
• Do not fly over stadiums and sports events.
• Do not be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft — you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.
• Do not use a drone to gather, store or collect evidence of any type.
• Do not fly over unprotected persons or moving vehicles, and remain at least 25 feet away from individuals and vulnerable property.
• Do not fly near or over sensitive infrastructures, such as power stations, water treatment facilities, correctional facilities, heavily traveled roadways, government facilities, etc.
• Contact the airport or control tower before flying within five miles of an airport.
• Do not fly in adverse weather conditions, such as in high winds or reduced visibility.
• Do not fly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
While state legislators have discussed setting formal rules for drones in Delaware, they haven’t yet moved to institute such rules, opting to wait until the FAA’s new mandatory registration system for drones weighing between .55 and 50 pounds, was put into place and for finalization of related rules on the federal level.
But the use of drones on all Delaware State Park lands is restricted and illegal without proper authorization. State park regulations specifically prohibit the use of radio-controlled model aircraft or flying machines, including hobby drones, except in park areas that have been designated for them.
Park regulations do permit organized activities — which include flying of drones — at the discretion of the director of the Division of Parks & Recreation.
“Delaware State Parks believes that, in the best interest of wildlife and other park users, the flying of hobby drones is a recreational activity that must be properly managed,” said Parks Director Ray Bivens in March. “In our management of drones, we would encourage hobbyists to come to us in an organized way with detailed plans of their group activity.”
He cited an International Drone Day event on March 29 at Brandywine Creek State Parks as having met criteria as an organized recreational activity that would be allowed within the state park system.
“We are attuned to what’s going on with hobby drones across the country and how often they’ve been in the news of late,” Parks Enforcement Chief Wayne Kline said. “The flying of unmanned aircraft now presents enforcement challenges at national parks, ranging from harassment of wildlife, filming of unaware park visitors and even personal injury as a result of crash landings.
“So as we acknowledge that drones are becoming more and more popular for recreational use, including in Delaware, we also restate our intent to enforce regulations restricting their use in Delaware State Parks.”
“Restrictions on drone use should not imply that DNREC’s Division of Parks & Recreation or Delaware State Parks are “anti-drone,” Bivens said in March, noting that Drone Day organizers worked closely with park leadership to plan and issue a permit for the event. “In fact, we would encourage the public to come learn more about this new emerging technology.”
State officials have also cautioned drone flyers to take into account the liability they assume when they fly the craft and urged them to get insurance that would address mishaps.
“Drones can crash due to faulty and inappropriate operation, mechanical defects and component failure. Losses and damages could involve bodily injury to humans and animals, as well as buildings and other structures,” officials with the Delaware Insurance Commissioner’s Office said in December 2015, when the FAA registration deadline was announced.
“Obtaining insurance for your drone for personal use isn’t difficult,” they advised. “Using a private drone as a hobby is generally covered under a homeowner’s insurance policy (subject to a deductible) which typically covers radio-controlled model aircraft. This also applies to a renter’s insurance policy.
“Look at the contents section of your policy, or talk to your agent to see if your drone will be covered if it is lost, stolen or damaged. If your drone falls onto your car, damage to your car may be covered if you have a comprehensive coverage auto policy.
“If your drone crashes into a person or someone else’s vehicle, the accident is your responsibility. If you have a homeowners or renter’s policy, generally the policy will cover liability for an accident caused by your drone. Check with your agent or insurer to verify your policy contains this important coverage.”
They also urged drone pilots to acknowledge privacy concerns.
“Beyond intentional surveillance, drones may also unintentionally capture images during routine and unrelated flights. As a drone owner, remain mindful of privacy concerns. Insurers are developing policies to cover these liability exposures, so keep in touch with your insurer to make sure your use remains covered.”