In the days since the Augusta Commission approved a county-wide ban on drones running concurrent with next week’s Masters Tournament, law enforcement has worked on ways to enforce it.
“We’ve been looking at options,” said Lt. Allan Rollins, motioning to three pictures pinned to the wall behind his desk at the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office.
One of the pictures was of the red and black plane piloted by WWI ace Manfred von Richthofen, who earned the nickname Red Baron. The second picture featured a man toting a specialized shotgun beneath the words “drone hunter” and another showed a Stormtrooper astride a speeder bike.
The suggestions were made in jest, Rollins said, but illustrate that the sheriff’s office really hasn’t nailed down a plan to tackle the issue of unmanned aircraft systems.
In his experience, few law enforcement agencies have addressed the technology, but he said he’s relieved measures are being taken locally before any major incidents take place.
“It’s going to be one of those things that you learn as you go,” he said. “These have never been an issue before. We’re going to get into privacy issues and we’re going to get into safety issues.”
A draft of the code amendment, prepared by General Council Andrew MacKenzie and presented at the commission’s March 17 meeting, called for the restrictions on launching and operating the aircraft systems in populated areas without written permission from commissioners and the Federal Aviation Administration, except in certain exempt areas.
Populated areas include shopping centers, schools, hospitals and entertainment or sports facilities, according to the draft. Commissioners later voted on a modified version of the ordinance, placing the ban from Thursday to April 13.
Violators face up to a $1,000 fine and up to 60 days in prison for the misdemeanor offense, Rollins said.
When it comes to enforcement, the sheriff’s office is hoping the technical disadvantages of the store-bought aircraft will play to their benefit. Justin Cherepy, a HobbyTown USA employee and remote-controlled aircraft enthusiast, said most of the aircraft sold on store shelves can only fly as high as 400 feet, the maximum allowed for recreational purposes, according to the FAA Web site.
At most, some can operate from as far as a mile away, but become more difficult to control as the craft leaves the user’s line-of-sight.
“If you’re coming into the Augusta National or into an event like this, there’s a buffer zone you’re going to have to go get through to start with, and we’re going to have a couple hundred police (officers) out there,” Rollins said.
Deputies hope to catch anyone attempting to disrupt the tournament by catching them before the craft launches or whenever the operator attempts to retrieve it.
Cherepy said he doesn’t mind the ban as there are some risks with operating remote-controlled aircraft in crowded areas, but he added that responsible enthusiasts would choose to operate in open fields and away from patrons anyways. A county-wide ban might be taking it too far, he said.
“Richmond County is huge, and you’re telling them that someone can be 4 miles from the Masters and they can’t fly their (quadcopter),” he said. “That’s crazy.”
A draft of the ordinance grants an exemption for a private model aircraft field near the intersection of Mike Padgett Highway and Horseshoe Road. Rollins said the department will likely concentrate its efforts around Augusta National Golf Club.
“If you go out in the woods or go out into a field to fly one of these things and are just playing with it, are we going to send the police? Probably not,” he said.
It will be illegal to operate an unmanned aircraft system in Richmond County between Thursday and April 13. After then, the Federal Aviation Administration recommends that hobbyist follow these guidelines:
• Fly below 400 feet and remain clear of surrounding obstacles.
• Keep the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times.
• Remain well clear of and do not interfere with manned aircraft operations.
• Don’t fly within 5 miles of an airport unless you contact the airport and control tower before flying.
• Don’t fly near people or stadiums.
• Don’t fly an aircraft that weighs more than 55 lbs.
• Don’t be careless or reckless with your unmanned aircraft – you could be fined for endangering people or other aircraft.