Ferndale drops proposal to make drone flying a crime


By John Wisely and By Bill Laitner, Detroit Free Press

Ferndale officials passed up the chance Monday night to keep hobbyists, professional photographers and at least one chimney sweep from flying drones in the city.

After hearing from nearly two dozen polite but incensed users of the small plastic unmanned flying machines at a City Council meeting, Ferndale officials made it clear: Their plan to make a misdemeanor out of flying a drone anywhere but in your own backyard wasn’t getting off the ground.

Deriding the proposed ordinance as “dronegate,” Councilman Mike Lennon said the city should wait for federal authorities to decide on regulations nationwide.

“This isn’t for local communities to decide,” he said.

That triggered applause from the crowd of drone fans, several of whom brought with them the flying machines that for hobbyists typically cost $50 to $500.

“I use mine to inspect chimneys where you’d need a 60-foot ladder,” said 66-year-old Gary Vasilnek, owner of Santa’s Chimney Sweeps.

“To ban all drones, it’s like a witch hunt,” Vasilnek told the council.

The proposal up for discussion would have made it a misdemeanor under nuisance ordinances to fly drones over someone else’s property, except for police purposes. But after media reports about the proposal surfaced Monday, city officials backed off their plan to vote on drones. And after the minor storm of disapproval from owners, including representatives of two area drone clubs, they said they’d drop the issue entirely.

That was a relief to Keith Dalton, 56, of Ferndale, who owns a $4,000 model, he said.

“To think that every person who owns a drone has some nefarious purpose is an insult,” Dalton told the council.

“We don’t think that way about guns or cars that go 200 m.p.h.,” he said.

Michigan State Police recently received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to use its drone statewide and the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office is seeking approval.

But hobbyists, businesses, educators and others would face restrictions under the plan, said Harry Arnold, owner of a 6-year-old business called Detroit Drone. Arnold, 53, of Detroit is a longtime professional photographer and video producer who, for business purposes, had a dozen drones that carry cameras aloft, he said.

He spoke at the meeting on behalf of the 400-member Detroit Drone User Group.

Ferndale’s ordinance would’ve eliminated most of his business opportunities in Ferndale, he said.

“I’m not doing anything wrong,” Arnold said. Drones can save his photo clients a lot of money and can help them market products or raise money for nonprofit causes, he said.

“I have a lot of people come to me to shoot (aerial) photos of their property, if they’re trying to sell it. And I just did a marshmallow drop for Clinton Township,” he said. Two years ago, he sent a drone up to film the wind-damaged steeple of St. Josephat Catholic Church in Detroit, producing a video that was used for fund-raisers that led to restoration of the century-old landmark, he said.

To Arnold, drones are “just another way to move a camera around” and they have the potential to get young people “interested in science and math.” He said graduating to piloting drones was a natural shift after years that Arnold flew radio-controlled airplanes without a complaint.

But the momentum has begun for community’s to impose local controls on drones. According to Ferndale’s city attorney, Bonifacus, Minn.; Evanston, Ill.; Conoy Township, Pa.; Charlottesville, Va.; Northampton, Mass.; and the states of Oregon and Tennessee have passed regulations on drones.

Drones, officially known as unmanned aerial vehicles, have exploded in popularity as technology has made them cheaper and as lightweight cameras made them ideal for shooting photos and videos from the air.

In various parts of the country, farmers use them to inspect crops, Realtors use them to showcase properties, and movie makers use them shoot feature films.

Privacy advocates have argued that the devices could be used to spy on private citizens. A bill in the Michigan legislature last year to regulate drone use — sponsored by former state Rep. Tom McMillin, a Libertarian-leaning Republican from Rochester Hills — died before it could be enacted.

The FAA considers commercial use of drones to be illegal without expressed permission, though enforcement is spotty and many companies now offer services.

The FAA is working on rules and regulations for drone use, but has not yet completed them. Gacioch said Ferndale could wait until the FAA regulations are in place before moving forward with the ordinance.

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