Drone use shot down by SkiCo over ski areas

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by Chad Abraham, Aspen Daily News

The Aspen Skiing Co. has informed the photographers with whom it contracts that they are not allowed to use aerial drones on the four ski mountains, clarifying what had been a gray area as popularity grows for the devices.

The policy, announced Thursday, also holds true for the public, and the regulation mirrors U.S. Forest Service rules on drones. The federal agency prohibits their use on public land unless a drone flier has obtained an exemption from the Federal Aviation Administration.

SkiCo decided to formalize its drone policy in writing and on its website because it is simply too dangerous, said spokesman Jeff Hanle.

“It’s way too risky to have those things flying around,” he said, noting the danger to people riding chairlifts and the proximity of Buttermilk to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. “Buttermilk is right there in the flight path.”

A man was cited for a misdemeanor in January for flying a drone near Buttermilk during the X Games. ESPN, which produces the extreme sports event, obtained permission from the FAA for the drones it used to film, Hanle said.

Others who have the FAA exemption for local drone use include producers of films and commercials. But as the technology has progressed and prices have dropped, drones mounted with cameras have exploded in popularity for people using them recreationally.

Matt Hobbs, owner of locally based Vital Films, has conducted multiple shoots on the ski areas. He’s also filmed public service announcements using a drone for, ironically, the Forest Service, he said.

Until the Forest Service established its zero-tolerance policy on the devices, film- and commercial-makers were in “uncharted territory,” Hobbs said. “The biggest thing, from my understanding, is that airspace [away from airports] can’t be controlled, just where you take off and land from.

“Everything’s just so gray now, which is why we chose to back off for now.”

He said his company now only flies drones on private property.

Hobbs provided a Forest Service memo issued in March that cites the FAA’s position on drones: “Operators who wish to fly an unmanned aircraft for civil use must obtain an FAA airworthiness certificate. Certificates are issued with accompanying operational limitations that are appropriate to the applicant’s operation.”

The Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, which has oversight over ski lifts, mandates that helicopters used in commercial filming stay a certain distance away from ski lifts, Hanle said, adding he assumed the same regulation would cover drones. Efforts to reach a representative of the tramway board were unsuccessful.

SkiCo has used drones in its own commercial efforts, and “we’ll now make sure we’re permitted and check with the FAA,” Hanle said.

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