By Aleese Kopf
Daily News Staff Writer
As drones become more common in police departments, commercial business and environmental monitoring, the town is considering creating exemptions to its current island-wide prohibition.
The town has an existing ordinance that bans aircraft from flying below 1,000 feet, but it doesn’t define drones or regulate their use. Staff asked for feedback Friday from the Ordinances, Rules and Standards Committee on whether the town should continue its drone ban, create an ordinance or wait for the federal government to develop additional regulations.
“The subject of drones is complicated,” said Deputy Town Manager Jay Boodheshwar. “The definition is pretty generic. These devices vary from toys to military-grade weapons. They’re being used in a variety of different ways, from public safety to commercial to educational and recreational. It’s going to be a complex issue for us to deal with.”
Lt. Nick Caristo presented a draft ordinance that would continue to ban town-wide recreational use of drones but allow them to be used for public safety and commercial purposes under strict guidelines.
The town has an existing ordinance that bans aircraft from flying below 1,000 feet, but it doesn’t specifically define drones or regulate their use.
The Federal Aviation Administration is working on a rule for drones, which are officially classified as unmanned aerial vehicles. But, until it’s finalized, the administration is granting exemptions to aviation laws on a case-by-case basis to allow drones to be used for commercial purposes. As of Monday, the FAA has granted exemptions to 1,546 companies, several of which are local.
A recently passed state law prohibits a person, state agency or municipality from using drones for surveillance of privately owned property unless they have a warrant or there’s “imminent danger.”
If adopted, the town drone ordinance would piggyback on those policies, plus require commercial businesses and educational entities to obtain a town permit that details when, where and why the drone is being used. There also would be limitations on weight, speed, altitude and line of sight.
“My concern isn’t that there are drones, I just want to know where they are,” said committee member Danielle Moore.
Boodheshwar said the ordinance should also allow staff to use drones for environmental monitoring, including turbidity.
“There is a useful purpose from the town’s perspective to see what’s happening along our beaches,” he said.
The committee and town staff were undecided on whether to allow recreational drones, even if they’re operated within an individual’s property.
Caristo said allowing recreational use could create several public-safety issues, including invasion of privacy, criminal surveillance and operator or mechanical malfunction.
In addition to spying on residents in their pools or helping criminals plan and execute burglaries, he said recreational drones could also be a safety hazard at events and mass gatherings.
“These drones, they’re heavy and can go fast,” Caristo said. “If there’s a malfunction, an operating error or some unforeseen incident, something that high, that heavy, going fast into a crowd could seriously injure somebody if not kill them.”
Shawn Holmgren, who sells and writes about drone technology for Palm Beach Drone, said the town could allow recreational drones by limiting them to 8 pounds, thereby eliminating their cargo capacity, and prohibiting the use of video.
Committee Chairwoman Penny Townsend said she doesn’t want to see drones on public beaches. She said the town also should consider lowering the maximum altitude to 400 feet instead of 500 feet, as proposed in the draft ordinance.
Boodheshwar said town staff will work on changes and return in November with a potential drone ordinance that would allow them to be used for public safety, commercial and environmental purposes but continue to prohibit widespread recreational use.