The Lompoc City Council will be discussing a proposed city ordinance concerning unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones) on Jan. 16. To some these are toys, to some a useful tool, to others they are a nuisance and an intrusion on their privacy.
The military, police and fire agencies use these aircraft for important reconnaissance work during emergencies. Farmers, surveyors, developers, environmental scientists, geologists, miners, public works engineers, insurance adjusters, foresters and many other specialties use them to help with their work.
In private use they began their lives as harmless toys designed to amuse men, women and children who had them, much like a model airplane. Soon though the toy became far more sophisticated as cameras and leveling gyroscopes were added to give the operator an airborne view of his surroundings without flying in a piloted airplane.
This is where problems began; people didn’t like the idea of someone “peeping” on them from above and they began to complain. This was particularly troubling to entertainment personalities and executive protection services.
The issue became further complicated when operators of UAV’s began flying over emergency areas where retardant dropping aircraft, helicopters and other piloted public safety tools were being used. In these cases, the firefighting aircraft were grounded until the offending UAV’s were removed, which exposed property to additional and unnecessary losses.
Early in the life of these devices the Federal Aviation Agency didn’t have rules established concerning where they could fly. With no rules it was left up to the operator to fly his craft safely; this wasn’t working since some people thought it was “fun” to harass neighbors, their pets and other aircraft.
The FAA now requires you to register your UAV, label it with a registration number and fly it below 400 feet elevation. Other rules include not flying while impaired by drugs or alcohol, not flying near crowds, emergencies, near other aircraft, in controlled airspace (e.g. airports) or over public events. You can find more information at https://www.faa.gov/uas/.
But, these are voluntary rules since there is very little oversight of personal UAV use in communities like Lompoc. And, we know for a fact that voluntary compliance doesn’t always work by the number of traffic tickets that are issued daily.
So, what should the City do to regulate UAV use?
Clearly some local regulation is needed to address some of these issues. The City first started discussing this issue as far back as May of 2013; time can move at a snail’s pace in government and this is just another example of something that’s been on the back burner for years.
There are lots of overhead electrical lines in the City, so the first thing might be to ban flying near any overhead wires. That seems reasonable considering the danger and inconvenience of a power outage. Something as innocent as a Mylar balloon can disrupt power for hours when it contacts wires.
Next is flying over your neighbors’ yard; that’s not only rude and intrusive but it might be dangerous if the whirling blades of your craft hit someone.
Since we haven’t heard of any incidents associated with the use of UAV’s recently, maybe the users have regulated themselves. I am sure that public hearings on the matter may reveal incidents that we are unaware of.
Hopefully the council staff report will contain a summary of any complaints to the police or code compliance staff. What will the council approve? With the anti-rule attitude of the current council we will have to wait and see.