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Safety officials increasingly grappling with drones

A drone flies over San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas. With more drones taking flight, law enforcement officials are preparing.
(Jared Whitlock)

Ever been worried that the drone buzzing overhead at the beach is getting too close?

You’re not alone. Local law enforcement is increasingly grappling with drone conflicts in public spaces. It’s new territory for safety officials, one that can be murky considering that cities like Encinitas don’t have local regulations addressing drones.

“Without local laws on the books, there’s often not a whole lot we can do (in response to complaints),” said Lt. Jason Vickery with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.

Locally, drone pilots are only subject to penalties or arrest if they clearly endanger property or someone’s life — a decision that can involve the discretion of a Sheriff’s deputy.

Under city rules, there isn’t a set distance that drones must stay away from people. If a drone is bothering someone but flying safely enough, the deputy would request that the operator move elsewhere, according to Vickery.

Drone enforcement has become a hot topic in light of local incidents over the last year. Notably, a man in August spent the day in jail after downing a drone at Moonlight Beach. The man claimed the drone hovered dangerously close, so he threw his T-shirt at it, taking the drone out of the air. He was arrested for damaging the drone, though no charges were filed.

The Federal Aviation Administration has taken the lead on crafting drone rules. Its current regulations notably state that drones can’t fly within five miles of an airport and must stay below 400 feet. The FAA also recently began requiring that people register their drones for identification purposes following reports of drones flying near jets and airports.

Commercial drone flights are banned, except for companies that obtain special exemptions.

Given the proliferation of drones and a lack of federal manpower, the FAA has tasked local agencies with enforcement. But at this point, the Sheriff’s Department is prioritizing education over enforcement, according to Vickery.

“It’s education, education, education. If we absolutely can’t get compliance and we’re talking about a really dangerous situation, they’d be subject to being arrested,” he said.

Vickery is on a Sheriff’s panel that’s educating deputies on how to handle conflicts involving the unmanned aircraft.

“Because this is such a new evolving field, we’re looking at the best course of action,” he said. The Sherriff’s Department doesn’t keep track of the number of drone conflicts, Vickery noted.

California cities in recent months have gone beyond FAA restrictions. For instance, the Los Angeles City Council in October prohibited drones from flying within 25 feet of a person, among other rules. Violators could be punished with up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail.

In San Diego County, only Poway has limited drones. It banned drone flights in the city during emergencies to prevent the unmanned aerial vehicles from interfering with aircraft responding to a wildfire or disaster.

The Encinitas City Council last summer requested a report on what power it has to regulate drones after several incidents in the city, but hasn’t taken up the matter again.

Resident John Herron has advocated for a city drone ordinance, including potential restrictions on commercial drones flying over parks and beaches.

“It’s important for the city to enact an ordinance addressing drones, because law enforcement is very limited in what it can do,” said Herron, a commercial airline pilot.

Encinitas attorney Michael Curran has a different take: The FAA and local jurisdictions currently lack the power to regulate drone operators.

Curran argued FAA drone rules are based on internal policies that aren’t enforceable. That’s with the exception of a federal law targeting reckless and unsafe flights, he added.

The FAA recently proposed new regulations that would pave the way for more drone operations, but they still need to go through the federal approval process. Until that’s finished, Curran said most drone rules aren’t enforceable.

He also made the case that state and local governments can’t regulate drone flights because those rules would be preempted by the federal regulations in the works.

Encinitas Lifeguard Capt. Larry Giles said he’s seen a big increase in drones over the last year. Lately, they’ve been out capturing video of surfers when the waves are big, he added.

Many don’t bug people, but when they do, lifeguards politely ask the operator to pack up the drone. That is, if they can find the operator.

Giles once had to tell someone to cease flying a drone because a helicopter was due to land at the Moonlight Beach helipad.

“If they’re a direct threat to public safety we can tell them to stop,” Giles said. “Otherwise there’s not much else we’re going to be able to say or do.”


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