New drone regulations for town property

By Wendy Byerly Wood -

After concerned drone operators approached Elkin officials about the first ordinance they adopted regulating the use of the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), the board of commissioners revisited the rules and voted on more lenient text amendments Monday.

The town’s first drone ordinance banned all use at or above town property, but commercial operators and hobbyists argued that it was limiting use for promotion and coverage of events as well as the enjoyment of flight by hobbyists who do not profit from the drone use.

Adam McComb, assistant town manager and recreation and parks director, introduced new verbage Monday to address the concerns of the UAS pilots, with more than five of those drone operators in attendance at the monthly Elkin commissioners meeting.

The new wording allows launch and recovery of drones (UAS) on town property, but only if the operators have an annual consent form and the drone is registered with the Federal Aviation Administration. Also, commercial operators must have a copy of the permit to operate issued by the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation.

The town cannot regulate airspace, explained Adam Foster, a commercial operator from Wilkes County, who addressed the commissioners on the topic.

But according to FAA and North Carolina rules, drones cannot be flown directly over crowds of people, they must remain at an angle to shoot video or pictures of an event, McComb said. “These regulations could change. Whatever the FAA or state adopt would override what we have should they change from what they currently have,” he said.

In understanding the rules allowing drone flight on town property, Commissioner Skip Whitman asked why the town would want to allow launch and recovery on its property.

“To market your community,” said Foster as he addressed the questions the board had on behalf of the commercial pilots attending. “I get calls weekly.”

He said he felt the initial text was enacted in an uninformed vote when it banned all flight, and that wording regulated airspace, which only the FAA has the ability to do.

“The only other concern I have is, say I get a call from a citizen who says there is a drone flying over my house and they think pictures were taken,” Whitman said.

“I guarantee it is no one in this room,” Foster said. “It is already against North Carolina state law to surveil someone.”

Commissioner Tommy Wheeler said he didn’t think the concern was so much with the commercial operators, but the hobbyists who might not be aware of the regulations.

Joe Walker, who said during the meeting he is a hobbyist, noted that hobbyists “are just as subject to the laws as commercial users.”

“The biggest difference is I don’t use my drone to make money,” Walker said. “It’s the same rules, I’m obliged to follow.”

The commissioners voted 4-0, Commissioner Terry Kennedy and Mayor Sam Bishop had been excused from Monday’s meeting, to approve the proposed text changes to the ordinance, which regulates that any operator must have a town-approved consent form filled out annually and those younger than 16 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian if using town property to launch or recover an UAS.

Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.

By Wendy Byerly Wood