OCEAN CITY — After deeming most or all of Ocean City essentially a “no fly zone” for unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft, or drones, resort officials last week learned new federal regulation set to take effect later this month could open up more areas under certain restrictions.
Last month, the Police Commission initiated a conversation about drone use in and around Ocean City and essentially determined much of the resort area was off limits to the popular gadgets. For one thing, there was an existing prohibition from operating drones within five miles of an airport, which would encompass much of the resort area.
Other prohibitions existed on flying the unmanned aircraft over areas where large groups gather, which would encompass much of the beach and Boardwalk, particularly during the summer. In addition, there were existing restrictions on operating drones near other aircraft, including the banner planes that cruise up and down the coast.
After the July discussion, the Police Commission instructed Ocean City Police Captain Mike Colbert to look into the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations further and determine how they apply to the resort. Colbert gave an overview of the regulations to the Police Commission last Monday and said the FAA has altered the regulations somewhat and the new guidelines will take effect on Aug. 31.
“As far as we can tell, a lot of the definitions have to deal with airspace,” he said. “The new guidelines clarify some issues, loosen some issues and tighten down other issues. It’s really a mixed bag.”
Colbert said one significant change dealt with the certification requirements for drone operators.
“Basically, they removed the requirement for drone operators to be a licensed pilot,” he said. “They do have to get a drone operator’s license, but it doesn’t seem to be super difficult to get one. One can apply on line and take an exam on line, but they do background check and they still have to go to a flight facility to get certified.”
Another significant change would alter the distance requirements from airports, which could ultimately open up more areas around the resort, particularly for professionals.
“They loosened up the regulations for someone using a drone professionally,” he said. “A person just out for fun still can’t fly them within five miles of an airport, but the distance goes down to three miles for a certified professional, which opens up much of the south end of town. If an operator is within three miles of the airport, he or she would have to get a waiver from the airport manager.”
Colbert said the rest of the language regarding drones is fairly restrictive. For example, a drone must be flown at 400 feet or less and must remain in sight of the operator. In addition, they can never be flown near other aircraft and never over a group of people. Also, drones can’t be flown over fire or police operations. However, enforcing those regulations presents challenges.
The debate began last month and continued on Monday largely because it was believed the OCPD would likely have to enforce any restrictions. However, it turns out the FAA will ultimately hold sway over all regulations and enforcement regarding drones.
“The hard part for us is enforcement,” said Colbert. “Our enforcement level is very limited. We can execute an investigation and conduct field interviews, but all of the information is turned over to the FAA for enforcement.”
While the FAA would hold sway over drone enforcement, Colbert said there could be some cases when the OCPD might be able to apply city ordinances.
“If they were going to fly a drone over a crowded beach or Boardwalk and cause a panic, we could probably pursue disorderly conduct or reckless endangerment,” he said.
Councilman Dennis Dare said there are some instances where drone use has become an important marketing tool. He used the example of Realtors using drones to film flyovers of listed properties.
“We’ve heard from the Realtors there is a real application for that industry,” he said. “Can we relax any of that for them?”
Colbert said the regulations were fairly clear from the FAA but acknowledged there are certain applications during which drone use would be appropriate.
“We’re not going to handcuff anybody,” he said. “We’re just going to follow the regulations from the FAA.”
Councilmember and Police Commission Chair Doug Cymek said there is at least one licensed drone operator already in the Ocean City area and local realtors could enlist his services.
“There is at least one we know about already,” he said. “If a Realtor hired him, they would probably be okay.”