Drone pilots weigh in on Breckenridge efforts to regulate remote-controlled aircraft

This panoramic image of Lake Dillon was shot by an unmanned aerial system, more commonly referred to as a drone. A commercial drone pilot, Vic Moss, is seen as an expert in U.S. drone law, and he hopes Breckenridge Town Council will listen to his suggestions as the town looks to craft a local law in line with federal regulations that would allow Breckenridge police to fill a gap in enforcement the FAA cannot.
Special to the Daily / Vic Moss |

Breckenridge put its efforts to regulate aerial drones in a holding pattern on Tuesday.

At a town council meeting this week, a handful of drone pilots spoke out. Some of them even offered to help rewrite the ordinance. But in the end, town officials decided to continue tweaking the proposed law before it comes to a vote.

“We know we need to make some changes to this ordinance,” town attorney Tim Berry told council members Tuesday. He cited a need to gather more public input before a final ordinance is brought before the council.

At the heart of the push for a local drone law is local enforcement, or a lack thereof. Based on council discussions regarding the issue so far, a town ordinance regulating drones seems likely to pass at some point, but just like the booming drone industry, the language of the law is still evolving.

With its nearby scenery and a year-round lineup of events, Breckenridge is a highly desirable location to capture drone footage. As a result, there have already been a number of close calls and near misses, including one involving Councilwoman Elisabeth Lawrence, who was playing a hole on the town’s golf course at the time. Drones also reportedly impeded local efforts to combat the Peak 2 fire earlier this summer. Other concerns hover around drones endangering people, disturbing wildlife and being used for voyeuristic activities.

Five drone pilots, most of whom fly commercially, addressed council during Tuesday’s public comments. In their remarks, one of those pilots said the Federal Aviation Administration already imposes regulations on drones and that should be good enough.

It is true the FAA stands as the definitive controlling body for the constantly evolving world of drone law. However, it’s also true the FAA is woefully understaffed and often unable to police the decrees it currently has on the books. Breckenridge police also have no jurisdiction to enforce federal law, and without a local ordinance, they are powerless to address issues with drones.

Berry said any ordinance the town might pass must run parallel with current FAA rules or risk a legal challenge. Those rules are still developing, he said, and they will likely change in the near future.

The town must preserve its flexibility to update local law as the FAA’s rules evolve, town staff said, but without a local ordinance, there’s little to no enforcement happening in Breckenridge.

Altitude and attitude

Perhaps the most knowledgeable person regarding U.S. drone law at Tuesday’s council meeting was Vic Moss, a commercial drone pilot from the Front Range who’s had repeated conservations with FAA officials and has been involved in a number of drone cases across the country, both as a friend of pilots and as a witness.

Most recently, he served as an expert witness regarding U.S. drone law in a case involving a pilot who filed suit against the city of Newton, Massachusetts. The suburb of Boston in December passed a law regulating drones that’s been described as “the most restrictive to date,” and it requires operators to register their drones with the city and pay a small fee.

Unlike other drone pilots who said they didn’t want Breckenridge to do anything with the proposal, Moss stands as an advocate of “good drone law,” especially at the local level.

“The FAA is sorely lacking in enforcement,” Moss said. “They can’t. They don’t have the manpower. … Drones are the red-headed stepchild right now, and (federal agents) just doesn’t have time to deal with it. If we can get towns to do the enforcement by incorporating (federal law) in their town codes, that will help the FAA.”

Reading about Breckenridge’s effort to pass such a law, Moss said he noticed a few pieces of it that he believes went beyond FAA guidelines.

“It’s more than just my opinion,” Moss said. “It’s a fact.”

Among them were specific restrictions on where pilots could fly in Breckenridge town limits. The FAA has limits on drone flights in and around airports, Moss said, but the town has no right to define its airspace, nor can it legally prevent any drones from flying over specific areas like Cucumber Gulch, the golf course or the town’s dog park, all of which the proposed ordinance would have done.

Moss also took issue with language preventing drones from flying at night. He said that line “jumped off the page” at him and “goes above and beyond FAA regulations.”

Per the FAA, it’s OK for a recreational drone pilot to fly at night “as long as they have lights and they can see the direction and location,” Moss said. “‘Altitude’ and ‘attitude’ are the two key words there.”

There are also waivers for commercial pilots to fly at night and other pilots who address council pointed this out.

During the meeting, Moss, and many of the other pilots who spoke, offered to help town officials tweak the law to remain within FAA guidelines, and the town seemed to welcome Moss’ and the other pilots’ expertise.

“There’s a fine line between federal pre-emption and a town trying to control safe flight,” Moss said. “I want to try and find that line with the FAA’s help.”

On Thursday, assistant town manager Shannon Haynes said the town would certainly seek drone pilots’ input, but to say any of them are helping rewrite the law before it comes to a vote wouldn’t be accurate.

“Much like we involve other community members in the things we do, like parking and transportation, we will engage the folks that gave us their contact information,” she said.

Moss was happy for the opportunity.

“We have a very good chance to craft some drone regulations that could be used as a template for similar regulations by cities across the country,” he wrote in an email. “And that’s not an exaggeration.”

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