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Vague Drone Regulations Have Left Residents of Aiken, S.C., Nervous

Residents have voiced concerns about drones flying around their houses and not knowing who pilots them.

(TNS) -- Drones, or unmanned aircraft, have recently been spotted flying over local neighborhoods, and some residents feel they are an invasion of privacy.

Bill Busser of Gem Lakes in Aiken, S.C., is one of those people. He recently contacted the Aiken Department of Public Safety following an incident with a drone.

“A neighbor sent me an email that said someone had flown a drone over their home and it crashed on their roof,” Busser said. “This has led to a lot of people being concerned about (drones), so I wanted to ask police about them.”

Busser wanted to know if flying drones over homes is illegal, which led Lt. Karl Odenthal, with Aiken Public Safety, to research the law.

“After some searching, I found out that currently, it is not a violation of South Carolina law to fly a drone in a neighborhood or over private property,” Odenthal said. “There are basically no restrictions at this time.”

Busser said he thinks restrictions are needed.

“It’s definitely an invasion of privacy in my mind,” Busser said. “Someone could fly a drone over your property, or house, and they could learn about your house before breaking in.”

Aiken resident Randy Simmonds said he has seen a drone flying over his property three or four times in recent months.

“I have no idea who is flying it – it’s probably some kid just messing around, but I really would like it not to be over my house,” Simmonds said. “My family feels weird with the idea that someone could be watching them.”

Few legal remedies

Odenthal said currently, the only way someone could possibly be charged would be if the victim could prove that the drone’s operator was recording personal activities within a residence.

“The only way for someone to prove that would be to video the drone looking in your window with your phone, because that would be the only way to prove to law enforcement that it was invading your privacy,” Odenthal said. “If you could prove that, then maybe we could charge the operator with a violation of the City of Aiken’s Peeping Tom ordinance or a voyeurism charge.”

However, Odenthal said it would be hard to find out the identity of the operator of any particular drone.

“The only way to find out the drone operator’s identity would be to use the serial number that has to be on the drone, but that number could be on the inside and not visible with the naked eye,” he said. “So, that obviously poses a problem.”

Busser also said he thought some residents might be tempted to shoot the drone down with a firearm, but Odenthal recommended against that.

He said the law says the person shooting the weapon could be charged with discharging a firearm in the city limits. The shooter could be found liable for any other damages that may be caused by the firing of this weapon.

This liability could also extend to the shooter if he struck or damaged the drone, or caused damage to others or property as a result of the drone falling from the sky.

“Just try to speak with the operator of the drone and tell them to please not fly over your property – that is the best advice I could give on the subject right now,” he said. “If the drone operator loses control and it lands on a neighbor’s property, it would be best to return the private property to the owner.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is primarily responsible for regulating drone activity, Odenthal said.

However, he said it is unlikely the FAA would come to Aiken to get involved with a drone owner who needs to retrieve his drone from a neighbor’s roof.

If property is damaged, however, Aiken Public Safety will complete an incident report for civil court purposes, Odenthal said.

Capt. Eric Abdullah, with the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office, said the same laws apply to drones in the county, just as they do in the city.

“We haven’t had many calls about drones in the county,” he said. “It’s still such a new technology.”

FAA unmanned aircraft laws

The FAA has some rules and regulations for anyone who plans on flying a drone, or unmanned aircraft.

According to the FAA’s website, the operator must also register and obtain an operator’s permit with the FAA. The registration number must be attached to the drones operated by the registered individual, the website stated.

If the individual has three drones each one can display the same number, but the number must be located somewhere on the drone, which includes the battery compartment.

The FAA website also states that unmanned aircraft can only legally fly up 400 feet into the air.

Lawmaker weighs in

There is currently a bill that passed through the S.C. Senate in February that is now going through the S.C. House of Representatives.

The bill, if passed, would make it illegal to operate a drone within a certain distance of a Department of Corrections facility without written consent.

If the bill is passed, a person who violates this law is guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, could be fined not more than $500 or imprisoned not more than 30 days, or both.

Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, sponsored the bill. He couldn’t be reached for comment.

S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, said he thinks drones flying over neighborhoods or private property is an invasion of privacy.

“Everyone should be concerned about the invasion of privacy issues,” Taylor said. “If I looked out my window and saw a drone looking into my house, I would be pretty angry.”

Taylor said drones are an “emerging technology” and the federal government is even having a tough time dealing with them.

There has also been legislation that would make it illegal to fly a drone over a military facility and illegal for law enforcement to put firearms or weapons on a drone.

“These three recent bills show that drones are an issue,” he said. “There is going to have to be more regulation and with time, there certainly will be.”

©2017 the Aiken Standard (Aiken, S.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.