The unexpected discovery of dinosaur fossils at a construction site drew in a swarm of drone enthusiasts. The increased activity prompted city leaders to pass new rules about where the device can fly without facing stiff penalties.
(TNS) — When the bones of a rare dinosaur were found during a construction dig in Thornton, Colo., two summers ago, the unexpected discovery triggered headlines across the world.
It also brought out drone enthusiasts who launched their unmanned aerial vehicles skyward in an effort to get a bird’s eye peek of what turned out to be a torosaurus fossil — close cousin to the better-known triceratops.
The problem was the drones became so bothersome to workers on the ground that the task of unearthing the prehistoric creature had to be briefly halted to clear the air, according to the city.
That planted the idea in the minds of city leaders that rules were needed to control the ever-expanding array of drones that have been put aloft over the last decade. On Tuesday night, Thornton City Council passed a set of regulations that make it a crime to use a drone to violate someone’s privacy, harass people or animals, or interfere with emergency officials working a scene.
“We’re really trying to deal with drones that are harassing people,” said Joyce Hunt, Thornton’s assistant city manager. “We needed to do something to help with the ‘peeping drone’ issue.”
Violations can result in a fine of $2,650.
Thornton joins a growing list of Colorado cities and towns that have put limits on the use of unmanned aerial systems in the last few years. Last year, Greenwood Village enacted regulations similar to Thornton’s, with the additional stipulation that drone pilots are forbidden from using their camera-equipped flying devices to record overhead footage of concerts at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheater.
Taylor Albrecht, president of the Central Colorado UAS Club, said the more communities that put into place their own rules on drones the more a “patchwork quilt” of regulations will proliferate across the state, creating confusion for drone pilots from commercial operators filming storm-damaged roofs for insurance companies to dad-and-son teams launching the latest Christmas gift into the heavens.
“We’re probably going to need the state to come through on this,” Albrecht said. “I’m concerned that any of these laws could stifle the industry.”
According to Goldman Sachs Research, the drone industry has gigantic potential. Between commercial and consumer applications, the firm expects up to $30 billion will have been spent on the devices in the five years ending in 2020.
But so far, the General Assembly has done little to put statewide rules into place for unmanned aerial vehicles. In 2018, lawmakers passed House Bill 1314, which makes it a misdemeanor to operate a drone in a way that obstructs a police officer, firefighter or emergency medical service provider.
But additional laws that would standardize prohibitions throughout Colorado on harassment-by-drone or peeping drones have not gained traction.
Part of the challenge is that the Federal Aviation Administration oversees airspace in the United States, leaving little jurisdiction on which states and municipalities can formulate their own laws. When communities like Thornton try to come up with limits, they have to steer clear of what belongs to the FAA.
“We have control of use of land,” Hunt said. “We don’t have control of airspace.”
Because of the bifurcated oversight at the federal and local levels, several Colorado communities limit themselves to terrestrial restrictions on drones — they forbid pilots from using public parks and open space to send up or bring down their vehicles.
Thornton tried to go further when it first weighed its ordinance late last year — saying streets, sidewalks and public rights-of-way would be off-limits to drone operators. That got instant pushback from several commercial drone pilots, who said it would effectively put them out of business.
Long-time Colorado drone operator Vic Moss said federal law on drones — known as Part 107 of FAA regulations — are sufficient. Extra layers of regulation at the local level are overkill and serve to stigmatize drones, he said.
He said towns and cities already have harassment and privacy laws on the books — there’s no need to carve out separate measures for drones. Yes, drones can be used to spy into someone’s backyard, Moss said, but so can many other devices.
“I can do a lot more damage with a selfie-stick and a phone,” he said.
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