Drones are becoming increasingly popular and more affordable. According to the Flight Safety Foundation, 1 million drones are registered in the U.S.1 This includes 878,000 hobbyists and 122,000 commercial and government drones (not including military drones). The actual number of drones is undoubtedly higher, since many hobbyists do not realize they are required to register their Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In Canada UAS are regulated by Transport Canada. Canadian UAS are not required to be registered if they are flown for recreation and weigh less than 35 kg. They are, however, required to be marked with the owner’s name, address, and phone number.
As UAS numbers increase so does the potential for problems at our museums and historic sites. After experiencing problems with drones buzzing some historic buildings, the Oklahoma Historical Society (OHS) established a “no drone” policy. Drones definitely have their uses, and in fact, the OHS is considering acquiring a drone to monitor the condition of roofs and other hard to access areas. They are also great for acquiring promotional and interpretive footage. But the danger of having amateur drone pilots crashing into our staff, visitors and buildings, and scaring livestock is very real. Plus, do you really want to visit a nineteenth-century site only to be disturbed with a drone buzzing overhead?
However, depending on your state and local laws, there could be a problem with prohibiting drones. This was recently pointed out to us by a non-confrontational hobbyist and sent me on a hunt through relevant legislation. Turns out in Oklahoma there isn’t much—another case of the law not keeping up with current technology. The FAA controls all air space even over your site. FAA rules prohibit drones from flying within a 5-mile radius of airports and air traffic control towers and from flying over crowds. Flights are also restricted to daylight (30 minutes before official sunrise to 30 minutes after official sunset). Within Oklahoma the only other relevant law prohibits drones from flying within 400 feet of a “critical infrastructure” such as refineries, power plants, water treatment plants, correctional facilities and bridges and highways. Out of frustration a bill was introduced in the Oklahoma House of Representatives last session that would have allowed property owners to shoot down drones flying over their property. That might have been a little drastic, but the frustration is understandable when ranchers have drones buzzing cattle.
The UAS rules in Canada are more stringent. UAS must be at least 76 meters (83.1146 yards) away from buildings, vehicles, vessels and the public. Pilots must keep their UAS within sight at all times and within 500 meters– about the distance of 4 ½ American football fields. You can find the complete list of Transport Canada regulations here.
In August 2014, the National Park Service (NPS) made it illegal to operate UAS in National Parks under 36 CFR 1.5. A CFR or Code of Federal Regulations has the effect of establishing administrative law under which agencies of the United States federal government operate. Then-NPS director Jon Jarvis cited safety and noise issues as reasons for the ban since their presence can be disturbing, both to people in the parks and to wildlife. While this is also true for historic sites, most of us cannot establish a ban by fiat.
Those of us that do not have specific legislation prohibiting UAS are still not without some protections. Harassment and “Peeping Tom” statutes apply to UAS operators, and you can restrict UAS from launching or landing on your property. Since FAA rules require the operator to be in visual contact with their UAS at all times, this does restrict the area they can fly over. For now the OHS is sticking with the “no drone” policy and hoping that state regulations catch-up.
Your site might already be within a restricted area. You can check this out with the B4UFLY Mobile App from the App Store for iOS and Google Play Store for Android. B4UFLY is highly rated by users but only works in the United States. Other apps that work worldwide are UAV Forecast and Hover.
I did learn from my little research project that, should we decide to acquire a drone, the operator must have a Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA. Any commercial or government UAS must be operated by a licensed pilot. In Canada if a UAS is flown for work or research or weighs over 35 kilograms a Special Flight Operations Certificate from Transport Canada is required.
Maybe Oklahoma is alone in experiencing problems with UAS at historic sites, since a quick, non-scientific survey of some of the larger historic sites around the country did not find any other facility with “no drones” posted on their website.
The advice we received from the hobbyist: “Get a cheap drone and launch your drone whenever one is annoying you. They will leave since they will not want to risk damage from your cheap drone.” We will be sure to use a licensed remote pilot if we do!
Just as I was preparing to send this blog post off, NBC News aired a story on drones. Buried within the FAA reauthorization bill is language that would give the United States federal government the authority to shoot down private drones.2 I am sure we will be hearing much more about this in the future.
I feel I should remind everyone that I am not an attorney so please do not take any of this as legal advice!
1 Flight Safety Foundation. “U.S.-Registered Drones Now Number 1 Million.” Flight Safety.org. https://flightsafety.org/1-million-drones/ (accessed September 24, 2018).
2NBC News. “New law would give federal government the right to shoot down private drones inside the U.S.” https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/new-law-would-give-federal-government-right-shoot-down-private-n912381 (accessed October 2, 2018).
Contributed by Kathy Dickson, Director – Museums and Historic Sites, Oklahoma Historical Society