Know and follow rules for drones

A drone, owned and piloted by Robin Johnson, hovers in March 2015 in Saranac Lake. (Enterprise photo — Matthew Turner)

No doubt some local residents will find remotely controlled miniature aircraft — drones, in popular parlance — under their Christmas trees on Monday. Recipients will tear open packages they view as tons of fun.

Aircraft pilots have a different view. The proliferation of drones flown by irresponsible owners has created a new, potentially deadly hazard for those who fly or ride in bigger craft.

National Transportation Safety Board officials have released a report on the first confirmed midair collision between a manned aircraft and a drone in this country. It occurred Sept. 21 over New York City, where a drone hit and damaged an Army helicopter. Those on the chopper were able to land it safely.

The drone’s operator was breaking virtually every rule in the book. He flew his craft about 2.5 miles away from where he was, despite a Federal Aviation Administration on flying drones out of sight of the operator, for one thing.

The FAA also restricts flying a drone within 5 miles of an airport. Locally, that means that zones within 5 miles of the airports in Lake Clear and Lake Placid must be drone-free — more if one counts informal airports in Keene Valley and Tupper Lake. We expect few local drone owners knew that.

How can those rules be enforced? We’re not sure, but we are sure that if a local drone hit an airplane and caused it to crash, the National Transportation Safety Board would throw its full weight behind an investigation to track down and punish the drone pilot.

On top of national regulations, drone users also must be aware of additional rules in the Adirondack backcountry.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has said it will review its rules for drone use in the Adirondack and Catskill Forest Preserves, but for now, it considers a drone to be a motorized vehicle — just like a snowmobile, all-terrain vehicle or floatplane. That means drones cannot be used on state land classified as wilderness, canoe or primitive.

It’s more complicated than that, however. The DEC has jurisdiction over the launching and landing of drones on state land, but if the drone is launched from private land, only the FAA has jurisdiction. So if someone carries a drone into the High Peaks Wilderness and launches it there, a DEC forest ranger could issue a ticket — but if that person launches the drone from private land and flies it over a wilderness area, there is little the DEC can do.

Ultimately, if you have a drone or get one this Christmas, enjoy it, but do so safely. Follow all the rules. Don’t be responsible for the first fatality involving a drone.