Drone regs are on DEC’s radar

Currently drones are lumped in with ATVs and snowmobiles as ‘motorized vehicles.’ It’s legal to fly one over Adirondack wilderness but illegal to launch one from there. Yet no tickets have been issued. The DEC is taking another look at the issue.

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

Unmanned aerial drone use falls into a bit of a gray area for law enforcement in the Adirondack backcountry, but the state Department of Environmental Conservation says it will soon seek public input on the subject.

“DEC is currently in the early stages of determining what kind of public drone use will or will not be allowed on most state land,” DEC spokesman Benning DeLaMater wrote in an email. “The allowable uses and the regulatory mechanism for such use will depend on the land designation.”

He added, however, “Drone use will not be allowed on lands classified as wilderness in the Adirondack and Catskill parks and areas classified as primitive and canoe in the Adirondack Park. DEC’s potential policies and potential regulations will be subject to a thorough public comment period in the coming months.”

The DEC has jurisdiction over the launching and landing of drones on state land. However, if the drone is launched from private land, only the Federal Aviation Administration has jurisdiction.

The FAA has few regulations for recreational drone use. They include weight limits, maintaining visual contact with the drone, yielding to manned aircraft and a restriction on flying the drone within 5 miles of an airport.

So if a person carries a drone into an Adirondack wilderness area such as the High Peaks and launches it there, a DEC forest ranger could issue him or her a ticket. However, if that person launches the drone from private land and flies it over a wilderness, primitive or canoe area, there is little the DEC can do.

But even though DEC has the power to issue some drone tickets, it hasn’t done so. DeLaMater said DEC has not yet issued any tickets for illegal drone use.

If it did so, it would place drones in the same category as snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

“For now, we would handle drone use as a ‘motorized vehicle,’ so they are not allowed on lands classified as wilderness in the Adirondack and Catskill parks and areas classified as primitive and canoe in the Adirondack Park,” DeLaMater wrote.

The price of drones has dropped, and their range, features and camera capabilities have improved, putting more and better drones in the hands of people who want to use them. Local photographers, real estate agents, publicity campaigns, institutions such as the Wild Center nature museum and events such as the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival have featured drone footage of the Adirondacks.

Brendan Wiltse is a photographer, wilderness advocate and water quality researcher who has used drones. He said they can be of immense value in many fields, but the state needs to clarify and communicate the rules better.

“I think DEC’s current regulations are sufficient, but are not sufficiently enforced or communicated,” Wiltse said Wednesday morning. “The current ban on motorized equipment is sufficient for an enforcement action, but may be open to interpretation.”

He said he is exploring drones’ potential research applications and also acknowledges their place in the photography world.

“Drones are an amazing new tool for photography. They allow us to gain a new perspective on the world around us, one that was previously out of reach for many people,” he said. “Consumer-level drones are now capable of producing very accurate maps with high-resolution image overlays.

“There are a lot of potential applications for this technology. In China they have been used to map rivers over time to look at areas where erosion and deposition are occurring. They can be used to survey forest health and study the impact of forest pests. We are looking into using (them) for long-term monitoring to changes in the river channel through repeated photography.

“That is just a short list of the potential applications.”

Wiltse also acknowledges that some people’s idea of a good drone use can be invasive to others.

“I had someone hover one over me while doing field work on Lower Cascade Lake. This was both annoying and dangerous,” he said. “Drones should not be flown directly over people, and operators should respect that not everyone finds them interesting and fun.”

DeLaMater didn’t give a firm timeline for the DEC to address drone use but wrote that the department “anticipate(s) regulations and a public comment period to be proposed in the next few months.”


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