More drones are flying in North Carolina skies, and that’s leading to more close encounters with aircraft - like two last week over Charlotte. One involved a police helicopter, the other an American Airlines jet. The problem, authorities say, is many operators don’t know the law.
Remote-controlled flying vehicles that can carry cameras or other instruments are supposed to be registered with the Federal Aviation Administration and, in some cases, with the state, too.
But many drone owners don't bother. That registration process includes tutorials and in some cases a test. So many never learn the rules, says Sgt. Kenneth Anderson, who oversees Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department's helicopters.
“Most of it right now, we're finding, is just a lack of information, or a lack of knowledge, from those who are operating the drones. If we can help close that gap between the knowledge and the operation of it, that would be a great safety improvement,” Anderson says.
In most cases, it's illegal to fly a drone over 400 feet, at night, or within five miles of an airport. (There are exceptions depending on what kind of license you have, and special permits are sometimes granted.) But last Friday, an American Airlines jet preparing to land spotted a drone about a mile and a half from Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
And then there was that CMPD helicopter incident June 7. It was near the Charlotte Knights stadium during a game.
“It would've been a catastrophic incident had it struck the windshield of the helicopter,” Anderson says.
These stories aren’t unique to Charlotte.
“The problem stems from the fact that you can walk into any Best Buy anywhere and you can buy a $1,000 drone and put it in the air without any need to understand the rules,” says commercial photographer Patrick Schneider of Huntersville, who has both federal and state drone licenses.
More than 20,000 drones are registered with the FAA in the state – both hobbyists and commercial users. And in January 2016, North Carolina began requiring commercial and government drone operators to get state permits, too. As of May 31, only about 1,300 people had done so.
The rules are stricter for commercial operators than for hobbyists. For example, you'd need state and federal commercial licenses if you're using a drone to photograph real estate for a sales website.
Schneider says he's met photographers who try to skirt the rules. “There's lot of people hiding behind, 'Oh, I'm just a hobbyist,' because the rules are very different if you call yourself a hobbyist as opposed to a commercial drone operator,” he says.
The federal and state laws have different aims, says Basil Yap, who oversees drones for NCDOT's Aviation Division.
“The federal government has sole sovereignty over the airspace above North Carolina. The North Carolina laws govern how those aircraft may interact with people on the ground. And what they're doing is protecting the privacy as well as the safety of individuals on the ground in North Carolina,” Yap says.
For example, you can be fined in North Carolina for taking a drone photo of somebody in a private place without their permission, like through an apartment window. It's also illegal to hunt or fish or attach a weapon to a drone. Yap says the state needs to spread the word about the law.
“We understand that we need to continue to educate drone users in North Carolina about these North Carolina specific laws and make them aware of these privacy and property protections that are in place,” Yap says.
That's about all they can do for now. The FAA and local police compile reports of illegal drones based on tips from pilots and citizens. But tracking down operators is hard, and penalties are rare.
Mostly, safety depends on drone operators. Apart from learning the rules, authorities say the easiest way to stay on the right side of the law is the FAA's B4UFly app. It has rules and restrictions for wherever you're planning to fly.
FAA page on unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), or drones, FAA.gov
State of North Carolina drone registration page (required for commercial and government users), at NCDOT.gov
This article has been updated to clarify that there are exceptions to rules about how high and when drones may be used.