ST. LOUIS • Some St. Louis area municipalities are being cautious about drones as recreational and commercial interest grows.
As the miniature unmanned aircraft transition from devices used by the military to models for private film, photography and hobbyist use, local municipalities are trying to rein in their range, citing safety and privacy concerns. The result is a patchwork of laws.
Chesterfield, Clarkson Valley, St. Charles and St. Peters are among the area cities that have imposed restrictions in recent months as the devices become more common. The Federal Aviation Administration estimated in 2016 that the combined sales of hobbyist and commercial unmanned aerial systems would increase from 2.5 million that year to 7 million in 2020.
Chesterfield Councilman Randy Logan said after the June 19 vote there to restrict the use of drones that the issue still might be revisited.
“My thought is that the use of drones is evolving, and my expectation is that we will need to monitor their use,” Logan said in an email.
The limitations in the Chesterfield ordinance cover flying over private property, in the dark and in public spaces where people are “unsheltered,” such as sporting events and emergency scenes. The ordinance has a provision allowing law enforcement to use drones.
The St. Charles City Council enacted similar rules on drones to protect privacy, bill sponsor Councilman Rod Herrmann said.
The ordinance sets definitions for a drone and presents similar guidelines to Chesterfield for when and where the aircraft may be flown. It also sets a weight restriction of no more than 50 pounds, unless a federal exemption is obtained.
Herrmann said anyone who violates the ordinance may receive a warning from local police. The city’s community development director said police could also issue tickets.
“I didn’t want to restrict people from using them,” Herrmann said. “I have nothing against them. It was a concern for safety and privacy. Nothing to try to eliminate them or hamper uses.”
Herrmann said he received a complaint last summer when a drone flew over a resident’s swimming pool. Another incident involved a drone flying near the bedroom windows of a condominium complex for retirees.
St. Charles Mayor Sally Faith approved the measure June 8.
Nearby St. Peters approved an ordinance regulating drones in April determining, “that it is to the benefit of the health, safety, and welfare of the residents to regulate the operation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the City, and to prohibit constructive invasion of privacy in the City.”
In St. Louis, city policy requires drone operators to apply to use the devices in certain areas, said Koran Addo, the mayor’s spokesman.
In St. Louis County, drones are not allowed in parks with the exception of Buder Park, which has an airfield for radio-control craft and space for drones, said spokesman Cordell Whitlock. But anyone who flies a drone at the park is required to join the Greater St. Louis Modelers Association. The group provides members with the insurance to fly there.
In addition to adhering to the various local laws, commercial drone operators must abide by federal rules on certification, flight restriction of 400 feet and below, and maintaining the device with line of sight. Rules also say drones are not to be flown over people who aren’t involved in the operation.
However, commercial entities may receive permission from the FAA to deviate from the rules through an application and approval process.
Non-commercial drone operators no longer have to register their devices with the FAA after a federal court decision in Washington in May.
Just determining allowable air space can be tricky for drone users. For example, a Chesterfield expert said Lambert International Airport has a 30-mile controlled air space. There are also controlled air spaces in Alton, Cahokia, MidAmerica St. Louis Airport in St. Clair County and the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield.
Ravi Sahu, the executive officer of a St. Louis drone data company named Strayos and the leader of a social group for enthusiasts, said rules were needed and accepted among commercial users.
But Sahu expects the rules to change as people learn more about the technology. “Every year we will see a new guideline developed as this entire drone industry matures,” he said.
Sahu sees the discussions about drones now as similar to those concerning smart phones years ago when that technology was new. He said that years from now, the drone could be seen as just a flying smart phone, and people’s privacy concerns would disappear.
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