Orange County

Chapel Hill says leave the drone at home this Halloween

A drone-piloting workshop for people 16 and older is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, July 21, in the Bond Park Community Center, 150 Metro Park, Cary.
A drone-piloting workshop for people 16 and older is scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, July 21, in the Bond Park Community Center, 150 Metro Park, Cary.

You could get an unexpected visit from the police if you fly your drone over the town’s Halloween celebration on Franklin Street next month.

The flood of YouTube videos from UNC’s 2017 NCAA Championship celebration showed drones have begun creating public safety concerns, said Barry McLamb, the town’s Emergency Management coordinator.

He urged the Town Council to adopt a local version of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 107 rules for commercial drones. The rules prohibit people who are not trained and licensed from flying bigger drones over crowds, at night, or at certain weights, speeds and altitudes.

Hobby drone enthusiasts fall under FAA model aircraft rules.

Drone operators are already prohibited by state law from landing or taking off on state land, such as on the UNC campus, McLamb said at Monday’s council meeting. The town also can limit where drone pilots take off and land, but it cannot enforce federal rules until it adopts them locally, he said.

The council could vote on the rules Oct. 11, ahead of this year’s Homegrown Halloween celebration.

“It allows us to at least provide some kind of enforcement for people who aren’t doing the right thing – who don’t take the test, who aren’t licensed, who decide they’re going to fly their drones at night over crowds,” McLamb said.

“That’s basically what we’re concerned about,” he emphasized. “That safety aspect of people who don’t know what they’re doing, but they’ve got a thousand dollars and they can go buy a nice drone and fly it over crowds and either intentionally scare people or accidentally run it into folks.”

People who violate the rules could be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $500, town officials said.

Council member George Cianciolo urged staff to bring back very specific rules for a range of scenarios.

“I think I could see one at a high school football game with 3,000 people in the bleachers,” he said, “and my feeling is if we don’t deal with this now, eventually we’re going to have to. We’re going to have one of these 55-pound drones, at 100 miles an hour, crash into a crowd, and we’re going to have some people killed.”

Other local governments share Chapel Hill’s concerns – a Raleigh proposal, for instance, would limit drone use in public parks – and they are lobbying federal officials to help set some guidelines, Mayor Pam Hemminger said.

Chapel Hill police occasionally respond to drone calls, Chief Chris Blue said. Those calls could become more common as more people buy drones, he said, but there’s little police can do now about a neighbor flying one over your house. The council could address privacy and other issues at a later time, McLamb said.

Issues about when, where and how drones can be flown are quickly coming to a head as more amateurs buy them and businesses, such as the online retailer Amazon, incorporate the technology.

“Drones are crashing into buildings, into cars, causing accidents,” Hemminger said. “There are many privacy (issues). They are equipped with monitoring devices and recording devices, and people are concerned.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

More technology

The Town Council also talked about wireless telecommunications and driverless cars Monday – two technological advancements expected to affect public interests.

The trend in reliable wireless telecommunications infrastructure is discrete, smaller cell poles that improve video and data delivery, planning manager Phil Mason said. However, the state limits town authority over how and where companies can have poles.

Town staff will hold a public information meeting on the town’s wireless telecommunications planning initiative at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21, in Meeting Room B at the Chapel Hill Public Library.

Ben Hitchings, director of planning and development services, briefly addressed driverless cars.

Experts think half the cars in 2050 will be driverless, he said, but the time is now to consider things like planning for drop-off zones and remote parking lots, autonomous lanes and free-flowing intersections.

The town may also need to plan for reduced parking and gas tax revenues.