Drones: the ‘toy’ that can get you arrested


Mt. Soledad resident Dr. David Katz clearly remembers the afternoon, a few months back, when he first saw a drone buzzing around the back doors of his and his neighbor’s houses.

“I felt like there was a spy looking into our homes and it was not a good feeling,” Katz said. Horrifyingly, this unwanted visit began repeating itself — mostly next door to Katz, where two teenage girls live.

One afternoon, Katz spotted the house it launched from. The culprit was a 14-year-old boy who, Katz speculated, “was basically looking for, I think, what 14-year-old boys look for.” One call to his father and Katz said he “never had a problem with it again.”

According to the Consumer Technology Association, 2.4 million personal drones were sold in the United States in 2016, more than double the 1.1 million sold in 2015. But most people forget that they’re aircraft, not toys.

This Christmas, if you either give or receive a personal drone, here’s a list of rules you need to know — or teach someone else — before launching your career as a remote pilot. (These rules are nothing compared to the ones governing commercial drones, by the way.)

Don’t fly it above people.

Normally, when computers crash, you only lose your data, you don’t kill an innocent bystander. But even if no one is killed, a 5-pound machine with four rapidly whirring blades crashing into your head is going to put a serious damper on your day. This rule also includes busy roads, since a falling drone can cause an accident.

Don’t lose sight of your drone.

You are legally required to be in visual contact with your drone at all times. First-person view (virtual reality goggles) is not yet legal.

Don’t fly it anywhere near an aircraft or within 5 miles of an airport.

Keeping it below 400 feet is a good rule of thumb to avoid manned aircraft, which it’s your legal responsibility to do. And if an airport is nearby, you need to inform air traffic control when and where you’re flying. “Even if it’s just for a kid flying, he needs to call,” said Tiffany Vinson, the City’s senior Homeland Security coordinator. (Vinson co-authored the drone policy enacted by the City last May, which now enables local law enforcement to enforce what were previously only FAA rules.)

Don’t interfere with first responders.

“No, you’re not allowed to fly into fires,” Vinson said. “That’s an existing law in California code. You’re not supposed to stop on the side of the road and park in your vehicle unless your part of emergency response.”

Leave your drone at home, Padres fans.

The FAA always issues temporary flight restrictions over venues that hold 30,000 people or more. (Yes, even if most of the Padres seats are empty.) In May, before the ordinance took effect, a GoPro Karma Quadcopter crashed into the stands between innings. The footage is on YouTube, and it’s pretty much the opposite of cool and funny.

Don’t invade anyone else’s privacy.

“Lots of cities have struggled with this one,” Vinson said. “What we’re looking to enforce exists under state law. Essentially, if you can’t walk up to someone’s house and peek in their window, you also can’t do it with a drone.”

Also, flying a couple hundred feet over someone’s house, while not illegal, is bad form without permission and a good reason to do so. While property owners are legally prohibited from disabling your drone, they are not likely to be aware, or care, about the law when they feel violated like this.