If you're strolling through an open field in West Linn or paddling along the Willamette River on a sunny day, you may spot a technologically-sophisticated flying object whizzing through the air. If that's the case, you've probably encountered a recreational drone.
Local drone enthusiasts want you to know they don't intend to be a nuisance. They simply want to enjoy the hobby unobtrusively and feel a rush akin to a pilot navigating the skies. However, they also acknowledge that the rules and jurisdictional authority for enforcing drone-related regulations are somewhat complicated and can lead to confusion.
'A lack of information'
Lake Oswego resident Michael McConnell discovered the possibilities of drone technology while serving as an executive producer for the movie "Amazon Queen."
"We got some of the best videos from drones," he said. "I was fascinated by a drone being able to fly from one boat to another."
In recent months, however, McConnell said he has been approached by police on three occasions after someone called the cops when he was flying a drone in legal airspace. The police let him continue after realizing he was operating the technology legally, he said.
McConnell said the incidents happened at the Millenium Plaza Park garage and on a sidewalk next to Westlake Park. In one instance, he said a man told him if he had his gun with him he would shoot the drone down. McConnell's condo association also banned drones after someone complained about them. McConnell emphasized, however, that the vast majority of people he encounters are enthused and inquisitive about the technology.
"My feeling is that it's just a lack of information out there. I don't want to disturb anyone or be a problem, so I'm really cautious with how I fly. I keep it under control," McConnell said. "Some people like it. Some people clap. Some come up to me and say 'I just want to watch the drone.'"
He admits that it isn't always 100% clear to him where he can and cannot fly. And he has noticed that others have been confused as well.
"I was told by one (police) officer to just go to the park and fly there. I did and you go there and there's a sign that says 'No drones,'" he said.
So what are the rules?
West Linn Public Information Officer Bill Garland said West Linn has no specific ordinance regarding drone operation, so drone use is mostly governed by the Federal Aviation Authority. In 2021, the FAA changed a rule requiring that small drone users apply for a waiver if they wanted to fly the drone over people or a vehicle in populated areas. Under the new rule, users of drones weighing less than 55 pounds don't need to apply for the waiver if the drone doesn't contain rotating parts that would cause lacerations. There are further stipulations depending on the size of the drone. Also, drone users wanting to fly over a festival or other large gathering must have what's called "Remote ID," which provides information about the drone other parties can receive.
If the local police spot a potential rules violation, they report it to the federal agency.
Garland said how West Linn police respond to complaints about drones depends on the situation. Two things they typically consider are where the drone is flying and whether it's equipped with a camera.
Garland noted that the city does not receive many complaints about drone use, especially during the winter.
Other than the FAA rules, the City of West Linn has no restrictions on use of drones in city parks. This differs from cities like Lake Oswego, where drones are banned from parks.
Drone users in Lake Oswego are allowed to stand outside of a park and then fly the drone over the park (this is what McConnell did at Westlake Park) because the city of Lake Oswego does not have jurisdiction above the park airspace. Also, those wanting to fly a drone within the park can do so if they receive written clearance from the parks department. Usually commercial drone users can successfully apply for this exception, Parks and Recreation Director Ivan Anderholm said, adding that the rules were implemented after the city received consistent complaints about drone usage from park users hosting events or renting out the river shelter.
"We didn't want people damaging property or the possibility of hurting people, and it's pretty consistent with a lot of other communities," he said.
However, West Linn Parks and Recreation Director Ken Warner noted that drone use has not been an issue in West Linn parks.
Other violations such as flying a drone too high or in the wrong airspace — near an airport, for example — are also enforced by the FAA. Some of the protocols listed on the FAA website include "keep your drone within the visual line of sight or use a visual observer who is co-located (physically next to) and in direct communication with you," "Give way to and do not interfere with manned aircraft," "fly at or below 400 (feet) in controlled airspace only with prior authorization" and "fly at or below 400 feet in Class G (uncontrolled) airspace." Drone owners with more advanced certifications have a bit more leeway in terms of where they can fly.
However, this rule isn't always easy to enforce, according to Garland.
"You have to operate the drones beneath a certain altitude and it's tough for us to make a 100% accurate determination as to what altitude they're flying at," he said.
The FAA said it works with local law enforcement daily to educate them on how to respond to possible drone violations. The agency also asks those who think they see a drone violation to contact law enforcement or the nearest FAA Flight Standards District Office (the phone number to the Hillsboro office is 503-615-3200).
"While education to help drone pilots avoid future airspace violations is our first tool, we don't hesitate to take enforcement action to address illegal drone operations that create a safety risk. Operators who conduct unsafe operations that endanger other aircraft of people or property on the ground face fines and criminal penalties, including possible jail time," the FAA press office wrote in a statement. For more information on FAA policies for recreational drone use, visit www.faa.gov/uas/recreational_fliers.
Former Lake Oswego resident Johnathan Henderson uses a spotter to help him keep an eye out for his drone and ensure safety. He typically flies his drone in schools or open fields.
For Henderson, flying a drone makes him feel like he's in a cockpit.
"We like the adrenaline rush," he said. "We don't even have to leave the ground."
Henderson felt that the negative perception about drones was changing with more people being introduced to them. He also noted that drones can be useful for practical matters like search and rescue operations and bridge inspections.
When someone asks about his drone, Henderson will sometimes offer the chance to take it for a ride.
"(So that) they experience that fun. They get the giggles, the laughs, and if they're interested in flying the drone, I will hand it over and try to teach them how to fly the drone to ease that comfort and make them realize it's not this negative thing, that not everyone flying drones is here to spy on everyone. We're out here to have fun," he said.
Holly Bartholomew contributed to this story.
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