By Andrew Wroblewski
Proposed legislation that would limit the recreational use of camera-equipped drones within the Town of Huntington is premature and too broad, critics told officials during a July 14 public hearing.
The bill calls for banning the unpermitted use of camera-equipped unmanned aircraft systems, better known as drones, to obtain information on an individual, business or property where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Drone pilots would also need the consent of property owners to fly over private properties and of the Town of Huntington to fly over town-owned properties.
The legislation was sponsored in June by Councilman Mark Cuthbertson, who said in a June 15 interview that he’s noticed “the prevalence of unmanned aircraft systems around town,” and that questions of privacy and safety have been raised. Those concerns were filed with the town anonymously, Cuthbertson said.
“The legislation protects the public safety and welfare of the community by authorizing the establishment of procedures for the recreational operation of Unmanned Aircraft,” Cuthbertson said in an email. “Within the new law, regulations are set forth with respect to how drones/unmanned aircrafts are used. To ensure their operation is respectful of the community, the new regulation will protect the property and privacy rights of residents – particularly safeguard the use of drones for the purpose of unlawful surveillance.”
At the July 14 public hearing, two speakers spoke out against the measure.
“I don’t really feel that it promotes growth or safe flying, and there’s no provision for locations or provision for people to actually learn how to fly safely,” said Marcus Gardega. “I think a wait-and-see approach is more intelligent.”
Dennis Andreas, president of Long Island Aero Modelers, told Huntington officials at the public hearing that he believes “education, not legislation, is the answer” to addressing concerns about drones.
“Without question, the public is understanding this technology and the responsibility for using it safely,” said Andreas, who is also vice president of Academy of Model Aeronautics. “While the AMA could agree with protecting certain specific, limited, sensitive structures, the properties defined in the proposed Huntington amendment are exceptionally vague.”
Councilwoman Susan Berland voted against the scheduling of the hearing on June 9, claiming that there is much unknown on the topic of drones and that the board should monitor other municipalities’ actions before passing legislation of its own.
Suffolk County legislators passed their own drone legislation 15-3 on Tuesday. The law, originally proposed by Legislator Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma), requires pilots of camera-equipped drones to acquire a free permit from the county’s parks department before flying over county-owned properties. Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport), a co-sponsor, said the law was passed to ensure the safety of people visiting county buildings or parks.
“The law is about protection and privacy, not restriction,” Spencer said Wednesday. “When the FAA acts, then they’ll take precedence, but the technology is becoming so popular that someone could just come out and fly over a beach with thousands of people on it.”
Dave Tuohy, an East Northport resident who has filmed popular online videos showing off town landscapes using a drone, said he agrees some regulation is necessary, particularly in terms of safety, but that he doesn’t think it’s time for local officials to step in.
Instead, Tuohy cited the Federal Aviation Administration’s rules and regulations for recreational drone use, which govern certain aspects of the technology and require pilots to maintain visual line-of-sight with their aircraft, as guidelines for safe flying.
Tuohy said he thinks establishing a permit process, similar to that of Suffolk’s, where drone pilots could pay an annual fee for permission to fly over areas like parks and beaches could be successful in separating serious hobbyists from those looking to obtain private information from unknowing individuals.