APD shifts focus in drone regulation policy

Wynne Davis

Officers from the Austin Police Department said they will no longer check to see if drone operators have a certificate for themselves or for their drone, unless the drone is flying near a crowded area. 

The change is part of an attempt to shift focus to policing drones used near large events, such as concerts and sports games, while giving individuals flying drones in less crowded areas freedom, APD officers said.

Although policing drone usage hasn’t been much of an issue for APD, chief of staff Brian Manley said the department wanted to make the policies more friendly for those who may want to fly drones in their yard.

“We’re always focused on the safety and well being for the community, and we realized that the ordinance is quite restrictive in that it bans all use in all places in all circumstances — unless the individual had the licenses and qualifications,” Manley said. “Individuals flying these in their own yards … [don’t] really present the same issues.”

Drones’ potential to cause disturbances became evident when APD heard concerns about the drones’ presence during the South By Southwest festival this March, Manley said. In another incident, a drone flew over the Darrell K. Royal Texas Memorial Stadium during the Longhorns’ first football game of the season.

“I honestly thought that someone did it to get a bird’s-eye-view picture of the stadium during the game,” electrical engineering senior Mary Ryan Gilmore said. “I’m not sure what it was really for.”

While the event at the football game did involve a high profile drone sighting, aerospace engineering assistant professor Todd Humphreys said ahe believes recreational use of drones has not been a problem in Austin.

Often, people have concerns about footage captured by drones of people without their knowledge, Humphreys said.

“If you happen to get somebody’s house in those pictures or video, and you happen to catch somebody walking in their yard, you should destroy that video instead of uploading it to YouTube,” Humphreys said.

Regardless of where drones are being used, Manley said people operating them should always be cautious of others.

“Individuals need to be careful and cautious and need to maintain a visual at all times when they’re flying these devices, so they don’t accidently bring them into an area that may place others in danger,” Manley said.

Under new rules that the Federal Aviation Association is considering implementing, drone operators would be required to take a test to become certified to fly, which Humphreys said he thinks is reasonable.

“If you want to become a hand radio operator, you have to take a test and become government certified before you can broadcast in the space that has been allocated for amateur use,” Humphrey said. “I think it’s a perfectly reasonable parallel to say that if you’re going to be operating a drone, you need to have passed a test and gotten the certificate.”