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Drone

A drone owned by Montana Tech is seen in this file photo.

POLSON — Two years ago, Lake County purchased a drone. They’re still crafting a policy for how to use it.

At a meeting Wednesday, the county commissioners and staff discussed several potential uses for their drone: mapping, planning, law enforcement and search-and-rescue. None of these have been carried out yet, said IT director Russ Rodda. He could only take it airborne after receiving his drone pilot certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in January.

Regulation of drones is mainly a federal business. In 2015, the FAA stated that “substantial air safety issues are raised when state or local governments attempt to regulate the operation or flight of aircraft,” creating the potential for a “patchwork quilt” of regulations.

Last July, the agency stated that “state and local governments are not permitted to regulate any type of aircraft operations, such as flight paths or altitudes, or the navigable airspace.” But it also noted that other aspects of drone use, such as regulation of landing sites and use by law enforcement, “generally are not subject to federal regulation.” Commercial and government drone operators must obtain certification from the agency.

In discussing a draft eight-page policy for drone use by county personnel, Commissioner Bill Barron raised the possibility of adding a clause stating that the county would abide by all FAA standards. “We could cut this probably to one to two pages if we did that,” Rodda told him, “because a lot of this is already FAA regulations and if we made policies now according to their regulations and they change, then we have to go through the procedures of changing our policy.”

The Federal Aviation Administration is currently amending several of its rules concerning drone use. Barron said he would like to “get something where we just follow the current FAA standards and then we don’t have to go back and change it all the time.”

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“If they got their pilot’s license they’re going to know those regulations,” Rodda said. Commissioner Gale Decker, however, voiced concern that simply following the federal guidelines could leave the county liable, and suggested requiring a visual observer for drone operations, even if not required.

They struck other aspects of the draft drone policy that Rodda called too stringent, including restrictions on operations over airports and near people. Sheriff Don Bell, meanwhile, took issue with the FAA’s requirement that a Notice to Airmen be filed within 24 hours (the agency offers expedited approvals for emergency situations).

Rodda is currently Lake County’s only drone pilot, but the commissioners and staff discussed the value of having additional pilots certified within the county, as well as the possibility of acquiring a second drone for $79, and the need for sharing and maintenance procedures. They took no vote on the draft policy.

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Higher education reporter for the Missoulian