Newport This Week

Newport Police Remind Public of Drone Rules


With summer approaching, Newport’s public beaches and seaside destinations will offer gorgeous views for people to photograph, often using a drone. With that in mind, Newport police are reminding the public of the rules for flying a drone.

“We have encountered, more and more as time goes on, the use of recreational drones by the general public,” said Jack Billings, a detective with the Newport Police Department.

Drone operation rules vary based on the capacity in which the drone is being used. For example, flying one purely for enjoyment is often held to stricter standards than a professional photographer using the technology to take photos or capture video for commercial purposes, such as real estate showcases or roof inspections.

The Federal Aviation Administration stipulates that the general public must not exceed a 400-foot maximum altitude in uncontrolled airspace, areas not specifically dealing with high-altitude travel or security, such as airports. Permission from the FAA must be obtained to fly in controlled airspaces. As a general rule of thumb, one should not fly a drone within five miles of any airport, no matter its size.

Other rules for recreational fliers include keeping the drone within the operator’s unaided line of sight, abstaining from night flights and not flying a drone while intoxicated or otherwise impaired.

“If you’re using binoculars to see the drone, that’s not within your line of sight,” Billings said. “You should have the drone within your vision at all times.”

Recreational fliers should register their drone with the FAA if it weighs over 0.55 pounds and take a safety test prior to flying. There are multiple mobile apps the FAA recommends the general public utilize before and while flying. For example, the FAA’s B4UFLY app provides real-time information about airspace restrictions and other information, and its Drone- Zone app allows the public to register the drone with the agency.

The rules get more complicated when it comes to drones being a public nuisance or a source of harassment. According to Billings, drone flight is prohibited within the “immediate usable airspace” of a private domicile. The problem is that the FAA has yet to define exactly what the “immediate usable airspace” of a private residence is, said Billings, which can create confusion.

“There are situations of privacy concerns. For example, a recreational flyer may be dropping into somebody’s backyard off of Cliff Walk,” he said. “That certainly needs to be addressed. The issue that we run into right now is that there’s a lot of gray area.”

There is no case law yet in Rhode Island for such a situation, Billings said, though he believes it is only a matter of time. “You will see case law likely evolve fairly quickly in the near future to address those kinds of issues,” he said.

Still, if an unknown drone is hovering in the backyard, it’s best to call police, he said.

“We will try to identify where the drone operator is operating from,” he said. “Most commercially available drones that recreational fliers are going to be operating have a 25- to 30-minute battery life. The drone has to go home at some point. If you can identify the area the drone is heading back to and tell us, then we can divert resources over there.”

If police are able to locate the drone operator, they will record the incident, the operator’s name and issue a warning. If a similar incident happens in the future, stricter penalties, such as criminal charges, could be pursued.

“It’s important to document it, because it could become a habitual issue,” Billings said.

There are no municipal laws in Newport that prohibit the operation of drones in public places, such as Easton’s Beach. In fact, the only city or town in Rhode Island to enact such an ordinance is Narragansett, which in 2016 banned the use of drones over its town beach during the summer season.

However, if a drone operator is particularly disruptive, the law can step in, said Billings.

“If you have individuals on the Cliff Walk and somebody is buzzing over them with a drone, that’s a no-go,” he said. “The FAA has prohibited that.”

By contrast, a drone positioned and hovering over the ocean at Cliff Walk, while taking photos or video of the landmark when the public is present, is not illegal. In such cases, the situation falls to police discretion.

“It comes down to common sense,” said Billings. “If a person is [flying a drone and] just cutting across the Cliff Walk quickly, I don’t think we as a police department would give that person a hard time. That is very different than an individual who is 10 feet off the top of people’s heads following them along Cliff Walk for an extended duration.”

While local and national law leaves room for interpretation, Rhode Island law is more definitive. A state provision makes drone flight illegal over state parks, such as Fort Adams, for recreational fliers without written permission. Further, the use of a drone in a state park that negatively impacts others or the land is also prohibited and cause for a fine.

“Unmanned aircraft systems shall not be used to harass or disturb users, wildlife, or any natural resource at a public reservation,” reads the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Park and Management Area rules and regulations.

Providing unparalleled perspectives, high-definition recording and being commercially available, drones have gained steam in recent years for personal use. With Newport being no exception, photographers are asked to use them responsibly.

One response to “Newport Police Remind Public of Drone Rules”

  1. Kevin Friel says:

    This interview with Detective Billings was one-sided and also inaccurate with respect to some of the current law. No State, Municipality, or City, can make its’ own laws regarding the airspace over any location. Congress has mandated this and empowered only the FAA as governing the airspace across the United States. The Naragansett Beach law is illegal. Flights over State Parks cannot be prohibited by a State.

    Last year Part 107 rules rgarding operation of UAVs were updated. Night flying and flights over people have been redefined. Properly licensed Part 107 pilots are required to know these changes.

    The one-sided interview did not include any Operators that are qualified to weigh in on the subject of UAVs. Properly licensed Operators must adhere to the rules set out by the FAA under FAR Part 107. We also use common sense when operating our equipment.

    The author of this article should have reached out to properly qualified Opererators instead of only speaking with a Newport Police Detective.

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