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What Are The Rules When It Comes To Flying A Drone In San Diego?

An Action Drone employee prepares to launch a drone, July 12, 2017.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Above: An Action Drone employee prepares to launch a drone, July 12, 2017.

After the Jennings brush fire near Alpine last week, county and Cal Fire officials reminded people not to fly drones during public safety emergencies.

"Very simply put: If you fly, we cannot fly," Tony Mecham, Cal Fire's San Diego Unit Chief, said. "One of the most effective tools we have in the early stages of a fire is the use of aircraft. And when people fly drones, I do not think they understand the impact this has on the fire agencies. We have to pull all fire aircraft out of the area until we can find the drone owner to land the drone."

That is just one of the many rules drone operators need to follow, including drone hobbyists. They also have to follow a list of guidelines from the Federal Aviation Administration, including:

— Fly at or below 400 feet.

— Keep your drone within sight.

— Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports.

— Never fly over groups of people.

— Never fly over stadiums or sports events.

— Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires.

— Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

In April, the San Diego City Council gave local authorities the ability to ticket people breaking the rules.

The number of airports, military bases and heliports at hospitals in San Diego mean there are few options for where people can fly, but enthusiasts have found a few good spots, including a small patch of open land near SeaWorld.

The website Know Before You Fly shows off-limit spaces and timely advisories.

The employees at Action Drone USA, a San Diego-based company that makes applications for drones, know the rules well. Every week, they come to a dirt field in Chula Vista to test out their products because it is one of the few places they are allowed to fly.

"We can't fly near airports, we can't fly at night unless we have permission to do it, also we can't fly beyond line of sight or above 400 feet," said Darryl Anunciado, the CEO.

Drone pilots also need a license, have to keep their drones under 400 feet and within line of site, can only fly during the day and can not fly over people.

Anunciado said the rules sometimes change. He is lobbying to change one in particular.

"For example, power line inspections," he said. "There's about 5.3 million miles of power lines in the U.S., and we can't map it without changing the policy of beyond line of sight flying. The power lines are so long and vast that we need to use airplanes that are navigated through instruments."

He said the rule about not flying over people also limits some businesses.

"There's a lot of people that want to do urban work, but it's really difficult," he said. "There's rules that you can't fly above people, and so how do you go about that?"

Despite the restrictions, Anunciado said San Diego has a fairly drone-friendly culture.

"There's a lot of companies here that have developed big drones, military drones, and that trickles down to the industrial aspect of it," he said. "Because we're so aircraft-centric as a city, it's not hard for us to develop something in the drone field."

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Action Drone

The view of an empty field in Chula Vista from an Action Drone camera, July 12, 2017.

The number of airports, military bases and heliports at hospitals in San Diego mean there are few options for where people can fly.


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Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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