On January 7, 2016

Drone policies at ski areas feature bans and limit authorizations

By Karen D. Lorentz

Jason Soll and Louis Gresham are the two co-founders of Cape Productions, a licensed drone company that has received FAA approval to fly drones and provides video services at resorts mostly located on private land.

Did you receive a drone for Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanzaa?

If you did, or if you already have one, be sure to register it between Dec. 21 and Feb.19, 2016. That’s the deadline the FAA gave in a rule announced on Dec. 14.

The FAA estimates that some one million drones will be given as gifts over the holiday season. But if you are thinking of flying a drone at Killington or Okemo, or at any Vermont ski area, you need to read on.

FAA press release in brief

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced a streamlined and user-friendly web-based aircraft registration process for owners of small unmanned aircraft (UAS) weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) and less than 55 pounds (approx. 25 kilograms) including payloads such as on-board cameras.

Registration is a statutory requirement that applies to all aircraft. Under this rule, any owner of a small UAS who has previously operated an unmanned aircraft exclusively as a model aircraft prior to December 21, 2015, must register no later than February 19, 2016. Owners of any other UAS purchased for use as a model aircraft after December 21, 2015 must register before the first flight outdoors. Owners may use either the paper-based process or the new streamlined, web-based system. Owners using the new streamlined web-based system must be at least 13 years old to register.

Owners may register through a web-based system at www.faa.gov/uas/registration.

Upon completion of the registration process, the web application will generate a Certificate of Aircraft Registration/Proof of Ownership that will include a unique identification number for the UAS owner, which must be marked on the aircraft.

Owners using the model aircraft for hobby or recreation will only have to register once and may use the same identification number for all of their model UASes. The registration is valid for three years.

The normal registration fee is $5, but in an effort to encourage as many people as possible to register quickly, the FAA is waiving this fee for the first 30 days (from Dec. 21, 2015 to Jan 20, 2016).

FAA rules regarding business use have not been issued yet.

Drones controversy and risks

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are highly maneuverable, remote-controlled aircraft (also known as multicopters). They are lightweight, battery powered, quiet, and fly like a helicopter with six or eight electric motors. They are either remotely controlled with a tablet device by someone trained to operate them or are put on autopilot and receive signals from a subject wearing a transmitter.

Drones are being used for recreational and commercial purposes—from locating missing hikers to creating beautiful, cost-effective aerial cinematography—as well as for government, intelligence and combat purposes.

However, there are serious risks involving recreational users, the most often reported of which is invading prohibited airspace. A report by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College examines “921 incidents in the national airspace from December 2013 to September 2015. Coauthors Dan Gettinger and Arthur Holland Michel identified 327 close encounters in which drones presented some level of hazard to manned aircraft, 90 of which involved commercial multi-engine jets, and 594 sightings, in which drones were spotted near or within manned aircraft flight paths but did not pose immediate danger of collision” (https://dronecenter.bard.edu/drone-sightings-and-close-encounters).

Because allowing recreational drone users who fly drones for fun to do so at resorts presents potential liability, safety, privacy, and insurance issues, areas have policies regarding their use.

Ski area policies

Last January, at a seminar on drone use held during the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) Eastern Winter Conference hosted at Killington Resort, members heard that a policy would be needed at ski areas and that there were many potential uses for drones, from an operations standpoint—lift and trail inspections, searches for lost persons, etc.—to guest use and commercial usages. However, it was noted that FAA regulations were in progress and that privacy and safety concerns made it a complex issue.

Rather than address such uses before the FAA set forth rules, many resorts banned them outright for safety and privacy reasons.

Others adopted a policy similar to a sample drafted by NSAA, which represents 330 members doing 90 percent of US skier visits. Those policies generally read like this:

Out of safety concerns for guests, employees, and resort property, [name: Mountain Resort] prohibits the operation or use of unmanned aerial systems, or aerial drones, by the general public–including recreational users and hobbyists–without prior written authorization from the Resort.”

The prohibition includes using drones for filming or videotaping, as well as any drone use by media or journalists operating above the property owned or managed by the resort. The prohibition on drone use usually extends to any drones launched or operated from resort property or launched from private property outside the resort boundaries.

Such policies usually go on to state that “Any authorized operation of aerial drones may be governed by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules and regulations, local law enforcement as well as those policies separately established by the ski area, which may include certification, training, insurance coverage, indemnification requirements, and waivers or releases of liability.”

Ski Utah compiled a list of areas that shows that seven member areas have “no fly” policies and seven have required special permit policies

Vermont policies

Asked about Vermont ski areas allowing recreational drone use or using them for operations purposes, Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, said, “None of the ski areas allows use of drones without permission, which would rarely if ever be given. The resorts themselves have made good use of them for promotional purposes, but I’m not aware of any using them to inspect lifts or trails.”

He added that Tramway Board regulations, which govern the operation of lifts, “would still most likely require the state’s lift inspectors to eyeball them and not rely on drones.”

Michael Joseph, Killington Resort-Pico Mountain communications and public relations manager, told The Mountain Times that Killington follows the Powdr Resorts policy which applies to all member areas. It reads:

“The use of drones and/or other unmanned aircraft, collectively referred to as Unmanned Aerial Systems (or ‘UAS’), at Powdr Resorts, including Killington Resort and Pico Mountain is a public and guest safety concern, and where cameras are used, a potential privacy issue. As such, the use of all UAS devices is prohibited at our resorts. The safety and privacy of our employees and guests are of primary importance.”

The policy banning drone usage applies to all Killington property including the parking lots and hotel area, Joseph confirmed.

Okemo Mountain Resort is one of the areas to have drawn up a policy that allows drone usage with authorization. That authorization is specifically spelled out in a two-page Limited Use of Resort Facilities Agreement, which includes specifics on drone usage, ranging from limitations on where one can be flown to the experience required of the pilot, to weather conditions (not allowed if winds exceed 5 mph; if it is snowing, raining, and/or visibility is reduced, or in the event of adverse conditions by any other means deemed by Okemo to create unsafe conditions).

Vice President of Development and Real Estate Ted Reeves, P.E., said the agreement applies to commercial photographers as well as any guest recreational use. He noted, “We developed this policy about a year ago, and felt that it is the appropriate course. As the law continues to evolve around the use of drones, we may revise this policy.”

Asked about taking this route when many resorts are banning their use pending more exacting regulations due in the spring of 2016 and if staying up with new trends is part of Okemo’s decision, Reeves replied, “Yes, for the most part we want to be open to new trends, and accommodate our guests when possible. The policy is pretty strict as far as use of Okemo property and indemnification of Okemo by the user, so users will have to comply if they want to use their drone aircraft on the property.”

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