Board presented with drone policy

Public notification a top priority for commissioners, staff when flying town drones over private property

The Information Technology and Mapping Department of Highlands discussed drone use and policy at the Town Board of Commissioners Meeting on June 21.
According to Matt Shuler, information technology and mapping department director, due to ethical dilemmas and privacy concerns regarding the use of drones, the department presented its policy to the board.
“Anytime we do town-wide flies — which will be annually — we will post that in newspapers so everybody in town will know if there is a drone possibly buzzing over their homes,” Shuler said, and added under its policy the department is limited to when and where the drones can fly.
“We would fly during daylight hours,” Shuler said. “We would fly no less than 175-feet over someone’s property so that they don’t have any privacy concerns; and then we are also limited to 400-feet in altitude by the (Federal Aviation Administration).” The mapping department drones have a flight record embedded into the software, so if the public wanted to see the location, elevation or duration of a drone flight, the information is public record. If there is a question about any town drone flights, Shuler said the department can pull up the flight log book for verification. Additionally, the aerial photography will be placed on the town’s website. Shuler further said before placing any photography or video taken by a drone, all faces, identification numbers or information that can identify a person will be removed.
“That is way above and beyond of what (Unmanned Aircraft Systems rule (part 107)) requires of us,” Shuler said. “We just want to do our due diligence to make sure.”
According to Shuler, creating the drone policy was a “learning process” for the department. In the past, there were times when people would call Town Hall and have questions about the drones in the air — so the policy decision was made to give notice to the public when it is being flown. Every winter the Information Technology and Mapping Department flies over the town after the foliage is off the trees to map the area. The process takes about three weeks, according to Shuler.
Shuler said there have been times when notice was not given,  such as when “smaller” flights go up with little or no notice to the department itself as, “it would be up and down — and most likely — over in about 10 minutes.”
A concern of Town Board Commissioner John “Buz” Dotson was the ability to notify the public regardless of how much time was spent in the air.
“It doesn’t matter if you are going to be in the air for 15 seconds or two hours,” Dotson said. “People are going to hear this thing and see it, and I think at least half the people in the world are going to cringe a little bit.”
Shuler said the department will do whatever is asked of them; there is already information in the policy that states if anyone objects to the flying of the drone, then it will be brought down.
“[Anyone] can, certainly, call the town hall and say, “this is where I live, don’t fly over my property,” and we will certainly obey that and will do that,” Shuler said.
Commissioner Brian Stiehler pointed out the benefits of using drones for reasons other than mapping. Funds for the Highlands Police Department to purchase a drone were approved in the 2018-19 budget. The policy presented to the Board is for the mapping and IT departments only. Shuler said another policy will have to be drafted for police and emergency use.
Dotson and Commissioner Amy Patterson said they believe the department should notify the public when the drone is flying through additional means such as radio announcements or emergency text message. The policy will be changed to reflect use of the Code Red text system to also notify residents of drone flights.

The Highlander

Phone: 1-828-526-4114 
Main Fax: 1-828-526-3658 

Address: PO Box 249, Highlands, NC 28741
Located: 134 N. Fifth Street, Highlands, NC 28741 
Hours: Monday-Friday 8:30am - 5pm