Can You Fly a Drone in Coronado?

Outtake of a video filmed by drone of the wreck of the Monte Carlo on the Coronado beach. Photo and video credit of Roger Uzun.

This past 4th of July, my family and I were walking down the bay to watch the fireworks. Just in front of the Marriott, we passed a man preparing his drone for flight. We hadn’t seen one up close before, so we stopped for a closer look.

“Are you going to take some photos of the fireworks?” my husband asked.

“Yes,” the drone’s owner replied, “but I am waiting for people to move out of the way first. I don’t want the drone to hit anyone when it takes off!”

My family and I continued our walk, but within seconds, we heard rotors whirring, and we turned to see the drone lifting off the ground. Suddenly it banked left, heading rapidly in our direction. We didn’t have time to react before the drone crashed full speed into my sister’s leg.

For a moment a shocked silence hung over our group, and then the man rushed forward, apologetic and overwhelmed. He’d never flown his drone before and was still learning how to operate it. My sister, more surprised than hurt (or so she thought), brushed off his concerns and urged us to just keep on walking. We left the man behind, picking his drone up off the sidewalk.

Only later did my sister discover the drone had badly scratched and bruised her leg, and it took over a month to heal. Now she jokes that she was the victim of a drone attack, and we all give drones a wide berth.

We also wish we knew then what we know now: according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), you cannot fly a drone within five miles of an airport without express permission from the air traffic control tower of that airport.

“The Cays Park and Silver Strand State Beach are the only areas that are not within a five-mile radius of an airport in the City of Coronado,” explains Lieutenant Mitch McKay of the Coronado Police Department. “If drone owners are operating within a five-mile radius, the FAA requires that person operating be in contact with the air traffic control tower.”

The FAA states the rules of drones (or UAS, unmanned aircraft systems) on their website. These rules include flying below 400 feet, keeping the aircraft within visual line of sight at all times, and not flying near people, stadiums, or manned aircraft. The regulations also briefly address photography for personal vs. commercial use.

Here in Coronado, drone operators must inform the North Island air traffic control tower when and where they will be flying, in order that airline approach corridors are not obstructed. Lt McKay commented that this rule applies to all flying objects, including kites. So flying your kite in front of the Del on a windy day? “It’s a misdemeanor,” Lt McKay affirmed. “But use a little common sense. If you are flying a kite at Tidelands Park, it’s probably OK. But near North Island or on Dog Beach, it could be sucked into jet engine.”

Drone regulations in Coronado are a hot topic right now, and Lt McKay is the staff person from the City of Coronado assigned to work with NAS North Island and the FAA to develop a policy that clarifies and addresses the growing prevalence of drones. “There are laws in place,” he says, “but now people have cameras on drones and want to do all sorts of cool things with them. We want to have a policy in place that maintains safety and privacy.”

Lt McKay also noted that the increased use of drones in this area — near a naval base and an airport — has made the Southern California region one of the first in the nation where city governments, airport authorities, and the FAA are working together to hammer out policies and programs that address safety and privacy for everyone interacting with drones.

“We are meeting with reps from the Navy and the FAA next week,” Lt McKay continued, referencing a key meeting that is planned for February 16th. “Everything is evolving so quickly, and the FAA is having trouble keeping up with what the rules should be, how to enforce them, and how to work with local governments and air traffic control facilities. What is our best course of action? How should we get info to the general public? Here we are, with great proximity to North Island’s airstrip and Lindbergh Field (San Diego International Airport) across the bay. We are wondering about a designated area where drones could be operated, and we are working with the City of Coronado to have rules and regulations from the city side with municipal codes.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 2.40.50 PM
Outtake from the promotional video for the Coronado Island Film Festival, which was partially shot by drone. Photo credit of CoronadoIslandFilmFest.com.

Todd Little, Coronado Tourism Improvement District Director, faced this issue when he wanted to shoot drone footage for the Coronado Film Festival promotional video. After doing some research, Todd hired a firm from Orange County that shoots commercially with drones.

“The firm addressed the issue of the airspace and the best times to shoot,” says Todd, who was impressed with their professionalism. “They knew about the flight path with North Island and airport, they had documentation, and they didn’t want to get in trouble. Most commercial users of drones are very conscious of the situation.”

Todd noted that “this is the Wild West!” of drone use and photography, as many new owners are getting drones for holidays and birthdays and then have no idea how to use them. “If you hire someone who does this for a living, they know what they are doing. I applaud the CPD for creating a policy, not just for professional use but also personal use,” he said.

The big day for Lt McKay is February 16th, when he will meet with NAS North Island and FAA representatives to develop an updated policy for drone use in Coronado. Until then, head south to the Cays to fly your kites and drones, or get in touch with NASNI to plan your drone flights. The base’s main contact number is (619) 545-1011.

UPDATE: Click for more information from the FAA.

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Becca is a Coronado local, military spouse, mother of three, and an ICU nurse on hiatus. In Coronado, you will find her at the playground with her kids, jogging to the beach, or searching the Coronado library for another good read. Have news to share? Send tips, story ideas or letters to the editor to: manager@coronadotimes.com.