SALT LAKE CITY — A drone stuck near the top of the LDS temple in Draper has put a tiny spotlight on the intersection of drone pilots, private entities, cities and the federal government.
Drew Armstrong often flies drones — or unmanned aerial vehicles — on the outskirts of temple grounds to photograph LDS temples. He said he was flying near the perimeter of the Draper Utah Temple grounds on June 26, when someone who identified himself as the temple's site manager approached him. The man asked him to fly over and get a visual of where a drone was stuck near the top of the temple's steeple, Armstrong said. It is presumed that the drone, which has been sitting near the top of the temple for weeks, had crashed.
"I had the site manager looking over my shoulder wanting to see what was on my iPad because we were trying to figure out how to get the other drone off,” Armstrong said.
He emphasized that he normally doesn’t fly that close to temples and only did so at the site manager’s request.
“They are worried about somebody damaging the church’s property, and I don’t blame them,” he said.
The stuck drone illustrates the potential problems that can happen as more drones take to the skies and inexperienced pilots push the limits, as well what private property owners and cities can and cannot require when it comes to regulating drones.
Drone pilots typically fall into one of two Federal Aviation Administration categories: commercial or hobbyist. Drone pilots who fly commercially must be certified by the FAA and follow regulations, like agreeing to not fly over people or at night unless they receive waivers from the FAA. Hobbyist drone pilots, on the other hand, are encouraged to fly safely and in accordance with a drone community-based set of safety guidelines. Both types operate largely under a self-policing, honor system.
The lack of consistency in requirements for drone pilots and confusion behind who can order what are where things can get tricky.
For instance, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has discouraged unauthorized drone flights near temples.
"Temples and the grounds that surround them are sacred spaces for worship and reflection, and so we try to preserve an atmosphere of tranquility and peace. For this reason, drone filming is very rarely authorized," said church spokeswoman Irene Caso. "If a drone were to crash during an unauthorized flight over a temple, we may offer to retrieve it at the pilot’s expense, but in some cases, this may not be possible."
Along these similar lines, during this year's legislative session, Utah lawmakers passed SB111, which prohibits drone hobbyists from flying over private property without permission, and says a violation of this rule would be considered trespassing.
“The person operating the unmanned aircraft is not otherwise authorized to fly the unmanned aircraft over the private property or any portion of the private property,” states part of the law.
This law, however, contradicts the FAA's authority to regulate the U.S. airspace. It also goes against the agency’s request that state and local municipalities not attempt to regulate airspace to prevent a "patchwork" of laws and regulations across the nation that become difficult for pilots to follow.
“This ‘patchwork quilt’ of differing restrictions could severely limit the flexibility of FAA in controlling the airspace and flight patterns, and ensuring safety and an efficient air traffic flow," reads a statement on the FAA’s website. "A navigable airspace free from inconsistent state and local restrictions is essential to the maintenance of a safe and sound air transportation system.”
Visit the FAA's website for more resources on how to fly drones safely.
So, while the church can prohibit drone pilots from taking off, landing and operating a drone while standing on church property, a FAA spokesperson said as a private property owner, it cannot regulate airspace above a property.
"The FAA is responsible for the safety and management of U.S. airspace from the ground up. Property owners are within their rights to prohibit drone takeoffs and landings on their property, but cannot deny use of the airspace surrounding the site,” a FAA spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Even still, church officials encourage drone pilots to first contact a member of the temple staff before flying near a temple site. The church would not comment on this specific incident.
"We’re grateful that most drone pilots and film crews understand and respect this restriction," church spokeswoman Caso said.