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Condo residents fret about drones off their balcony


Over the past six months, 10 Sea Quay residents have filed complaints with the oceanfront condominium's property manager, saying they've seen drones flying too close to the building – sometimes just outside their windows.

"Our owners said they've seen them outside their sliding-glass doors, which is a real problem this time of year because, when you live on the ocean, you sometimes leave the door open," said Sea Quay property manager Charity Gruwell. "Some of them say it's potentially dangerous. Others say they feel it's an invasion of their privacy."

But is it illegal?

The Vero Beach Police Department is aware of the problem, spokeswoman Officer Anna Carden said, but only because it monitors the neighborhood social-media site. She said no formal complaints have been filed.

"There were posts about drones flying over the beach and coming a little too close to the property there," Carden said. "We've done some research on the laws, but it's new territory and it's really outside our domain."

Drones, once they're airborne, fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates their use under its Unmanned Aircraft Systems rules and guidelines.

Among the FAA's safety guidelines are restrictions prohibiting flying drones at altitudes above 400 feet; within five miles of an airport without prior approval from air traffic control; beyond the operator's line of sight; over groups of people and stadiums; near emergency response efforts; and when the operator is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Also, the FAA strictly prohibits flying drones at night, though waivers can be granted with severe restrictions on rare occasions.

Federal law allows the FAA to fine individual operators up to $15,000 for each offense and confiscate their drones. In one case, a Chicago-based photography company paid $200,000 in fines for violating the airspace over New York City 65 times from 2012 to 2014.

Vero Beach Airport Manager Eric Menger said his office has gotten calls from commercial operators seeking approval to fly drones within the FAA's five-mile radius, but he has not received complaints about intrusive drones.

The Sheriff's Office has.

"We've gotten a couple of complaints of drones flying over residential areas – not looking in people's windows, but over people's property – but we just forwarded them to the FAA," Sheriff's spokesman Maj. Eric Flowers said.

"Around here, most of the drones we see are used commercially," he continued. "Realtors use them to get photos of properties for sale. Developers use them to get aerial shots of land they're planning to build on. You also have professional photographers using them.

"There are some amateur hobbyists flying them just for fun," he added. "Thing is, most of the people who fly them in our county don't have the right certification or get the proper permission. There might be one or two who do. But we cannot arrest on FAA rules, so we just report violations to them."

FAA guidelines, however, don't specifically prohibit drones from flying too close to condos – such as Sea Quay and The Village Spires, where one resident saw one hovering just off her 11th-floor balcony last fall – as long as none of the other restrictions are violated.

But Florida law might . . . if the drone is equipped with a camera.

According to the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, which was amended and strengthened in 2015 after Gov. Rick Scott initially signed it into law in 2013, it's illegal in Florida to use an unmanned aircraft to take photos or record videos of people on private property without their permission.

Designed to restrict police from using drones to gather evidence, the statute requires law enforcement agencies to acquire search warrants before using unmanned aircraft systems for surveillance, except when there's a "high risk of a terrorist attack" or a reasonable suspicion that swift action is necessary to prevent imminent danger to life or serious damage to property.

"A person is presumed to have a reasonable expectation of privacy on his or her privately owned real property if he or she is not observable by persons located at ground level in a place where they have a legal right to be," the statute reads, "regardless of whether he or she is observable from the air with the use of a drone."

But does the statute also apply to private citizens?

Apparently, yes.

"I went to an FAA seminar last year and an FAA lawyer was asked exactly that question," said Bruce Cady, an FAA-licensed pilot and Vero Beach-based professional drone operator who owns Brisance Content Capture, which specializes in drone photography and videography.

Based on the lawyer’s answer, Cady said he believes the operators who were flying the drones at Sea Quay – if they were taking photos or recording videos without the residents' or property manager's permission – were violating Florida law.

However, there is no criminal penalty for such an offense, which has caused some confusion over law enforcement's role in policing these incidents. Reports can be filed, but arrests are unlikely.

"This is all so new that law enforcement agencies really don't know what to do," Cady said. "I've had numerous conversations with local police officers and sheriff's deputies when I've been out working, and I've used that interaction to show them what I'm doing and how to operate the drone.

"My suggestion to the officers is: When you see someone operating a drone, engage with them and ask what they're doing," he added. "If they're doing something they shouldn't be doing, they'll probably stop and go away.

"There's not a lot law enforcement can do because, unless someone is using the drone for something criminal, it's more of a privacy and civil liberties issue, anyway."

The Florida statute does allow injured parties to sue drone operators if the plaintiffs can prove they've been harmed in some way. It also authorizes successful plaintiffs to collect, in addition to any damages awarded, their attorneys' fees from defendants – similar to the provisions governing federal Americans with Disabilities Act cases.

The law does not allow people to shoot or otherwise knock down drones flying over their properties.

"There have been cases in other parts of the state, where somebody shot down a drone, but they were arrested for discharging a firearm and fined for destruction of property," Cady said. "And they should've been: There really no need for that, and it's dangerous.

"The operator of a drone needs to maintain a line of sight, so if someone were flying a drone over my backyard, the first thing I'd do is go out to the street and have a conversation with him."

Cady said he's not surprised to hear of the Sea Quay residents' complaints, because the condominium's private pier – the only such structure that extends into the ocean in the county – makes it a popular area for drone photography.

He estimated that half of the drones seen along the county's beaches are flown on the stretch between Sea Quay and the Village Spires, even though that area is within five miles of the airport.

He also empathized with Sea Quay residents concerned about drones flying too close to their building.

"It's not just an invasion of privacy or being intrusive," Cady said. "It's not safe, especially along the beach and at that altitude. Drones are relatively light in weight and it's often breezy there this time of year, so there's always the possibility the drone could get caught in some turbulence or a gust of wind.

"That could be dangerous,” if, say, a drone was blown in an open sliding door.

Gruwell said Sea Quay residents plan to discuss the drone problem at their next condo association meeting, but, beyond filing complaints with the police and FAA, she's not sure what can be done.

Nor does Cady, who said it's silly to expect drone operators who don't bother to get FAA approval to know the rules.

"That's the conundrum," Cady said. "Drone manufacturers include the rules when you buy one, but how many people – especially minors – bother to read them?"