Fayette County

Lexington council won't regulate drones until federal, state rules are clarified

A drone hit a cell tower before landing on top of the Lexington Financial Center on Aug. 22. A hobbyist was piloting the unmanned aircraft.
A drone hit a cell tower before landing on top of the Lexington Financial Center on Aug. 22. A hobbyist was piloting the unmanned aircraft. Security Footage

Lexington officials will wait to see what changes the federal and state government might make to regulations on the use of drones before they pursue local ordinances.

Council member Richard Moloney asked during Tuesday's Planning and Public Safety Committee meeting that the city's law department look more closely at the issue of regulating drones.

"I think we will wait to see if the FAA issues regulations," Moloney said after the meeting. "I also want law to do more research on who can use them. My biggest concerns are these things falling into the wrong hands."

However, the committee later voted to remove the issue from committee until it needs to be addressed again. Moloney said he would like to bring it back early next year.

Communities across the country are struggling to determine how to manage unmanned aircraft systems, or drones. They are growing in popularity as prices have dropped.

During the past three months, drones have hit two of Lexington's most-recognized landmarks. In August, a drone crashed on top of the Lexington Financial Center downtown. In September, a drone crashed inside the University of Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium. The drone operator — a UK law student — was charged with second-degree wanton endangerment, a misdemeanor.

Lexington police Cmdr. Brian Maynard told the council that Federal Aviation Administration regulations would be updated soon. Currently, anyone flying a drone — a commercial operator or a hobbyist — within a 5-mile radius of Blue Grass Airport must get permission from the airport before flying.

Additionally, UK and other hospitals have helipads where air ambulances land. Drone operators are encouraged not to fly in air space around the helipads, Maynard said.

Lexington police Chief Mark Barnard advised the council to wait until federal and state authorities address the issue before enacting a local ordinance. At least one bill has been pre-filed in the state General Assembly that would outline how law enforcement may use drones. Other bills might be filed during the legislative session, which begins in January.

"It's such a new issue to create some legislation without fully understanding it. I think we're putting the cart before the horse," Barnard said.

If a drone hurts someone, the police can charge the operator with wanton endangerment, he said. "We have laws in place now to address these issues."

Council member Russ Hensley, a pilot, said he had spoken with officials at one drone association before Tuesday's meeting. Because the FAA regulates drone use, any local ordinance might not be enforceable, he said.

"Their opinion is that anything that we would pass with airspace would be non-enforceable in court," Hens ley said. "I think the main thing that we can do as a city is a public education campaign."

Barnard and Maynard said the police department has not purchased a drone because it is waiting on state and federal rules.

Barnard said drones could be a helpful law enforcement tool, such as helping police monitor traffic incidents.