Is someone getting a drone for Christmas? Raleigh will help you find a place to fly it.

Drone footage of Raleigh’s winter wonderland snowfall

Aerial views of Raleigh after winter weather covered the Triangle with inches of snow Thursday, Jan. 2018.
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Aerial views of Raleigh after winter weather covered the Triangle with inches of snow Thursday, Jan. 2018.

If you or someone you know gets a drone for Christmas, or already has one, the City of Raleigh wants to help you find somewhere to fly it.

The City Council this month approved a policy that sets where and when people can fly drones in the city’s parks. The city parks department has followed up by creating a website that spells out the rules and provides a map showing where it’s OK to take off and land.

“We felt the timing was good with the holidays,” said Scott Payne, an assistant director of the city’s parks department. “Because this will be a popular gift, and we want to say ‘Here’s a place you can fly.’ ”

Like electric scooters, recreational drones emerged with little warning and quickly became popular, while local governments struggled to figure out how to regulate their use in parks and other public spaces. At the direction of the City Council, the Raleigh parks department and its advisory board began crafting a policy more than two years and consulted drone enthusiasts and the Federal Aviation Administration, among others.

The final “unmanned aerial systems” policy allows people to fly drones, remote-controlled airplanes and model rockets weighing less than .88 pounds in all city parks and recreation areas, except for nature preserves, wetland centers, cemeteries and over lakes. UAS larger than .88 pounds would be limited to large open spaces in six parks: Baileywick, Eastgate, Spring Forest, Marsh Creek, Dorothea Dix and Southgate.

Large recreational drones, weighing more than 15 pounds and capable of speeds of 70 mph, must get special permission from the city before taking off or landing in any of those six parks.

The city’s policy will end impromptu drone racing in city parks. The new policy requires racers to get a permit and reserve a field for races and to set up flags or other objects to race around. Trees can no longer be used as obstacles for drone racing, and racing drones must be smaller than .88 pounds.

Roger Bess, a drone racer who worked with the parks advisory board on the policy, said the restrictions on drone racing apply to organized events where people compete for prizes.

“We can still put up obstacles (gates, without staking), fly together and do laps,” Bess wrote in an email. “But there is no actual competition and thus it’s not considered drone racing.”

Bess said he was “very happy” with the openness of the advisory board and its willingness to listen to drone users.

The city had considered even more restrictions on where and how high drones could fly, but it backed off when drone enthusiasts noted that the FAA regulates drones in flight. The city and its advisory board then set their sights on where on city property drones could take off and land.

Early on, the city planned to restrict drones to the large open areas in the six parks. But drone enthusiasts urged the parks department to allow the use of small drones, the kinds often flown by children and beginners, in virtually all public parks, said Jay Joiner, a drone pilot who spoke for the remote-controlled community at board meetings.

“Considering the unbelievable ramp up of this technology, Park’s decision to make this a policy, which can be updated as needed, was very wise,” Joiner wrote in an email, and added that the improving technology will make drones more appealing to a growing number of people. “I expect more and more to be in the air and more and more people to become used to seeing them.”

For details about flying drones in city parks, go to https://www.raleighnc.gov/parks/content/ParksRec/Articles/ParksUACGuidelines.html.

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 19 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.