Ski Resorts Clamp Down on Filming Drones

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A Swiss Post and Swiss WorldCargo Matternet drone is flown during a presentation at Bellechasse airfield in Switzerland. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

The days of gratuitous drone-filmed videos of skiers and snowboarders may be coming to a swift end.

Fearing that inexperienced drone pilots will hurt fellow skiers and damage property, the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has outlined bans on hobbyist and commercial drones at ski areas in the U.S.

Recreational drones have skyrocketed in popularity over the last few years. The Federal Aviation Administration expects 1 million drones to be sold during the holidays, but so far there are no concrete regulations set up.

The FAA proposed drone regulations this February, but it has missed its October 1 deadline to submit a final draft. The FAA says it expects to roll out its final rules by late next spring.

Ski areas, expecting FAA regulations to be implemented around the 2017–2018 ski season, decided to take action on their own.

Drones have been used at ski resorts to film spectacular videos. While hobbyist drones are banned by NSAA's proposed rules, the ski resorts still see a use for drones when it comes to monitoring avalanches or for search and rescue operations.

Shooting videos on drones without prior authorization from the resorts will be banned and be subject to confiscation of the drones, suspension of skiing privileges and even regulatory fines. The punishments will be vary between individual resorts.

Despite its explicit bans on unauthorized drones, the consortium of ski areas is not hammering down on all drones. The Colorado-based organization, which represents over 300 resorts across the country, sent a 15-page memo to the FAA in April, recommending that the agency loosen some regulations for certain situations, like a search and rescue operation, avalanche rescues and after-dark searches.

The memo also notes the inherent advantages ski resorts provide—from their generally remote locations away from airports and highways and "unrivaled safety culture"—as reasons for having regulatory exemptions.

"Ski areas are the ideal incubator for slowly incorporating drone and sUAS (small unmanned aircraft systems) operations into commercial operations," reads the memo. "Ski areas serve as a unique and excellent proving ground for a myriad of commercial uses of drones in a particularly safe and controlled environment."

Not every ski resort is clamping down on recreational drones, however. Boyne Resorts, a chain with 10 resorts spanning from Washington state to Maine, are planning "drone zones," designated territories where flying drones atop skiers will be permitted after registration.

"Once the FAA adopts their new rules we will adjust accordingly but we feel this is a workable solution to be considered by the industry in the interim," says Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher.

As ski resorts clamp down unregulated drones flying on its slopes, it has been a boon for commercial drone pilots who fly with proper FAA authorization known as Section 333 exemption. Despite more than an estimated half a million drones sold last year, the FAA has just approved its thousandth exemption in August.

One of the few who got the exemption is Jason Soll, CEO of Cape Productions. His Bay Area–based drone video company films with drones and edits commercial videos for clients, and some of the videos have been shot at ski resorts.

Working with ski resorts can get messy, Soll says, because negotiations require resorts' lawyers, safety managers and forest management representatives. To ensure safety as a top priority, Cape carries a $5 million insurance policy for each resort.

Soll welcomed the incoming drone regulations as necessary for public safety, but also to further development in drone technology.

"The biggest threat to the drone industry is not regulations inhibiting innovations," says Soll. "It's inebriated people who are freely flying drones into the White House lawn."