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Oct. 16, 2018
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Corps permits drone flight over Lake Lanier

By Jane Harrison
 
Eyes in the sky over Lake Lanier have transmitted images of awesome waterfront mansions, cool tricks on wake boards, and family outings on private boats. With 59 square miles of water at full pool, the lake offers a gorgeous blue backdrop for photographs on the fly.
 
Until last month getting those shots via drone was illegal. But it seems few people knew it. Few were cited and fined during the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ban of drone flight over Corps property. But most didn’t get caught. In early July the Corps initiated a new permitting process for flying drones at Lanier that requires a 30-day advance request to put a drone in the air over Corps property. The policy prohibits random fly-overs of hobbyists with spur-of-the-moment whims to document their lake exploits or spy on boaters.
 
Chris Arthur, Corps Chief Ranger for Lake Lanier, said the policy requiring a written request and certificate was instigated after the Corps commander issued guidance on drone use over Corps property. While they awaited official guidance, Lanier Corps officials had prohibited drone flight. “We have written some warnings and citations when drones were flown in an area they’re not supposed to be,” Arthur said, such as near the dam and powerhouse. He also mentioned that officers responded to numerous calls about drones harassing people at the former Sunset Cove, now Margaritaville.
 
Permit requests must be presented in writing to the Corps office and include the date and location of the intended flight, plus documentation of the operator’s licensing and training. The permit, which the applicant will receive in the mail, is only good for the event named in the application and will not transfer to other outings.
 
Arthur said in late July he had not gotten any requests. He expects water sport organizers, real estate companies, dock builders, and lake homeowners will apply for permits.
 
Wake surf enthusiast Jenny Serwitz didn’t realize the mid-summer videography captured by drones hovering over wave tricksters was produced by prohibited means. “I didn’t know that,” she replied when a reported asked her about a permit. “We will go ahead and get a permit.”
 
Serwitz, husband Perry and their two children ride deep in board culture through their Cumming watersports store and former involvement in a Georgia wake boarding series. Recent video on their Pull Watersports Facebook site shows wake surfers in the soup and boaters waiting their turn in a clip entitled “Thursday Night Surf From Above.” The aerial perspective shows moves, twists and crests not visible by boat.
 
Another sport that begs for a new visual perspective launches from the Lake Lanier Olympic Venue. Fans of flatwater paddling and rowing only get to see their racers when they’ve nearly finished their run. With drone videography beamed to big screen, they can watch the action from start to finish.
 
Spectators at next month’s ICF Dragon Boat World Championship will likely get a view from above of 10 or 20 sets of paddles steadying their hulls at the starting line 2,000 meters away and watch as they dip in unison toward the finish tower. LLOP Assistant Manager James Watson said once the organizers identify a pilot, they will apply for a permit to fly over the event.
 
He noted benefits of shots by air, rather than by boat. “Being as the majority of our events take place on the water, it is hard to provide spectators with a good viewing experience. The way our course is designed, spectators only get to see the finish of a race and always miss the start. Drone video opens up the entire race course to spectators, coaches and athletes. 
 
“In the past in order to get on-water video, someone had to operate a camera boat. This causes additional wake and often times the footage is not the best. Drones allow the LLOP (spectators) to follow races without additional boats and provide great video quality.”
 
American Collegiate Rowing Association President Kurt Butler also praised drone coverage for its potential to enhance spectators’ experience without encroaching on participants. “It would … give great over-head shots as well as side shots without making a wake” he said. He said ACRA has looked into getting a drone permit to fly over its national championship at LLOP in the past, but there was come confusion about who, if anyone, could get a permit.
 
Butler mentioned that drone video at other rowing events, particularly the Royal Henley Regatta in London in England gave spectators “great shots” impossible from land or water. Expect to see drones over ACRA on Lanier next year.
 
Cumming entrepreneur Stan Jessen probably isn’t the only non-sport business owner who uses unmanned aircraft to take pictures. The former U.S. Navy pilot said he “had no idea” that the Corps formerly did not permit drone flight over Lanier, where he frequently gets called upon to photograph lake property for sale.
 
He said the new permitting process will change the way he does business at North Georgia Drones. “I’m a stickler about making sure everything I do is legal … I will definitely go to the Corps (website)” to learn about the permit, he said. However, he said, a lot of “people don’t want to wait 30 days … they want it now.”
 
It’s that kind of drone pilot whose random flights zeroing in on everyday boaters and private lakeside property that might run afoul of the Corps. Serwitz said drones hovering over her family’s boat give her the creeps. “It’s a weird feeling” and an invasion of privacy, she said.
 
Lake Lanier Corps Chief Arthur indicated the permit which limits drone flight to specific events for which pilots have applied should thwart random fly-overs that threaten privacy.

Posted online 7/27/18
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