Mackinac Island restricts drone use

Holly Fournier, and Candice Williams

Mackinac Island is restricting drone use over fears the unmanned aircraft may startle the island’s horses and interfere with its signature historic charm.

A law is expected to go into effect July 26 that requires visitors and residents on the island to seek permission from officials before flying drones. City council approved the ordinance July 6.

“The use of ... drones is a relatively modern activity and is increasing within the City of Mackinac Island,” officials said in the ordinance’s language.

Officials cited potential dangers caused by untrained drone fliers, including object malfunctions. The island’s horses can become startled by drones operating too closely to them or by broken parts falling from the sky, officials said.

“(The island) has a tourist-based economy that is heavily reliant on its historic character, its prohibition of motor vehicles and its use of horse-drawn vehicles,” officials said. “The use of drones also negatively impacts the city’s effort to maintain its historic character and ambiance.”

The ordinance mirrors and builds upon a similar law previously passed to restrict drone flights to the island’s state park land, according to City Clerk Michelle Wightman. With the new ordinance, the entire island will be subject to the drone regulations.

Wightman stressed that the ordinance did not entirely prohibit drones from the island.

“They weren’t banned, they were just restricted,” she said.

Potential drone operators will need to request a permit from city council before flying their devices, according to the ordinance.

“It just depends on where it’s going to be used,” Wightman said. “It’s a safety issue. They just want to make sure no accidents occur from them being used in incorrect locations because you never know what’s going to happen.”

Zach Wolfe of the West Bloomfield Township-based aerial photography company Drone Brothers said that while he appreciates the City Council’s position on the issue, he notes that air space in the U.S. is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“If we start allowing individual cities or towns to control ‘their’ airspace, there will be thousands of different rules and regulations for private and drone pilots alike,” Wolfe said in a written response.

Harry Arnold, owner of Detroit Drone, said the law is fair and he’d respect it.

“Mackinac, because of the history, they have good reason,” he said. “They are still leaving the door open to seek permission ...”

Arnold, a commercial drone flier, said he believes the law targets people who recently purchased a drone and want to try it out for fun. It takes skill to operate a drone, he said.

“It’s easy to crash into a horse or a 200-year-old hotel,” he said. “When you just get one you’re not aware of what’s safe. You’re doing stuff you think might be good. Cool isn’t always safe and it doesn’t always end well.”

The City Council will consider factors, including the applicant’s information, where and when the pilot intends to fly, the type of drone used and the purpose for the flight. Officials will weigh the application against the city’s desire to protect the island’s horses and its historic character, among other priorities.

Once issued, a permit may be revoked at any time if a drone is found being used inappropriately, officials said. Violators could be subject to a fine.

(313) 223-4616

Twitter: @HollyPFournier