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We have all watched some of the coolest drone footage of skiers bouncing their way down between the trees on powder. Frenchman, Sam Favret, took advantage of the rare quiet on the mountain with his own drone during the 2020 pandemic on the slopes around Chamonix-Mont-Blanc. But how about us, can we use a drone on the ski slopes?
In short, no. Most ski resorts around the world have banned drones for safety reasons, although a few have restricted areas you can use them. Some resorts offer a paid commercial drone service that will film you, which is regulated.
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Where Are Drones Useful Commercially?
Drones have become a routine part of the toolkit for many different types of businesses. They enable easy access in a variety of terrains, which for human observers would be either dangerous or costly:
- Search and Rescue – on land and at sea, over difficult terrain
- Surveillance – drones are quieter than aircraft, fly at lower altitudes, and are cheaper
- Traffic monitoring – tethered drones are deployed as traffic monitoring systems
- Weather monitoring – drones are useful in weather data collection
- Firefighting – fire crews have improved awareness and so can respond better
- Drone photography – enables image and video capture in difficult locations
- Military drones – useful in reconnaissance, surveillance, and targeted attacks
Why Are Drones Restricted in Ski Resorts?
At first glance, flying a drone over skiers in the wide-open spaces on the slopes wouldn’t appear to be problematic. However, several factors can impact the safety and enjoyment of other skiers.
1. The Skill of the Controller
Flying a drone isn’t quite as easy as it appears on the first try. This is never better illustrated than by the number of drones fail videos you can watch on YouTube highlighting the problems, as the out-of-control drone makes a beeline for the swimming pool or straight into the jaws of the waiting pet dog.
Key takeaway: It takes several hours of practice to be able to manipulate a drone effectively and safely, especially if you are aiming to steadily follow a skier in descent.
There is no getting away from it drones are noisy. The power required to lift the drone housing and the weight of the battery is considerable, so often, four or more propellers are required.
The propeller blades are short and spin very fast, which is the source of most of the noise. Drones often create between 70 and 80 dB in volume, which is equivalent to the noise of a spinning washing machine.
Understandably, other skiers objected to this level of noise. Part of their reason for visiting the slopes is to get away from noise pollution and enjoy the peace and quiet of nature.
3. Injury and Damage Caused by Flight
In the hands of a novice controller, it’s not unusual for a drone to go out of control, as it takes considerable practice to maintain steady flight. When the drone is flying away from you, you move the joystick to the left to turn left.
However, when the drone is heading back toward you need to move the joystick in the opposite direction. There are other complications too such as flying in front of the sun and at a distance.
As well as controlling the height and movement of the drone you also need to factor in controlling the camera gimbal, which enables you to follow the action you are videoing.
Drones are complex pieces of technology, which you need to take some time to understand and feel comfortable with.
So, to become confident in putting a drone through all its paces takes plenty of practice it’s not something you intuitively quickly pick up. Even accomplished controllers sometimes make mistakes and a falling drone with fast spinning and sharp blades can cause injury.
Key takeaway: Luckily serious injuries are rare but there are cases of loss of sight in one eye and lacerations, so the threat posed by out-of-control drones must be taken seriously.
Damage to property must be considered too, whether it’s a drone smashing a window or landing heavily on the roof of a parked vehicle resulting in a claim.
To avoid some of the complexity a smaller selfie drone may be a better choice, such as the Zerotech Dobby Mini Selfie Pocket Drone or the DJI Spark Selfie Drone. They may have more limited features in range, but they are underweight for registration but still take quality videos.
4. Loss of Privacy
There are very few people who wouldn’t be offended if a drone suddenly appeared over their property. It is noisy but worst of all it has a camera which could be videoing your every move in the privacy of your home.
Using a drone on the slopes with accommodation in the background may be enough to infringe on the privacy rights of the people staying there.
5. Restricted Airspace and Registration
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US restricts flying in numerous sensitive and commercial areas. In particular, drones cannot be flown close to civilian, military, and commercial airports.
Many ski resorts are at a high altitude, have frequent helicopter operations, and have wildlife protection, which makes them flight-restricted zones. Additionally, drones that weigh from 0.55 to 55lbs need to be registered with the FAA. If you don’t register your drone but fly it, you could be looking at a fine of $27,500.
Aviation authorities around the world take infringements very seriously. In Dec 2018 Gatwick Airport near London was closed for 3 days following the sighting of drones close to the runways. It was one of the biggest-ever disruptions at the airport with 140,000 passengers and 1,000 flights affected.
6. Is your Filming Commercial?
If you are planning on videoing your buddy so he can make a showreel, which he can use to sell his skills then you may need to acquire an FAA remote pilot license. This certificate demonstrates that you understand the regulations, operating requirements, and procedures for safely flying drones.
This is regarded as commercial activity although the FAA definition of ‘commercial’ is quite loose saying: ‘any endeavor that furthers business interests. If in doubt check with the FAA.
Why Do Skiers Like To Get Drone Footage of Themselves?
Since the introduction of affordable drones, skiers and snowboarders alike have been drawn to creating videos of their exploits in the snow. The limitations of GoPro soon became apparent when suddenly you could achieve a full-body shot in descent.
The footage looks dynamic and cool when the ‘follow me’ function locks the drone camera onto the skier and maintains an exact course as he skis down the mountain.
So, Can You Use A Drone on the Ski Slopes?
No, you most probably can’t use your drone at ski resorts. Most ski resorts have banned drones for noise pollution and safety reasons.
Key takeaway: Some resorts do allow the restricted use of drones under certain conditions and inside a restricted area.
If permission is granted you will need to complete several forms, which need to specify if you are flying for commercial or hobby reasons.
What Is The Alternative?
There are a growing number of registered, commercial drone companies, which are affiliated with different ski resorts. These are registered with the FAA, and they need to adhere to strict flying rules.
For example, drones can only be flown during the day within the sight of the controller, or another partner. The controller needs to keep the drone away from other people, light aircraft, and recreational aircraft, such as paramotoring.
Which Ski Resorts Can You Use A Drone in?
US Ski Resorts
The National Ski Area Association (NSAA), has a membership of more than 300 US resorts that account for the majority of skiing activity across the country. The Association has drawn up comprehensive regulations about flying drones in ski resorts, which in most cases has been adopted as an outright ban. The state of Utah is an exception to the regulations so it’s worth contacting individual ski resorts directly to check what their individual policy is.
Canadian Ski Resorts
The use of drones in Canadian ski resorts is regulated by Transport Canada. The regulations are strict however the website does offer useful information about the law, choosing a drone, where to fly, and best practices.
European Union Ski Resorts
Members of the European Union including France, Italy, and Austria have drone safety regulations authorized under the EU. Use of a drone usually involves registration with the local country’s civil aviation authority (Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGAC) in France and The Swiss Federal Office of Civil Aviation (FOCA) in Switzerland). Public liability insurance is also a requirement.
The penalties for using a drone without authorization or illegally can be very harsh, as they fall under civil aviation law. For example, in France, flying over a prohibited area risks a fine of up to €15,000 ($17,240) and 6 months imprisonment.
Commercial Uses of Drones in Ski Areas?
To Aid Ski Patrols
Ski patrols must monitor huge areas of runs in larger ski resorts. Every corner of each trail needs to be evaluated and logged. Normally this is undertaken on foot and usually requires several descents to make sure the entire surface of the run has been thoroughly checked.
In addition to groomed runs, the areas beyond the boundaries also need to be assessed, which can be even more time-consuming as the terrain is more unpredictable.
Many ski resorts now use a Drone Cell team, who using a commercial drone can evaluate the same terrain and highlight areas that need attention. This frees up the ski patrol and enables them to devote more time to repair, rather than lengthy searches.
Now when the patrols evaluate a slope, they can do it both more efficiently and more safely.
In off-piste areas, scouting for avalanche control can be particularly hazardous. However, employing a drone to assess the threat level can be safely conducted without the need for human intervention.
Avalanche Ski Patrol
Increasingly, ski patrols are using drones to locate avalanche victims more quickly.
The drones are fitted with a 457kHz frequency detector, which can easily hone in on the avalanche transceiver held by the victim under the snow.
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Research has shown that avalanche victims can easily suffocate even under small thicknesses of snow. Being buried in 10cm (4in) of snow can be enough to make you immobile, so you can’t clear the snow from around your face. It’s difficult for carbon dioxide to escape, leading to inhaling dangerous concentrations.
Research on survivors demonstrates that 90% of skiers buried by avalanches will survive if dug out within 15 minutes. This percentage drops to 20% if you are buried for 45 minutes, so the speed is of the essence.
To Evaluate Avalanche Control
Man-made explosions using a mixture of pressurized oxygen and propane are increasingly used to start avalanches in areas where they pose a particular threat. The system, called Gazex, uses large aluminum tubes which are secured over the avalanche area.
Oxygen and propane are fed to the tube from remote tanks, which are then ignited remotely. The pressure from the explosion is forced down onto the snow surface and is sufficient to initiate an avalanche. Although it can be remotely fired the tube and the surrounding terrain needs to be regularly assessed.
Normally this would require a ski patroller to climb to the site to assess the situation, however, a drone with a camera is able to make a better bird’s eye assessment of the situation. The only time human intervention is needed now is for physical repairs to the equipment.
The Future of Drone Flying at Ski Resorts
If you really have in mind to use your own drone at a ski resort it’s best to contact the resort beforehand and find out what their policy is. The regulations are likely to be strict and they won’t have any room for flexibility. You may be asked to complete insurance documents and waivers, which will vary from resort to resort.
Some resorts have an outright ban, while others allow the use of drones in designated areas. More and more ski resorts are employing the services of professional drone controllers you can pay to offer drone footage.
These companies aren’t cheap to use but they enable you to obtain skiing footage without any of the administrative downsides such as insurance, breaking FAA regulations, and any local ski resort rules.
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In theory, buying your own drone and using it to video yourself skiing should be very simple. However, drones are complex pieces of technical equipment that you need to thoroughly master before you can use them safely.
Accidents with drones are not uncommon and at best you might physically damage the mechanism and at worst you could seriously injure a bystander.
If you are going to become a dedicated drone owner, who is prepared to take FAA classes and put in the hours of practice to master your drone you are probably much better off using the services of a professional ski resort drone controller. You can then concentrate on your fancy footwork when skiing, while the drone controller supplies you with great footage with none of the hassle.
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This insta360 camera has a drone mode camera angle, which allows you to film yourself skiing and get high-intensity action shots like a close following drone.