Sky’s the limit: Just who controls drones?
Tuesday, June 13, 2017
On May 25, a bipartisan group of senators introduced the Drone Federalism Act of 2017. The bill would, if passed, protect states' rights to control the movement of drones over state airspace at certain heights. This is just one of many recent rounds in the war for control of the skies being waged between governments and drone users.
Whether controlling drone usage over state and local land, giving the federal government authority to destroy drones, or requiring drone users to submit detailed and (possibly) personal information, the rigors of this war have been extensive, leaving many to wonder just who will steer the direction of this new industry.
The Drone Federalism Act of 2017, introduced by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), was created to "preserve state, local and tribal authorities and private property rights with respect to unmanned aircraft systems, and for other purposes."
The bill is designed to allow the federal government avenues to coordinate with state governments and local municipalities over the use of commercial and recreational drones, as long as the use was below an altitude of 200 feet. The bill also shifts regulatory authority from Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to local governments.
The bill was met with trepidation by the industry as it could have serious negative repercussions. For one, giving so much power to each state could force drone users into the uncomfortable position of complying with 50 separate sets of rules and regulations.
For example, in an article with Drone Life, Vic Moss, a professional drone pilot, noted that the bill could lead to what amounts to multistate chaos that could "set back this industry and its growth potential to levels worse than they were at the very beginning."
"I've flown over 55 roof inspections in the last 10 days due to the recent Denver hail storm," Moss said. "If [the Drone Federalism Act of 2017] had been in effect, and Colorado had fallen into the 200-foot trap, myself and about 30 other pilots would have been out tens of thousands of dollars. ... And who knows how many insurance adjusters would have fallen off of roofs or ladders in that time?"
Drone usage has been a hot topic as of late. On May 19, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., decided that the FAA does not have the authority to regulate drone use by hobbyists, which a previous law (2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act) has viewed as "model aircraft[s]." The ruling does not affect the FAA's regulation of how businesses use drones for purposes like inspecting oil rigs and cellphone towers.
Because of the court's decision, hobbyists no longer have to register their drones in a national database, as the FAA had required. This move was met with applause by some groups and derision by others. It has also led to confusion among the many drone hobbyists who have already registered with the FAA.
According to Bill Carey in an article with Aviation International News, "As of May 19, 763,678 hobbyists had registered through the agency's online system, paying a $5 fee to obtain a single identification number for any small drones they operate. The agency must decide what to do with the registration information it has collected and whether to refund the fee to hobbyists. As an incentive, some were refunded when the registry was launched, but had all paid the fee it would amount to some $3.8 million."
As of the May 19 decision, the FAA has said that it was "carefully reviewing the appeals court decision."
State and local regulations
With such turbulence surrounding drone use on the federal level, it was inevitable that states and local municipalities would take it upon themselves to ensure drone safety in their airspace.
In recent years, several states have been creating their own drone regulations. Many had thought the FAA's rules for drone hobbyists hadn't accounted for instances of privacy and trespassing (e.g. a drone filming while flying over private property). Local municipalities and states have also been wary about how the FAA has addressed drone use by businesses.
In March, the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, released a study that found " localities in 31 states have enacted drone rules in recent years. These localities are home to over 30 million people." Unfortunately, the study also found that many of the local laws may run afoul of federal regulations, leading to legal conflict.
Track and destroy drones
The federal government isn't ceding any control over drones, especially those seen as threats to security. The Donald Trump administration has been circulating draft legislation that would give the government authority to track and destroy drones deemed to post a security threat to areas identified for special protection.
Attached to the annual National Defense Authorization Act, the proposed legislation is part of a broader attempt at maintaining computer privacy, surveillance and aircraft protection.
The controversial legislation has been met with skepticism. According to a statement by the Commercial Drone Alliance:
"The safety, security and efficiency benefits of commercial drones are great and vast, but policymaking has lagged behind technology. It is therefore critical that the federal government work diligently to integrate drones into our National Airspace System safely and securely.
"The Commercial Drone Alliance is committed to working with the federal government to do so. As part of this overall effort, we would support an appropriately tailored measure enabling law enforcement to mitigate drone threats. As but one example, we are interested to ensure that such a measure would protect authorized commercial drone flights. We are studying the draft legislation now and look forward to working with lawmakers to ensure that we are able to open the skies to commercial drones in a timely, safe and secure way."
An actual piece of legislation that has been submitted titled the Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act of 2017 has met even more opposition.
The bill, presented by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) on March 15, is in response to fears that drone technology could "enable invasive and pervasive surveillance," according to the Act's text. The bill would require detailed data collection for drone usage, as well as minimization statements and the creation of a "publicly searchable database identifying commercial operators and including those statements."
In response to this law, the Commercial Drone Alliance was much more forceful: "The Drone Aircraft Privacy and Transparency Act would create an additional layer of regulation that departs significantly from our existing technology-neutral standards. ... Instead, we should apply our existing laws to protect the public, which courts have done for similar advances in photography-related technologies for decades."
As it stands now, the war wages on. Just who will hold the keys to the kingdom in the sky remains to be decided. One thing is certain: The debate is more contentious now than ever. Hopefully soon, things will finally be settled between state and federal governments about exactly who has domain over the budding drone industry.
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