Lawmakers Weigh State, Local Discretion Over Drones

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WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration estimates that there will be 4 million drones operating in the U.S. by 2020, furthering the explosion in popularity for the industry, both recreationally and commercially.


A major debate in the coming months will be regulatory jurisdiction, particularly on the commercial side. While some lawmakers are pushing to allow state and local discretion over the rules for drone operation, the industry is calling for one set of federal rules so that businesses don’t have to keep up with myriad interstate guidelines.

In May, Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced the Drone Federalism Act, which would recognize the Federal Aviation Administration’s authority over national airspace while also recognizing state and local discretion, which could include local discretion for low-altitude speed limits and no-fly zones.

Earlier this month, a group of more than a dozen groups with ties to commercial drone operation wrote a letter to lawmakers in both chambers of Congress, warning that premature legislation could “stifle innovation, restrict economic growth, limit interstate commerce and potentially compromise safety.” The group asked that lawmakers wait until industry recommendations have been completed by the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee before legislation is considered.

DAC findings are expected sometime in 2017, but Congress will soon begin weighing the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill, a piece of legislation that lawmakers consider about every four years in approving federal governance for national airspace. Though the bill primarily addresses traditional aircraft, operations and safety, lawmakers are expected to consider drone regulations, as well.


Congress directed the FAA in 2012 to develop a regulatory framework for integrating all drones — or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) — into the national airspace system. The FAA issued its first regulation for commercial operations in August 2016 with the Small UAS Rule. Before that, commercial operators needed to obtain an exemption from the FAA, which meant a lengthy application process. The rule requires that drone operators take a knowledge test, pass a background check and pay a processing fee to get a remote pilot’s license for commercial purposes.

The rule for small UAS allows drones to fly up to 400 feet in the air, requires that they operate only during the day, and it prohibits aircraft from flying over people. Operators also need special permission if they plan to fly in close proximity to airports, and they cannot fly the drones out of their sight. The FAA is currently considering allowing drones to fly out of sight and to greater heights.

Drone technology has been around for decades, but it has exploded in popularity in the past 10 to 15 years with more civilian and commercial uses for drones emerging. Commercial interests include everything from inspecting power lines to photography and video for farming and real estate purposes. Prior to last year’s rule, the FAA authorized about 5,500 exemptions over a two-year period, which included requests for 40 different business operations, indicating a wide range of commercial uses.

Feinstein and lawmakers behind the Drone Federalism Act noted that between September 2015 and 2016, about 1,500 drone incidents were recorded involving crash landings, issues with airport proximity and emergency aircraft interference. More than a dozen states are now weighing legislation to address drone concerns. While there are an estimated 200,000 manned aircraft in the U.S., the FAA has registered more than 750,000 drone operators.


“As drone use has exploded across America, neighbors, communities, and local governments are all still trying to figure out the best way to balance the property rights of drone users, land owners, and public safety,” Lee said in May. “These disputes need to be decided at the local level, not with top-down proclamations from Washington. This bill allows for those solutions to be discovered while still protecting interstate air travel.”

Cotton said that the legislation will protect private property rights and allow state and local communities to address hyper–specific needs for their local airspace.

The industry group, in its June 15 letter to Congress, requested a multi-stakeholder process, so that consensus can be reached before there are any dramatic changes to the industry.


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