“The states are creating drone laws which are causing a patchwork of problems,” says drone attorney and flight instructor Jonathan Rupprecht. “Some states like Maryland and Virginia have wisely preempted local laws which make it easier to be compliant because you have to only look at the state level. However, most of the states do not have similar provisions in their state drone laws. Senator Feinstein’s bill would throw fuel on the fire of this already troubling problem and cause burdens to drone businesses.”
“This is not a pro-business bill or a bill friendly to the freedoms safe model aircraft flyers currently have,” says Rupprecht. “Recreational as well as commercial flyers should be against it.”
The FAA’s threatened “Patchwork Quilt” of commercial drone laws has come to pass. Commercial drone operators who fly in multiple regions across the country struggle to figure out what the laws are – and how to comply. Many of the laws, designed to deal with one particular perceived issue, have unintended consequences in commercial drone applications. Here are some resources to help pilots navigate the complex landscape of local drone laws.
Where to Find Them
The first problem that drone operators face is where to find drone laws. There are a number of resources available to help operators keep track of state drone laws. Jonathan Rupprecht, mentioned above, keeps a database of state laws which operators can find here. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCLS) also keeps a list of state drone laws. The attorneys at Drone Law Today offer a state drone law reference book. All of these resources are well-vetted and well-researched; but the state law landscape is changing quickly, so none can guarantee to be up-to-the-minute.
Local laws present an even more challenging problem. Regulations can be unclear and hard to find. In a stunningly bad example, the town of Newton, MA passed a city ordinance requiring registration and permitting of all drones within the city limits last winter. (The ordinance is being challenged in court by a local pilot.) Not only is the ordinance extremely limiting for commercial and recreational operators alike, it is nearly impossible to find. The City Ordinances page brings up over 75 individual .pdfs for perusal – and states that it is not guaranteed to be up-to-date. None of the .pdfs refer to drones in the title. Sections on permits or special permits do not cover the issue. Drones or, as the city refers to them, “pilotless aircraft” – another clear indication that the authors of the ordinance were unfamiliar with the industry – are covered under Parks and Recreation, and only a Google search which listed articles about the controversy finally revealed a link to the actual rule and application. (Which, despite being filed under “Parks and Recreation” would also cover commercial drone use.)
The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College has published a report called “Drones at Home” which lists local drone ordinances as of March 2017. But, specifies the report:
This database only reflects the results of an exhaustive search of published discoverable documentation, and should not be taken as a complete tally of every municipality and park authority in the country with rules for drones. Rather, it is intended to serve as a comprehensive guide to a broad sample of known laws currently in effect, and may be used to indicate the scope and spread of the trend of local drone law adoption.
Even calling the local law enforcement may not be helpful – local police are not always informed about drone regulation. Instead, your best bet is to call the local city hall and ask there about local ordinances- backed up by as much online research as you can find to identify a potential problem.
Most local drone laws deal with flight over personal property or in public parks and spaces, so a job on a contained site owned by the customer is less likely to pose a problem. Flights in close proximity to homes or that require takeoff or landing in a public space could be restricted – make sure you have clarity about permissions with the locality, parks and recreation department, and your client.
Dealing with a Challenge
Once an operator has identified a local drone ordinance, they may still be challenged by local law enforcement. It’s important to print out any state or local laws and carry them to a job site – as well as having your Part 107 authorization and any other documentation concerning waivers and authorizations that you may require. Meet any approach with what patience you can muster, and be prepared to educate anyone approaching you about what you are doing and what the law specifies.
While undeniably difficult, at this point in time commercial operators are required to be the representatives of an industry. The FAA is responsible for enforcement of federal regulations but local law enforcement is responsible for enforcing local ordinances, despite having received very little training or information about aviation law.
Participating in the Process
As the number of state and local drone laws continues to grow, it is more critical than ever that commercial operators participate in the process. Steve Cohen of the Drone User Group says that operators have to take an active role in working with lawmakers. “We invite operators to come together and speak in one voice so that we can preserve and further our rights to fly recreationally and commercially without undue and prohibitive legislation impinging upon our rights,” says Cohen.
“It is up to us, as a community, to work proactively to promote positive drone use and to further lobby our congressional representatives.”
“We urge you to get involved with the DUG and to contribute your energy to our community of safe, responsible, and proud drone users,” says Cohen. The DUG will soon be announcing a webcast which will act as “a town hall meeting” for the drone community.
The politics of drone law are up in the air. The recent successful challenge of the FAA’s drone registration program, the lack of a finding in the Kentucky Droneslayer case, which might have addressed the issue of private airspace, and the proposal of the Drone Federalism Act have left commercial operators without clarity. As the industry evolves, so will the regulatory framework – but for jobs next week, operators will need to do their own research.