Communities across the country are grappling with a surge in drone use that’s raising safety and privacy concerns—and thorny legal questions—about a slice of sky officials have largely disregarded.
State and local police say complaints are soaring about drones flying above homes, crowds and crime scenes. At least 17 states, meanwhile, have passed laws to restrict how law enforcement and private citizens use the devices—preemptive policies that many drone users say are heavy-handed. And despite federal regulators’ stance that they alone regulate U.S. skies, some cities and towns are banning the devices, from St. Bonifacius, Minn. (pop. 2,283), to Austin, Texas, which effectively barred them at the South by Southwest technology-and-music festival in March.
“It’s a game changer,” said Richard Beary, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who complains that local law enforcement lacks the means or legal authority to do much about the emerging drone challenge. “We’ve never been responsible for airspace before. We understand the ground game; now all of a sudden you want state and local to regulate airspace?”
Indeed, few have paid much attention to the airspace within a few hundred feet above the ground. Since 1930, planes have been largely restricted from flying below 500 feet, leaving lower altitudes mostly to birds, kites, model planes and, in some cases, helicopters.
In recent years, technology advances have made remote-controlled aircraft cheaper, more powerful and easier to fly, and now tens of thousands of the devices are cluttering that band of sky. Use is expected to soar further next year, when proposed federal rules for commercial drone flights are likely to be completed.
Those commercial rules don’t address private use by individuals, where some of the most vexing issues lie, such as how to prevent people from using drones to spy into neighbors’ windows, or flying them into manned aircraft. Those issues are falling into a regulatory no-man’s land.
The Federal Aviation Administration restricts private drones from flying near airports and manned aircraft, but says a 2012 federal law limits it from regulating most other aspects of their use. The agency also says that state and local authorities can’t regulate drone flights because it is the sole regulator of the airspace.
Local officials are acting anyway. In addition to the 17 states that have passed drone laws, at least 29 others are considering new legislation. The result is a patchwork: Texas, North Carolina and Idaho restrict drone users from filming some bystanders without permission, while Illinois bans drones from interfering with hunters.
Some cities and towns are barring drones outright, particularly ahead of big events. Augusta-Richmond County in Georgia banned the devices during the Masters golf tournament there last month. New York City Council members are considering a ban on virtually any drone flight over the city. And the manager of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge has asked lawmakers to restrict private drones after one crashed on the bridge.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com