Rumors are flying on Twitter and other social media sites that the drone operators’ worst nightmare has begun: arrests are being made, fines are being levied, and the FAA is enforcing laws against unregistered drones.
Actually, the FAA is probably not the entity out looking for lawbreakers at local schoolyards and parks. Instead, the FAA has requested the assistance of local law enforcement to crack down on drone violations, a move which could make drone operation more dependent upon the amount of time local police have on their hands and their general attitude towards drones than on federal regulations.
The FAA has issued drone enforcement guidance to every police department in the country. The 14-page Law Enforcement Guidance for Suspected Unauthorized UAV Operations is accompanied by a shorter FAQ and a handy pocket-sized reference card, just to ensure that every policeman in the country is clear: an unsafe or unregistered drone is illegal, you can demand registration papers at any time, and – there is a whole page in the document dedicated to this – drones are illegal at Disney. In case you were wondering.
The FAA guidance to law enforcement officers suggests that any drone operated in restricted areas, in a way that endangers others, or in a “careless or reckless manner” should be subject to investigation. This last is broad; anyone who has flown a new drone for the first time knows that “reckless” and “beginner” might often be the same thing, despite an operator’s best intentions. The guidance also informs law enforcement that registration numbers must be visible on all drones subject to the registration rules; leaving it open for law enforcement to question operators following all other rules but without a visible number.
Local law enforcement is meant only to document an instance of a drone violation before handing it over to the FAA; the guidelines are clear in suggesting that efforts center around identification of operators, interviews, and evidence collection. In a seemingly half-hearted and decidedly weak attempt to prevent enthusiastic police from going overboard on enforcing an illegal Christmas gift, the guidance discourages actual strip searches and handcuffs:
….other law enforcement processes, such as arrest and detention or non-consensual searches almost always fall outside of the allowable methods to pursue administrative enforcement actions by the FAA unless they are truly a by-product of a state criminal investigation. We do not mean to discourage use of these methods and procedures where there is an independent basis for them under state or local law. We simply wish to emphasize that work products intended for FAA use generally should involve conventional administrative measures such as witness interviews, “stop and talk” sessions with suspected violators, consensual examination of vehicles and equipment, and other methods that do not involve court orders or the potential use of force by law enforcement personnel.
Despite efforts to make the roles and responsibilities clear and to take ultimate control of drone issues, the FAA has been unable to establish total authority. While they are responsible for drone registration, a drone that causes damage or injury may very well be in violation of state or local regulations, and then all bets are off as to the fines and penalties that can be enforced.
While local law enforcement and the public are educated on the details of drone regulations, and the states and the FAA duke it out on who makes the rules, operators may be well-advised to keep their registrations handy and make sure they are flying in locally approved areas.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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