A law to kill drones

The government is at it again. On May 26, 2017 a draft of a bill for the US Senate was passed around drone groups. The bill, called the “Drone Federalism Act of 2017”, was authored by Senator Feinstein of California. Before we get into the problems with this for drone operators (both hobbyist and commercial), here is a quick summary: 

  1. State and local municipalities have control of airspace up to 200' above ground level and drone flights closer than 200' to any structure
  2. No flight could take place within 200' above ground level of private property or within 200’ of private structures without the owner's permission
  3. FAA is ordered to provided help to 10 local/state governments to regulate drone use, and inclusion for them in the unmanned air traffic systems testing programs.
  4. No effect on the FAA and manned aviation
  5. There is no noted exemption in this bill for commercial operators.

If you just read these at face value or as someone with minimal interest in drones, you would just shrug your shoulders and move on. However, I would urge you to keep reading as some insight into the mind of a drone business owner and operator will probably dazzle and amaze you. Ok...it won’t do that, but it will hopefully explain why this bill is bad for the drone industry and would cripple a lot of commercial operations.  You probably notice cool aerial shots in movies and shows without thinking about how they get those shots, but many of those are done with drones and will be missing if this law is passed.

Obviously, the biggest issue here is state/county/municipal being allowed to have regulation over the airspace. Imagine if every city and township in your area had varying laws for driving your car. You would have to remember the different laws for each and make sure you didn’t confuse them. The same applies to drones. There are many times, whether in a city or a rural area, that flights can cross over from one town into another. Now what if these towns had differing laws? Are we supposed to adapt mid-flight to accommodate that? 

Then, think about the vastly different laws that each city could propose. No flights from public property, permits, fees, notifications, etc. - the list could go on forever. If I’m running flights in 4 different cities in a day I am supposed to keep all that straight?? A plumber or electrician might have some code differences between various cities, but at least the majority of what they do is all the same thing and doesn’t really change. This section of the proposed law alone has the potential to crush the drone industry. The US is already years behind countries in the EU when it comes to drones - why do we need to make it even worse? The FAA needs to be left in control of the all of the airspace so there is just 1 set of laws and we all follow them. Cities can currently regulate land use, where drones can/cannot takeoff and operate from, which is confusing enough. There are already tons of poorly written drone laws in lots of local cities. The last things we need is to have more cities attempting to regulating the airspace when they can barely handle regulating the land.

Here is a real world application of how this would affect commercial drones. MKE Drones often has operations that take place in areas that are controlled airspace, and we are granted permission by the FAA to fly at a maximum of 150-200’ above the ground for many of these. This law would mean that all of our operations would be taking place in the airspace that a city is regulating. There is no way to go up to 201’ and keep out of their control for the majority of the flight. And even if we in an area where we were able to go to that 201’+ it would still require takeoff/landing going through that city regulated airspace. So again you'd potentially be flying by 2 sets of rules just to get in the air! How does that even work?

Added to that, an operator would need permission for EVERY property they fly over at 200’ or less. Lets use an example from one of our operations on this one. MKE Drones flies a particular construction site every 2 weeks, and it happens to be in a residential area. These flights also take place in Class D airspace where we are restricted to no higher than 200’ above ground level. We gather still images and an orbit of the site for the owner and general contractor to track the progress of the site over time. Take a look at the photo below that shows our flight path we fly in order to get a simple orbit of the site. I can count 15 properties we fly over at 180’ to get the orbit we need. To be very clear - under this proposed law that means we need 15 permissions! So what happens if someone isn’t home, or if someone says no? Are we supposed to just skip that part? To date only 1 property owner has even been aware of this operation happening every few weeks, and was happy after just a simple discussion. We are performing a legal operation and service that disturbs no one, and doesn’t invade anyone's privacy. If the proposed law were passed, we would likely not be able to perform some or any of our services at this site. But, since the draft excludes all manned flight operations, a plane could still fly at 500’ and use a zoom lens to photograph the construction site or any of these peoples homes, yards, or property with no legal issues whatsoever. But a drone - it MUST be spying. No, sorry. We are here to get the footage we need and move onto the next job, not to see what the neighbors are up today. 

One of the other major issues with this bill - how could any of this even be enforced? People who are ignorant and people who are trying to do something illegal with their drone are still going to do things like fly into stadiums during an MLB game regardless of the laws. Essentially, all this does is burden down people who want to fly legally, and hurt the drone industry by adding additional burdens and costs to businesses and hobbyists that want to use drones. If the police come up to you to question if you are “following the city airspace laws” are you supposed to provide a full spreadsheet showing all your GPS coordinates, heights, and operations to prove to them you didn’t break their law? All of this is completely impossible to practically enforce. 

When you take into account that fact that this bill directly states that there will be no effect on manned aviation, you start to wonder about what the authors were after (most notably Senator Feinstein from California). Over the last year her state's municipalities have been notorious among drone operators for passing laws that show they are struggling to understand that a city doesn't control the airspace - the FAA does. They can regulate the land, but instead of doing that they try to regulate what can or can’t be done in the air, which is outside of their control due to Federal Preemption. It genuinely seems like this bill was crafted to offer more power to state and local governments without one single discussion with drone enthusiasts and commercial operators to see what the effects could be on their enjoyment and their businesses. 

Then, consider that most illegal or nuisance drone operations can be handled by the local police under current laws using disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct citations, and it makes this law seem unnecessary. It actually feels more like something to make politicians feel like they are actually doing something.

Everyone who flies drones, has an interest in drones, or even enjoys watching aerial footage in movies, TV shows, or social media should contact their Senators and tell them we want this bill killed before it even gets to committee.

Post written by Jon Elliott, Owner MKE Drones, LLC