Ambiguity Remains Between State and Federal Drone Laws

State's have begun passing laws in huge numbers regulating drones, even as the FAA asserts its authority.
Published: March 19, 2016

The Federal Aviation Administration’s contention that it controls the airspace and wants to set a single national policy for drones is conflicting with numerous laws at the state and local level that aim to regulate the use of remote-controlled aircraft.

Hundreds of proposed bills around the nation also aim to regulate the fast-growing world of drones.

The FAA’s authority over airspace is unquestioned for safety issues such as keeping drones lower than 400 feet or away from airports, Troy Rule, an associate professor of law at Arizona State University, told USA Today. Whether that authority extends to issues like privacy is a matter of debate, he said.

“It depends who you ask and it’s not very clear at all,” Rule said. “It would need to be litigated.”

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Existing state laws governing the unmanned aerial devices can vary greatly. For instance, North Dakota forbids mounting lethal weapons on drones. Arkansas bans remote-controlled aircraft to photograph critical infrastructures and other sensitive buildings. Michigan’s drone law includes verbiage that bans using drones for hunting or to harass hunters. Drone operators in North Carolina have to take a test to make sure they are familiar with the state’s regulations.

The FAA’s authority over safety “still leaves a lot of room for states to act, and they have,” Stephen Martinko, a former transportation staff member in Congress who is now a government affairs counselor at K&L Gates, told the newspaper. “When you start doing that, it gets very complicated and very confusing.”

Congress ordered FAA in 2012 to develop rules governing how drones would share the sky with passenger planes. The first regulation for commercial drones weighing up to 55 pounds is expected in June. The FAA in December published a seven-page statement asserting its congressional authority to regulate use, management and efficiency of the national airspace.

A U.S. Senate bill introduced March 9 would restate that supremacy of federal law over state and local laws dealing with the design, manufacture, testing, licensing, registration, certification, operation or maintenance of drones.

The Senate measure would explicitly give FAA supremacy over all drones laws, Rule said. That would give companies like Amazon, Google and Walmart a one-stop shop for their drone-delivery proposals. But that would also block local governments from adopting measures prohibiting encroachment on private property similar to zoning laws, he said.

“This is arguably one of the largest property-rights grabs by Congress in history,” Rule said.

National groups are debating whether it’s better to have a single federal law or a variety of local laws. Brian Wynne, CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems Int’l, told a Senate panel March 10, “State proposals have the potential to create a complicated patchwork of laws that may erode, rather than enhance, safety.”

Brendan Schulman, vice president for policy at DJI, one of the largest drone manufacturers, urged national standards to teach the rules of the road, according to the newspaper.

If cities, states and the federal government each adopt different rules, “I think it’s going to be chaos,” Schulman told the newspaper.

But Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, said a variety of local laws might not be so bad. He compared drone policies to other quality-of-life issues about noise and safety and privacy, dealt with through local legislation for leaf-blowers or handguns.

“It will be a patchwork,” Stanley said. “This is a complex, sausage-making process in place.”

Up next: Drone Safety: Will Regulating Them Work?

Posted in: News

Tagged with: Privacy, Student Safety

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