Feinstein Drone Act Could Ruin Everything We’ve Worked So Hard to Build
BY Zacc Dukowitz1 June 2017
Senator Diane Feinstein recently introduced the Drone Federalism Act of 2017, which would move jurisdiction for the National Airspace System (NAS) from the FAA to state and local authorities.
The act seeks to define the FAA’s jurisdiction as extending only to “the extent necessary to ensure the safety and efficiency of the national airspace system for interstate commerce.”
Meaning that state and local governments would hold jurisdiction in all instances that didn’t relate to interstate commerce—which basically covers all commercial drone use.
The proposal of this act comes on the heels of a recent Bard study which found that many local and state drone laws contradict FAA regulations, in spite of the FAA having primary jurisdiction over the skies.
In essence, many of these local laws propose fines and jail time for flights that would be considered perfectly legal by the FAA. Senator Feinstein’s bill would make these local laws the primary—and in many cases the only—law regarding drone use in those areas.
Conversely, in areas that have not yet enacted drone legislation, there might be no drone laws or regulations whatsoever (if FAA jurisdiction is in fact left only to flights involved in interstate commerce) . The result would be that flying in one city or county—say, in the city of Orlando—would require a permit and training, not to mention a fee, while right over the city lines you could fly however you like (over people, Beyond Visual Line of Sight, while driving a car…you get the picture).
Talk about chaos.
Apparently Senator Feinstein has a personal grudge against drones.
In 2014, she reported finding a drone peeking into her window, and she has brought this story up again when proposing this new legislation.
However, the details surrounding the incident don’t seem malicious. At the time there was a demonstration taking place outside of Feinstein’s house, and when she went to the window to look at the demonstration:
“There was a drone right there at the window looking out at me. Obviously the pilot of the drone had some surprise because the drone wheeled around and crashed, so I felt a little good about that.”
– Diane Feinstein
It seems clear from the story as Feinstein tells it that the pilot was probably filming the demonstration, most likely for a news organization.
The fact that the pilot became flustered when he or she realized a bystander was accidentally being captured, and subsequently crashed, seems to indicate that the original intent was not to spy on Senator Feinstein in her home.
Some Details about the Proposed Act, and Why We Are Concerned
Section (b) (1) of the Drone Federalism Act of 2017 states:
“In prescribing regulations or standards related to civil unmanned aircraft systems, the Administrator shall ensure that the authority of a State, local, or tribal government to issue reasonable restrictions on the time, manner, and place of operation of a civil unmanned aircraft system that is operated below 200 feet above ground level or within 200 feet of a structure is not preempted.”
In essence, state, local, or tribal governments will have primary jurisdiction when it comes to flights below 200 feet or within 200 feet of any structure. Any structure—so essentially any inhabited area could now be off limits for drone flights.
If enacted, this act would be devastating for the burgeoning commercial drone industry.
The vast majority of commercial drone applications require flights within 200 feet of some kind of structure. Even construction, one of the fastest growing sectors in the drone industry, often requires flying near some kind of structure. Real estate marketing, inspections, ag drones, aerial thermography, and a plethora of other commercial applications would now be subject to the caprice of local laws, which would mean chaos for the industry as a whole.
The problem here is that, if each local government can pass its own laws regarding drones, running a drone business will go from difficult (just think about how hard it currently is to get a waiver or airspace authorization) to impossible, because you would now have to be aware of a multitude of ever-changing local laws.
These legal hurdles could very well sink the commercial industry for all but very big, very wealthy corporations that could afford to keep up with all the laws and regulations.
“In states like California, [the Drone Federalism Act] has the very real potential to shut down the drone industry. If California were to prohibit drones anywhere closer than 200 feet from private structures without permission, there is no way for a drone operator or pilot to fly in the suburbs—and that’s where the majority of real estate and inspection work is.”
– Vic Moss, Professional Drone Pilot
A Troubling Trend
From what we’ve read, it doesn’t seem likely that Feinstein’s bill will actually be passed. It has internal contradictions, and critics say that it isn’t a viable piece of legislation.
Which is good news. But what’s troubling is that legislators are waking up every morning thinking about ways to remove the FAA from overseeing national airspace.
Lately local laws have been cropping up around the country forbidding drones from a variety of FAA-sanctioned airspaces, regardless of jurisdiction. A recent law proposed in Texas would outlaw any flights over factory farms, with jail time as one potential punishment for violation, and there are many other examples like this out there.
In addition, the Trump administration recently issued a proposal that would allow the government to “track, hack, and destroy drones” that many are calling dangerously broad in its scope.
The commercial drone industry has the potential to bring in growth and jobs at a time when we need both. But if we allow backsliding from the uniform regulation we currently have in place into a chaotic regulatory scene, we could be looking at a world where other countries are outpacing us and reaping the rewards in the drone sector while we’re left trying to figure out what laws to follow from one city to the next.
To be honest, we’d been thinking that much of the fight to make way for a successful commercial drone industry in the U.S. was over. But the ways things are trending, it looks like we’re just getting started.