Say What? Local Laws Could Jail You for Federally Approved Drone Flights

BY Zacc Dukowitz
22 April 2017

A recent study from Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone reveals numerous instances of conflicting drone legislation between local and federal authorities.

Big picture: flying that’s approved by the FAA could still get you in trouble with local authorities, and in some cases even locked up for breaking local laws.

The study looked at regulations across the U.S., and found 133 localities in 31 states—an area containing 30 million people—that have enacted local regulations related to flying drones.

Another thing the study found is that, of these 133 localities, only three have created local ordinances that actively promote the use of drones. So, lots of anti-drone laws, and just a handful of pro-drone ones.

Who’s Right?

Legally, the FAA has jurisdiction over all airspace in the U.S. Period.

“The FAA is responsible for the safety of U.S. airspace from the ground up . . . There are no shades of gray in FAA regulations. Anyone who wants to fly an aircraft—manned or unmanned—in U.S. airspace needs some level of FAA approval.”

FAA.gov

In a legal dispute between local and federal law, the FAA’s regulations should always trump local regulations.

But this can get sticky pretty fast. For instance, in Orlando’s new drone ordinance, the lawmakers were careful not to refer to flight specifically (which would technically fall under the jurisdiction of the FAA).

Instead, the law states that drone pilots can’t take off or land within city limits—referring to action on the ground, which they do have authority over—without a permit.

So a drone pilot could hypothetically take off outside the city limits, fly over the city, and then land outside the city limits, and be in compliance with the law. (But we’d imagine that Orlando law enforcement wouldn’t be very happy about the flight.)

However, not all local laws are this careful about their wording. Many simply outlaw certain types of flying altogether, jurisdiction or no jurisdiction.

Why There’s a Disconnect

Many local authorities feel like the FAA’s regulations—which prohibit flying over people, flying at night, and flying beyond the pilot’s visual line of sight (BVLOS), and a few other things, but are otherwise fairly open about what is allowed—are too lax and don’t do enough to address issues like privacy, trespassing, and flying drones over shared public property or private property.

In response to what is perceived by some as a legislation gap, local authorities have created laws that fine or even jail people for flying at a public gathering (even if you’re not flying over people), flying over someone’s home or property, and related scenarios having to do with privacy and trespassing.

And even though these scenarios are technically legal under the FAA’s guidelines, they could still land you in serious hot water with local officials.

Despite the dubious legality of local laws having to do with where you can and can’t fly, we’d recommend observing local laws for now. It could take a long time, and lots of legal fees, to be exonerated for a flight that is legal according to the FAA, but illegal according to the county or city where you’re flying.

[Check out page 7 of the report from Bard College for a full list of all local drone laws in the U.S.]

Why This Really Matters

A big concern with all of this conflicting legislation is that it makes things hard on drone pilots, and also hard on those whose job it is to enforce drone regulations, both at the federal and at the local levels.

When you have changing ordinances from one city to the next, it makes commercial drone operations incredibly difficult. And there are lots of legitimate scenarios where a drone pilot might simply be working, and find him or herself in violation of the kinds of local laws described above.

Take rooftop inspections, for instance.

We recently partnered with Loveland Innovations to help find and train UAV pilots to become FAA certified, so that they can do property inspections for insurance purposes. A commercial drone pilot could be conducting a property inspection, and be in violation of local privacy laws without even realizing it, simply because a neighboring house is in sight of the pilot’s camera.

“The proliferation of these [local] rules could have a destabilizing affect on the integration process. It will be very hard to maintain a coordinated national airspace system with what the FAA describes as a patchwork quilt of local regulations.”

– Arthur Holland Michel, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of the Drone

The drone industry is booming, but it’s also still in its nascency when it comes to growing a group of pilots with the skills—and certification—needed to execute commercial work.

An increase in local regulations, especially when they’re conflicting, could mean a corresponding decrease in the number of certified pilots, and might well lead to an increase in pilots who would otherwise follow proper procedure but end up not doing so out of frustration, confusion, or some combination of the two.

Zacc Dukowitz

Director of Marketing

Zacc Dukowitz is the Director of Marketing for UAV Coach. A writer with professional experience in education technology and digital marketing, Zacc is passionate about reporting on the drone industry at a time when UAVs can help us live better lives. Zacc also holds the rank of nidan in Aikido, a Japanese martial art, and is a widely published fiction writer. Zacc has an MFA from the University of Florida and a BA from St. John’s College. Follow @zaccdukowitz or check out zaccdukowitz.com to read his work.

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