States and Municipalities Regulating Drone Use Amid Federal Rule Change

FAA, USDOT to explore drone P3s.

  • USDOT is focusing in on P3s as an avenue for innovation in drone use and drone regulation
  • DHS will in 2019 determine whether it will acquire and deploy commercial, off-the-shelf unmanned aircraft systems (UAS)
  • Public safety could be a key growth area for drone use and drone related P3s

President Donald Trump in October signed the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, as a means of regulating unmanned aircraft systems such as drones. However, as the FAA evaluates what those regulations could mean, cities and municipalities are creating legislation around drone use.

The law requires both recreational and professional drone users must register their devices, keep them away from high air-traffic areas such as airport runways, and restrict their operation to airspace well below that of airplanes and helicopters. It also authorizes the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to evaluate and test commercial drone mitigation technology.

DHS will in 2019 determine whether it will acquire and deploy commercial, off-the-shelf unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).  The department in November issued a request for information in order to help it identify what UAS are available.

State-level activity

The FAA in October announced that it would begin an evaluation process and release updated rules and guidance. The administration has scheduled a drone regulation symposium for February 2019, which it describes as a “get down to business” moment for the new rules.

But some states and municipalities have already begun taking steps to regulate drone usage in their respective airspaces.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper earlier this year signed HB 1070 into law. The legislation requires the center of excellence within the department of public safety to perform a study on ways to integrate UAS within local and state government functions such as firefighting, search and rescue, accident reconstruction, crime scene documentation, emergency management, and emergencies involving significant property loss, injury or death.

HB 1070 also creates a pilot program, requiring the deployment of at least one team of UAS operators to a region designated as a fire hazard, where they will be trained on the use of UAS for those functions.

The Florida legislature which has considered a number of measures concerning drones, took up the issue of whether law enforcement could use drones as part of its first responder capability. HB 75, which was introduced last week would let law enforcement use drones at the scene of accidents, as part of crowd control efforts or during natural disasters.

“The enthusiastic response to our request for applications demonstrated the many innovative technological and operational solutions already on the horizon,” said Secretary Chao.

In October, the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) convened a drone legislation meeting in Detroit unveiling a nationwide state level legislation committee that would seek to circumvent the growing patchwork of state rules and establish some standards. ULC’s plan limits drones to flying low in the air and would also give private property owners the power to pursue drone operators for intrusion.

The ULC proposal was met with a counter proposal from industry groups that would, among other things, make property owners provide proof of drone intrusion. Industry groups say that the ULC proposal would limit ideas like drone delivery and lead to a wave of nuisance lawsuits.

Public safety is one of the fastest growing areas for public-private partnerships and laws like HB 75 in Florida could empower drone providers to add to law enforcement capabilities.

As the First Responders Network (FirstNet) comes online, there would be dedicated voice, image and data bandwidth drones could use to send images from the field. However, civil rights advocates have raised concerns that drone use could be a way for law enforcement to make an end run around warrant requirements. The same issue has also been raised in New York, where police unveiled a new drone program at the beginning of this month that was greeted with skepticism from civil rights and privacy advocates.

In 2017, 38 states considered legislation that would regulate how drones can be used. Not all of the measures passed, but that push set up a rules pipeline nationwide. In most cases, the rules being considered limit what drone operators can use drones for. At the same time, they prohibit spying on neighbors or businesses, in addition to using drones to damage private property.

Pilot programs

The US Department of Transportation is also engaging with state governments directly on creating new laws, registration and drone safety programs.

In May, USDOT announced that it would establish a three-year pilot program to explore how public-private partnerships may be used to safely integrate drones into the national airspace. The agency, alongside the FAA, chose 10 sites including the cities of Reno, Nevada and San Diego, California, as well as the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

USDOT will assist the municipalities in securing permits, waivers and other regulatory assurances necessary to determine whether drone use, drone safety programs, anti-drone systems and other ideas can be developed using P3s. Fields that could see immediate opportunities from the program include: commerce; photography; emergency management; public safety; precision agriculture; and infrastructure inspections.

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