Drone in Flight
A drone is flown for recreational purposes in the sky above Old Bethpage, New York. Photo by Bruce Bennett — Getty Images

New Senate Drone Bill Would Give Power to States and Local Governments

May 25, 2017

If the federal government is unable to bring law and order to drone-filled skies, maybe local and state governments can.

That’s one of the takeaways from a new bill introduced Thursday by a group of high-ranking Democratic and Republican members of Congress including Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

The senators are pitching the Drone Federalism Act as a way for local governments, including Native American tribal authorities, to create drone rules specific to their regions without butting heads with the federal government.

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“State, local, and tribal governments have a legitimate interest in protecting public safety and privacy from the misuse of drones,” Feinstein said in a statement. “This bill allows communities to create low-altitude speed limits, local no-drone zones or rules that are appropriate to their own circumstances.”

The proposed legislation comes amid a trying time for federal drone policy makers.

Last week, a federal appeals court in Washington D.C. ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration lacks the authority to regulate drone use by hobbyists. Because of the court ruling, hobbyists no longer have to register their drones in a national database, as the FAA previously required.

The FAA can still regulate how businesses use drones for purposes like inspecting oil rigs, but it cannot oversee “model aircraft,” according to the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act and affirmed by Washington, D.C appeals court judges. The 2012 bill lumped drones used by hobbyists into the category of "model aircraft."

Meanwhile, several state and local governments have been crafting their own drone rules in recent years. These governments believe that the FAA’s drone rules for hobbyists—which the appeals court recently nullified—failed to account for issues relating to privacy and trespassing, as in the case of someone flying a drone over another person’s house and taking photos. These governments also believe that the FAA's drone rules for businesses do not adequately address their concerns.

The Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, which studies drones, released a study in March that found that 135 local governments in 31 states have enacted their own drone rules.

The proposed Drone Federalism Act would let local municipalities decide how hobbyists and businesses can operate their drones below an altitude of 200 feet, but also seek assistance from the FAA.

The bill proposes that the FAA chose up to ten state, local, and tribal governments to create pilot programs lasting two years during which the governments would work closely with the agency to create their own individual drone rules. During these pilot programs, the FAA would provide technical assistance to the local governments, determine with the governments how to enforce the rules, and act as a middleman between the local governments and NASA, which is trying to create a national drone air traffic management system.

After the two-year pilot programs conclude, the FAA would submit to Congress a public report of best practices about how the FAA and local governments should work together.

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“We need to be confident that drones are operated safely no matter where they’re flown,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “This legislation protects the rights of state and local governments to implement reasonable restrictions on drones in their communities, while ensuring that the Federal Aviation Administration keeps our national airspace the safest in the world.”

Update: May 26, 7:25 AM PST. Story clarified to emphasize that the proposed drone bill affects both hobbyists and businesses.

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