Patchwork of state laws set to cause post-holiday headache for drone operators
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State laws impacting Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV, or “drone”) operations are patchwork quilts. Not only do they vary from state to state, but the definitions vary, the restrictiveness varies, and localities may have ordinances that are even more restrictive than a state’s regulations.

For those parents who gave, and those children who received, drones as gifts this year, the patchwork regulations may present unwanted headaches.

Beyond toys and gifts, drones represent revolutionary innovations, both creating new marketplaces and helping make existing tasks more efficient. Drones promise to assist farmers, reinvent approaches to construction projects, assist with search and rescue efforts, change photography and filmmaking, and so much more.

Companies are working on both drones and sensors in drones, for example, that can image crop distribution, crop hydration, and pesticide coverage. This data can help farmers better plan their crops, respond to the field’s need, and generally increase the efficiency of their property. Similarly, companies have developed infrared, heat-detecting, lowlight sensors, and other filters law enforcement agencies can attach to cameras on drones. These sensors and filters can help with search efforts, and because of how drones operate, they can be used at times when it is impossible for helicopters to fly.

For this innovation to occur, and to avoid post-Holiday headaches, states and localities need to reduce the patchwork of laws. Roughly 26 states have laws potentially impacting hobbyist and commercial drone operations. The laws range from very permissive to very restrictive. On the one hand, Arizona has created a uniform state standard prohibiting drone pilots from interfering with emergency operations or flying in a reckless manner. On the other hand, North Carolina requires an additional permit for operating drones for “commercial purposes” amongst other requirements.

Drone operators may run into problems, as well, depending on whether a state created a new definition of surveillance or merely expanded an existing criminal definition. Expanding existing definitions provides a degree of certainty since there is a body of court cases expounding on the precise application of the definition. Louisiana, for example, expanded the criminal definition of its law against “Peeping Toms” to include improper use of camera-equipped drones. On the other hand, Texas prohibits the use of drones for the purpose of “gathering surveillance” or “disclosing photographs or videos obtained while illegally surveilling.”

Without a body of cases to interpret illegal surveillance using drones, how can an operator know whether he or she is violating the law? If a child receives a DJI Phantom 3 for Christmas and flies it around the yard, if the drone is capturing images of the neighbor’s yard, is that illegal surveillance even when the child and the parents know the drone is capturing those images?  

Operators are responsible for knowing the federal, state and local laws governing drones. The Federal Aviation Administration is a resource for federal regulations impacting drone operations. For state laws, there are a couple resources, including a recently published "Guide to State laws Impacting [Drone] Operations." There is an appendix at the very end of the report summarizing state laws enacted as of Sept. 1, 2016. For local ordinances, it is best either to look at the locality’s website or call to see if there are any restrictions.

The patchwork of state and local laws creates barriers to innovation. Drone operators, whether children who received drones as gifts or individuals looking to create businesses, need certainty. Uniform, or at least similar laws, will encourage innovation while protecting the interests of innocent, third parties. States and localities should strive to adopt common sense and uniform laws that help provide the certainty to avoid the post-holiday headaches and encourage the development of drone technologies.

Jonathon Hauenschild, J.D. is the director for the American Legislative Exchange Council’s Task Force on Communications and Technology.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.