News organizations implore Calif. governor to veto bill limiting drones

A coalition of media organizations and press groups are crying foul on a proposed law in California governing the use of drones.

The law, called Senate Bill 142, makes it a trespass violation to fly an unmanned aerial system (UAS) lower than 350 feet above private property “without express permission of the person or entity with the legal authority to grant access or without legal authority.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The groups, including professional organizations like the Society of Professional Journalists and outlets like CNN and the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, said in a letter Thursday to Gov. Jerry Brown (D) that this restriction will make it incredibly difficult for reporters to use drones for newsgathering purposes.

“The proposed California legislation also poses a serious risk to the uses by journalists to gather and disseminate the news to the public, and the public’s right to receive news, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Article 1, Section 2(a) of the California Constitution,” the groups told Brown. “Therefore, we urge that you veto this bill to allow time to further evaluate sound UAS policy and consider its full legal and detrimental impact.”

The groups added that it would be “daunting if not impossible” for journalists to get the needed consent, which they said was vaguely defined, to use drones — particularly during breaking news events.

“What ‘person or entity with the legal authority to grant access’ would a journalist contact for permission to fly over a government-owned sidewalk, park, riverbed, beach or road?” the groups said. “What about an apartment building with 100 tenants? Or an empty field with no structures or residents?”

The letter writers also said they were concerned that requiring drone operators to fly above 350 feet, when combined with the federally mandated maximum altitude of 400 feet, would trap drones in a relatively small band of airspace. They also said that since “it is very difficult to determine a UAS’ altitude or exact overhead location while looking up from the ground, property owners are likely to file erroneous claims based on inaccurate assessments of a UAS’ location.”

“The potential onslaught would require courts to guess at whether a property line or altitude threshold was crossed,” the groups said.

Their concern comes as the federal government moves to codify regulations governing the use of small drones, which some believe have significant commercial potential. The Federal Aviation Administration is moving toward finalizing rules for drone use, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is leading stakeholder discussions to develop best practices for using drones.

Small, unmanned aircraft have attracted attention from several major players in the technology industry. Most notably, Amazon made waves when it announced plans to start developing a drone delivery service — though the service has yet to be implemented for the general public.