Ever since the implementation of 14 CFR Part 107 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, local, state, and even tribal officials have battled over their say in the operation of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, more commonly referred to as drones. Unlike manned aircraft, drones offer a wide variety of people the chance to remotely pilot an aircraft from nearly anywhere. Airplanes, helicopters, and other manned vehicles like hot air balloons must land, and takeoff, in designated areas like airports, heliports, and sea plane bases. But drones, need as little as a small sidewalk, or a level patch of grass, to get airborne in just seconds. Needless to say, these items once thought of as expensive toys, have created a sizable workload for the FAA.
With these advanced, easy to use systems, come a patch work of new laws from the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA. Part 107 governs the nation’s commercial operators, and their uses. Regulations exist to protect manned aircraft, people, traffic, and even sensitive infrastructure like power lines, and sub stations. As of today, the FAA has the final authority to govern the airspace over the United States, but due to the relatively low heights drones are flying around our skies, state and local officials have begun to push back, saying they too have a right to control where, and how, commercial operations take place. Neither the FAA, or local and state officials have the ability to control flight locations, or force registration rules on those who are considered hobbyists. The FAA has released a comprehensive list of regulations for hobbyist users under 14 CFR Part 101. Regulations in Part 101 focus on the safety of flight, and how to operate recreationally in a safe manner.
Because drones are able to take off from just about anywhere, some states have become proactive in their laws regarding the uses of sUAS. States like Indiana, North Carolina, New York, and Minnesota all have laws on the books for various prohibited operations of drones. Most states have laws regarding privacy concerns, and with a flying 4K camera, privacy can easily be violated. Some states, like Indiana, have even implemented laws against using drones during hunting seasons to scout for a hunters take. But what about the other laws? Laws which don’t seem to be for protection of privacy, or property? North Carolina and Minnesota state legislatures argue that because a drone must take off from grounds owned by either the state, or private property owners, a drone pilot must receive the permission to operate from those respective parties. However, both states have taken it a step further.
Under Part 107, operators must take, and successfully pass, a written knowledge exam for those with no prior piloting experience, or a safety course for those who are manned aircraft pilots. The knowledge test covers items such as safe operation, pre-flight and post flight best practices, rules for flying over people, at night, in airspace, and more. The exam costs $150, and is good for a period of 24 months. The safety course for pilots, is free on the the FAA Safety website. Once an operator has taken the test, and has the certificate in hand, they are good to go - unless they reside in a state like North Carolina or Minnesota. Both states require additional steps for obtaining permission to operate drones for commercial purposes. In North Carolina, there is a free test which must be taken, and mainly covers privacy laws, when and where drones cannot be used (such as near prisons), and items related to general safety. However, laws like the ones in Minnesota are a bit more intensified.
The licensing processes for Minnesota sUAS operators comes with a fair amount of paper work, applications, and fees. That’s right fees. A person wising to operate for hire in the state of Minnesota should be ready to fork over $100.00 for their first time registration of aircraft with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. For other returning registers, a $30 fee will be imposed. Minnesota also includes a state use tax for the aircraft. This all comes after one has received the Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA, and already paid $150. The Minnesota DOT argues they are simply expanding laws to drones which are already on the books, but were formerly focused towards manned aircraft. State officials say this process is not designed to be a hindrance to business being conducted by a drone pilot operating in Minnesota. However, those found to be operating without the additional paperwork, fees, and license can be subject to hefty fines. Essentially this grounds all operators who do not possess the license required by the state, which now sounds a lot like the Minnesota DOT trying to step into the role of the FAA. Many advocates for this process, who are outside of state government, believe this process is not a problem, and they are happy to abide by the law. However, business owners and pilots like Wyatt Bowles have other thoughts.
“We [B&C Aerial Solutions] are not just an Indiana business. Our company operates for clients around the country with various backgrounds. These types of overreaching state laws do nothing except serve as a roadblock for small, and large, business owners wishing to seek work in the state of Minnesota, North Carolina, and other areas.” Wyatt is the Managing Partner, and Director of Flight Operations, for B&C Aerial Solutions. He believes the states are out of bounds in their regulation and forced additional licensing steps. But states like Minnesota and North Carolina argue they are not regulating airspace, or other items governed by the FAA. They are only regulating the tools, and the locations where they are launched. Regulating airspace may be within the reach of state, and even city, governments very soon, however.
On May 25th of this year, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) introduced Senate Bill 1272, which is now being referenced as the Drone Federalism Act of 2017. The bill which is supposed to be an answer for state and local authorities looking to protect their own communities has drawn heavy criticism from the UAS industry. The proposed regulation would allow local authorities and states the ability to regulate the operations of drones below 200’ ft, effectively doing away with FAA oversight under this altitude. Some argue this is a better way to go as the FAA has already had issues governing our airspace with so many new unmanned aircraft buzzing around, and a lack of resources to effectively police the skies. Others say this would serve to destroy the industry as a whole, and in turn does nothing to increase safety. They feel it gives local governments the ability to profit off the use of UAS, and create special rules for larger companies like Amazon and UPS for future package delivery services. Some even believe that airspace between 200’ and 400’ ft may one day be reserved exclusively for the delivery services. Sound confusing? Let simplify.
To put this in a better perspective lets look at the City of Indianapolis, and its surrounding communities. Inside the black box lies the town of Beech Grove, with its Mayor, Police and Fire Force, school systems, and constituents. Outside the box lies the city of Indianapolis, with its own Mayor, Police, etc. Under the new bill proposed by Sen. Feinstein, the city of Beech Grove would be allowed to create their own laws and ordinances separate from the city of Indianapolis, and control the operation of drones below 200’ ft inside their city limits. This means they would also have the same ability as Minnesota and North Carolina to implement separate licensing fees, applications, red tape, and could even ban drone usage entirely. The same goes for the town of Speedway, and Plainfield, shown just off the map here.
By 2020, the sUAS industry is expected to be a $1 Billion + industry thriving with operators from coast to coast performing inspections, shooting real estate promotions, weddings, events, races, and more. But we’re left with the uncertainty of what would happen to one of our nation’s fastest growing industries if we were to implement a law like the Drone Federalism Act.
Over the next few months, the bill is to be hashed out in committees, and likely to be discussed by politicians and others concerned about protecting the airspace over our country. Its sure to be a heated discussion. Many business owners see this act as a potential silver bullet for their operations. Having to keep up with regulations not only from state to state, but ones imposed by simply crossing the street, would place a heavy burden both financially, and in operation, to these owners and operators who have until now flourished in an environment regulated by the FAA. As we draw closer to the decision on how our country will regulate sUAS, its time to reflect on what more regulation might do to a booming industry which is just now in its infancy. Some fear the increased, and overlapping regulations could stunt the growth of it. Others seem to think differently. Either way, drones are here to stay, and the regulations which govern them are likely to be much tighter as time progresses.
For more information on these laws, and others like them, follow the links above.