We’ve heard about unmanned drones both raining death down on America’s enemies in foreign lands, or delivering our Amazon orders in 30 minutes or less. We’ve heard about drones helping (or hindering) with fighting wildfires. And of course, we are all reasonably concerned about drones invading our privacy. I think we can safely say, like with most technologies, unmanned drones can be used for either good or ill. So how are our states grappling with the promise and the dangers of drones?
First, what exactly is the technology we are talking about? According to Wikipedia, a drone is:
An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, as an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), or by several other names, is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. The flight of UAVs may operate with various degrees of autonomy: either under remote control by a human operator, or fully or intermittently autonomously, by onboard computers.
Drones come in many shapes and sizes, from military, to industrial, to personal
What Drones Are Used For
Although how drones should be used in military applications is an interesting and important topic, we’ll be limiting our discussion in this post to commercial and personal use.
Drones are used for remote inspection and monitoring in agriculture, insurance, construction, oil and gas, disaster response or pretty much anywhere remote or dangerous where it is advantageous not to have to send a person. Another use is capturing video, like media coverage or filming movies, where the required access or precision would otherwise be challenging.
We asked Nathan Ruff, Executive Director UAS Coalition, where he thought the industry was headed, “Autonomous vehicles and autonomous drones are traveling on a parallel path; in fact, since the technology is analogous, a number of manufacturers are investing in both markets (see Local Motors). The idea is that autonomous vehicles will need to have a up-to-the second picture of the roadways in order to operate safely. Thus, if a barrel falls off a truck on the interstate, the first vehicle camera to notice it feeds that new information into the global database so any other vehicles operating in the vicinity are aware of the threat.” All of these uses are still in the beginning phases of implementation but are already pushing the envelope of existing laws.
Ruff also stated, “The advances in machine vision and artificial intelligence are incredible. Drones that can not only “see” obstacles in their path, but also have the onboard processing power to develop a successful resolution so that the mission can be completed without manual intervention opens the door to airspace where unmanned and manned aircraft can coexist.” The FAA recently laid out the Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule (Part 107) covering limits on who can be a pilot, where and how they operate, and what requirements the drones themselves must meet. Going further on what these laws mean for drone operation Ruff said, “Once the FAA is convinced that an equivalent level of safety has been achieved, they will open the door to UAS operations that go beyond the current limitations of line of sight or BVLOS/BLOS (beyond visual line of sight). The implication of this is that Amazon/DHL/FedEx/X (Google) will be able to implement their grand design of drone delivery, and the consumer will have the ability (in certain markets) receive their online order of items under 5 pounds in less than 60 minutes.”
Statehouses are struggling to keep up with public’s additional concerns around privacy, safety, and liability as drone use starts to become more common.
Arizona passed a resolution in 2012, HCR2024, calling for Arizona “compete for and be selected as one or more of the six national test ranges under the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act.” This is the earliest bill we have that passed involving drones in our database (which starts in 2011). In 2013 five states passed legislation regarding drones; an Idaho bill limiting what can be photographed, an Indiana resolution establishing a study committee, a Montana bill limiting how evidence gathered by a drone can be used for prosecutions and requiring a warrant, a Texas bill limiting what can be photographed, and a Virginia house and senate bill declaring a moratorium on drone use by state and local authorities. In 2014 eight states passed new rules: Alaska (limiting photos), Indiana (requiring a warrant), Iowa (not for traffic control), Louisiana (privacy), New Jersey (standards for law enforcement use), Ohio (creating the Ohio Aerospace and Aviation Technology Committee), Tennessee (limits on private use), and Utah (limits on use and requiring warrants). As you can see, from early on, legislators were thinking about privacy and civil rights.
In 2015, 27 bills were passed across 19 states. In this set a new topic comes up, with five bills about hunting and monitoring wildlife (two more were passed in 2016). In 2016 30 more bills were passed, in 15 different states. This year California in particular gave drones a lot of consideration, Louisiana and Tennessee continued to pass new laws on the topic. Here’s a look at that progression:
And here’s an interact map so you can explore all bills introduced (whether passed or not) over the last several years. Click your state (or the US in the corner for federal bills) to see a list. Clearly almost all of the states are trying to figure what should and shouldn’t be allowed when it comes to drones:
I believe that we still have more to figure out when it comes to balancing the risks and rewards for this new technology. We have classic struggles between the public’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know, the tension between new technology that can help law enforcement and the requirements of the fourth amendment, not to mention trying to manage safety concerns around a rapidly evolving technology. With many aspects of life, people can use these technologies for good or bad and it is the public’s responsibility to advocate and inform others on the safe use of drones. The FAA took forever to release even the minimal guidelines linked above, so for now, as with many things, it’s left to the states to try to figure it all out. It’s going to be a fascinating few years!