Municipal drone regulations put cities in legal crosshairs

Patchwork rules around the United States are one of the greatest threats to commercial drone operators. Even if a pilot is operating safely and correctly under federal laws, many states and municipalities have begun to pass their own rules, most of which, reach beyond their allowed powers.

The general regulatory framework regarding drones is that the FAA has jurisdiction over the National Airspace System (NAS), meaning they essentially are in charge from the ground up. Some will argue that property owners have airspace rights, but the cases they cite do not explicitly grant such rights. Cities and towns may be able to regulate they takeoff and landing of drones on property they own, but they do not currently possess the right to ban operation over such property. The FAA has already put in place rules about safe operation for commercially certificated remote pilots under 14 CFR 107 (Part 107). These rules address flights near airports, height restrictions, restrictions of flight over people and night flights, weight limitations, and flight within visual line of sight. All of these specific rules have mechanisms for either waiver or authorization to operate outside their bounds.

What many local governments do not realize is that their have been cases, though not controlling in many jurisdictions, where the federal courts have ruled against specific requirements around drone registration and flight restrictions. Essentially, the federal laws preempted the local laws, meaning the local laws could not be enforced because of their contradiction with federal laws already in place.

In another case, late in 2018, a drone operator in Flint, Michigan was flying in a County Park, and was approached by park police who arrested him and confiscated his drone based on rules they had passed. Michigan has state level preemption laws in place to prevent localities from making such laws. The arrest was invalidated and the equipment returned. In the wake of that, the Parks Commission reworded their rule to specifically apply to drones, and now, they are being sued so that a judge may rule that their law is invalid based on the state level law.

All of this is to say that passing laws limiting the commercial use of drones at a municipal level is very precarious. This patchwork of legislation also makes it very hard for commercial drone operators to work. Drones are not only being used to promote properties for sale and help local businesses tell their story. Drones are a part of large scale infrastructure inspections like power lines in California in the wake of their historically devastating wildfires. First responders are finding many uses for aerial views as well. So, if you live somewhere thinking about limiting drone use, maybe think twice and consult legal counsel before thinking you are protecting privacy.

Create Regularly to Learn

I stress how important ongoing learning is here, and in my everyday discussions with friends and clients. One of the best ways to learn is to actually create something. Late in 2018 I started pushing myself into creating more videos for YouTube.

The video below will always link to my most recent video from my personal channel for Scott Shtofman. I have also made it a point to highlight completed client work on my company YouTube Channel. I am a Tyler Drone Services provider using drones and other cameras to promote businesses and projects in East Texas.

So, what does making more videos do to help me learn, and why should you care or do it yourself? Videos are a great way to try out and test new equipment, filming styles, editing, grading, etc. They are a creative outlet that lets you explore stories, people, and places you would not have otherwise taken the time to. I have been able to document some of my learning process and give back to the community where I have already learned so much from as well.

Creating is a great place to test, grow, and fail. If you are failing in an environment that is not high pressure, like when you are in front of a client, you can better learn from that experience and make sure to nail the process when it really matters. Don’t be afraid to take chances making stuff, whether it is photos, videos, or something else completely. Just get out there and make something, and you will be better for it. Your craft will be better for it, and your clients will appreciate the effort.