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Drone Policy Update: California Bill Vetoed, New Model Aircraft Guidance, and More

CALIFORNIA UAS BILL VETOED: On September 9, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed Senate Bill 142 that would have imposed trespass liability on unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operators who fly less than 350 feet above another’s private property. While aimed at preventing invasions of privacy, such a law would have not only greatly restricted UAS operations (the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) currently prohibits operators without special permission from flying more than 400 feet above ground level; more on this below), it would have subjected operators and the state to an enormous volume of litigation. The bill was strongly opposed by the UAS industry, hobbyists, press organizations, and others. Kudos to Gov. Brown. To be sure, there are privacy challenges associated with the rise of UAS technology, but ham-fisted approaches such as the one contained in SB 142 risk doing far more harm than good. My forthcoming CEI whitepaper on UAS myths and facts addresses these issues and more.

MODEL AIRCRAFT GUIDANCE: On September 2, the FAA cancelled Aviation Circular (AC) 91-57, Model Aircraft Operating Standards. AC 91-57 had been voluntary guidance since 1981, and recreational UAS operators had increasingly demanded a badly needed update. In its place, the FAA released AC 91-57A pursuant to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act (FMRA) of 2012 that conformed the new guidance to the evolving hobbyist UAS market. Changes include a weight limit of 55 pounds and an ability to fly as close as five miles from an airport without notifying the tower or airport operator (AC 91-57 imposed a three-mile limit). One major difference in spirit between ACs 91-57 and 91-57A is that the FAA no longer describes its guidance as a set of voluntary best practices. While UAS hobbyists are likely to appreciate the clarity from an AC that isn’t nearly 35 years old, AC 91-57A does impose new restrictions that did not exist in the previous AC.

CRASH REPORTING EXEMPTION: On September 11, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a notice of interpretation clarifying that small UAS flown by hobbyists are not subject to aircraft accident reporting requirements.

FAA NOW REGULATES PAPER AIRPLANES: Attorney and UAS enthusiast Peter Sachs, founder of the Drone Pilots Association, was granted a FMRA Section 333 exemption on August 26 for a Tailor Toys PowerUp 3.0 UAS—an electronic paper airplane that is controlled by a smartphone app. The Section 333 exemption permits UAS operations for the purposes of aerial photography and videography, but requires that the operator be a licensed pilot. An historic first: the FAA is now regulating the flight of paper airplanes. H/T Greg McNeal

SCHUMER TO INTRODUCE GEO-FENCING AMENDMENT: Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has told the press he plans to introduce later this week an amendment to the forthcoming FAA reauthorization bill. While legislative language remains unavailable, the amendment would likely require that UAS manufacturers install geo-fencing technology to prevent UAS operations near sensitive sites such as airports and government facilities. Expect large opposition from the technology industry and hobbyist groups. See former FAA Chief Counsel Sandy Murdock’s post here for some likely problems with Sen. Schumer’s approach. Depending on how it would be implemented, it may run afoul of Congress’s and the FAA’s plan to safety integrate UAS into the national airspace system. In addition, it risks locking in technology currently in its infancy and forcing expensive infrastructure upgrades. There is also the question of existing UAS without geo-fencing technology installed. Would Sen. Schumer require nationwide retrofitting of existing UAS? Who will pay for all of this? Sen. Schumer’s colleagues would be wise to reject a geo-fencing mandate at this time.

THROWBACK TO N.D. WEAPONIZED DRONES: A few weeks ago, I noted that media coverage about a North Dakota law aimed at restricting law enforcement use of UAS was badly misinformed. The law in question imposes warrant requirements and prohibits law enforcement use of UAS armed with lethal weapons. Due to a reported lobbying effort by law enforcement interests, many claimed that the omission of an explicit prohibition on less-than-lethal weapons mounted on UAS meant that law enforcement was authorized to actually deploy UAS with less-than-lethal weapons such as pepper spray and tear gas. However, the poorly worded law appears at worst to create a narrow class of possible weaponized uses that greatly reduces the likelihood of actual deployment, as weaponized UAS operations would not permit law enforcement from using the information collected to further a prosecution. Read the whole post here.