How Will We Handle a Sky Full of Drones?

Regulating them will be a challenge for governments at all levels, but we're going to have to figure out how to do it.
October 28, 2015
By Bob Graves  |  Contributor
Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic

Drones have captured the public's, and the media's, imagination. We're hearing about everything from a Swiss postal service project to deliver packages through the Alps to remote villages and Amazon's envisioned "Prime Air" 30-minute package delivery service to reconnaissance for search and rescue missions and drone-based inspections of electrical transmission lines.

But unmanned aerial vehicles are creating their share of problems. There have been near collisions with piloted aircraft, instances of interference with wildfire operations in California and, most notably, drone crashes into the New York state Capitol building and onto the White House lawn.

While there are still relatively few drones in our airspace, it's becoming increasingly clear that there are going to be a lot more of them and that their flights will need to be regulated. We are going to need a drone traffic management system.

Some state and local governments are already taking steps in that direction, although by statute the federal government has exclusive sovereignty over U.S. airspace and the Federal Aviation Administration has the authority to regulate aircraft flights. All unmanned aircraft -- including radio-controlled model aircraft -- are subject to FAA restrictions.

That said, there is no clear-cut policy that affirms whether federal law preempts state or local regulation of drones, although the U.S. Department of Transportation does evaluate state and local rules on a case-by-case basis to make sure they don't conflict with the FAA's authority.

Twenty-six states already have passed laws addressing drone issues, according to a web page maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures, and those and other states are looking into additional regulations. For example, California lawmakers, after hearing accounts of interference with firefighting efforts, have discussed whether to require that every drone be equipped with a transponder that would allow emergency personnel to immediately identify its owner, as well as enacting license requirements and penalties for irresponsible operation. "Up until now, it's been the wild, wild West out there," Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former Sacramento County sheriff, told the Ventura County Star. "It can't be that way. Public safety trumps the private right to fly a drone."

 

Cities are also getting into the action. Santa Clara, Calif., recently passed an ordinance to create "no-drone zones." The city has a number of large event sites, including Levi's Stadium, home of the 2016 Super Bowl, and city officials want to reduce risks that drones might pose to the public in these settings. The FAA itself puts in place temporary no-drone zones, as it did in and around New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., during Pope Francis' recent tour.

Clearly, government leaders at every level are grappling with how best to secure the benefits of drone technology while minimizing its risks. They are right to be concerned: A community's airspace is a shared commons. It is, in many ways, as much a type of infrastructure as the parks, buildings, roads and bridges that frame our cities.

How then will a community's airspace be managed? Without roads, posted speed limits and traffic lights, flight routes for drones will need to be "built" and operated in ways as yet unspecified and by technology still in development. For example, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) is proposing requiring manufacturers to implement "geo-fencing" technology or similar solutions for their drones. Geo-fencing would limit where unauthorized drones can fly, utilizing built-in software, firmware and GPS tracking.

The FAA, meanwhile is moving forward to establish guidelines to preempt the need for state and local governments to create a patchwork of local regulations. Earlier this year, FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker announced that the agency will finalize its rulemaking before next summer. And most recently, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced plans to require owners of recreational drones to register them with the government.

Drone registration and operator licensure are vital initial steps. And drone traffic routes will need to be created, published and enforced. But for all intents and purposes, it really is the wild, wild West in this dawn of drone technology. Getting from where we are today to a smoothly operating drone transportation system will take a tightly integrated federal, state and local framework. Local government will certainly have a role. After all, from a resident's perspective, what's in the sky above is inherently a local matter.

NOTE: The number given for states that have passed laws addressing drone issues has been updated in this column, as has the link for the National Conference of State Legislatures' web page tracking state laws on the subject.