Drones Take Off, But Regulations Remain Grounded

Everyone from Hollywood to state and local governments want in on the action.

Shutterstock/ Felix Mizioznikov
Filmmaking is about to get a lot more, well, aerial. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently approved waivers that will let Hollywood use drones for filming. The idea is to create more dazzling films at less cost and with greater safety. 

Hollywood, of course, isn’t the only industry hoping to use the pilotless planes and helicopters. Farmers want to use them to check on crops; energy companies want to fly them to inspect oil and gas pipelines; real estate agents want to shoot aerial footage of homes for sale; and retail companies, such as Amazon, want to use drones to deliver packages. Even state and local governments want in on the action. Public officials are looking to expand drone use beyond just law enforcement to housing inspections, for example, and search and rescue operations.

The demand for drones has surged as the costs have dropped and the capabilities have increased. Refinements in sophisticated location systems, better communications software and lightweight, miniaturized parts have made drones more beneficial than ever. But as drones have taken off in popularity, so has the controversy surrounding their use.

Proponents say the new technology could benefit a range of industries and services. Opponents fear the devices could put our safety and privacy at risk. There’s a lot to consider, but here’s what public officials should know.

To start, commercial drones are not military drones. “We are not talking about the multimillion-dollar Predator drones flown by the Air Force,” says Gregory McNeal, a law professor at Pepperdine University. “Many drones are made of foam and weigh less than two pounds.”

Furthermore, McNeal says, it’s going to take the FAA some time to issue rules governing the safe use of domestic drones. Yes, it just issued a waiver for Hollywood, but that took four years. Besides, the rules are rather stringent. For instance, the drones can only be flown on movie sets closed to the public, the equipment must be inspected before each flight, they can’t fly higher than 400 feet, they must be operated by a technician with a pilot’s license and the FAA must be notified in advance of filming. As it stands, the agency still has an additional 45 requests for exemptions to sort through. McNeal believes it could take up to 18 months for the FAA to finalize how drones could be used. Meanwhile, other countries, most notably Canada and Australia, already have regulations in place that allow companies to test drone technology.

Another concern for state and local officials is privacy. This year alone, 36 states have introduced legislation to protect individuals’ privacy on some level. Just four of those laws, however, were enacted. Overall, domestic drone laws have been passed in 13 states, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Most of the bills require law enforcement to get a probable cause warrant before using a drone in an investigation.

Lately, states are trying to tackle more challenging issues, such as what to do with information that is collected incidentally during lawful drone use, how long law enforcement can keep drone-collected data and how to handle government access to information collected by third-party drones.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has issued recommended guidelines for agencies that cover everything from community engagement and system requirements to operational procedures and image retention. The IACP has also issued model policies aimed at balancing protection of the civil rights and liberties of individuals so as not to harm community trust.

But even the IACP admits getting it right could be difficult, warning police departments that a new technology sometimes presents so many challenges that the problems could outweigh the good it brings to a community.

Tod is the managing editor of Governing and the contributing editor of our sister publication, Government Technology. He was previously the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for IT executives in the public sector, and is the author of several books on information management.