The War Between The Drones States

Cities and states want to pass laws and regulations protecting the safety and privacy of their citizens. Congress is considering a bill that would allow the FAA to preempt state and local measures. Which approach is best for the UAS industry?
By Patrick C. Miller | April 14, 2016

I’ve been told by a number of attorneys specializing in UAS law that the battle between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and states and municipalities to regulate the airspace in which drones operate will ultimately be won by the FAA. The debate has been sparked by FAA reauthorization legislation being considered by Congress. The Senate bill contains a provision preempting state and local drone laws.

That the federal government prefers a “one size fits all” approach comes as no surprise. A national poll shows that 68 percent of Americans are against the FAA deciding what UAS regulations are best for their communities. That’s really not surprising, either, given the public perception of drones—often based on misconceptions.

Organizations such as the National League of Cities and Conference of Mayors are against giving the FAA the authority to trump the laws and regulations they deem necessary to assure the safety and privacy of their citizens. A letter the two organizations sent to a U.S. Senate committee said, “Much like automobiles and land use development regulations, local leaders know best how to regulate issues that affect their residents in their own backyards.”

A statement from a group called Smart Government said, “Including federal preemption language of state and local drone laws in the FAA Reauthorization bill is a perfect example of the federal government overstepping its bounds to the detriment of its citizens.”

Also not surprising is support for the preemption provision from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), an organization whose members back the commercial integration of UAS into the national airspace at the earliest possible date.

It sent a letter to members of the U.S. Senate which said: “Rules and regulations that determine who can fly, whether you can fly, where you can fly, how high you can fly, or when you can fly are generally the exclusive domain of the federal government. Proposals by state and local governments in these areas have the potential to create a complicated patchwork of laws that may erode, rather than enhance, air safety. Additionally, it opens the door to those jurisdictions being able to put forward proposals that could have a profound effect on the operations of the manned aviation community.”

The letter was signed by the Aerospace Industries Association, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Consumer Technology Association, DJI, the Drone Manufacturers Alliance, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the Small UAV Coalition, the National Business Aviation Association and Cherokee Nation Technologies.

It’s the classic battle between big government, big business and American citizens represented by their state and local governments. While I’d like to think I understand the views of those who oppose the preemption provision in the Senate’s FAA reauthorization bill, the UAS attorneys to whom I’ve spoken—who also happen to be pilots—make an excellent point: Unless the FAA can regulate unmanned aviation in the same manner it regulates manned aviation, the UAS industry will be held back and will continue to struggle because of regulatory uncertainty.