Legal Corner: Are Drones Coming to a Neighborhood Near You?

Christina Estes-Werther, League General Counsel

Last year media outlets were anticipating the sale of one million drones prior to the holiday season. This boom in drone sales led to the implementation of registration requirements by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and generated questions about the proper use and regulation of drones for recreational purposes.

What is a Drone?
First, it is important to understand the terminology. Drones are often called by various terms but federal law refers to them as "Unmanned Aircraft Systems" (UAS). This system includes "the communication links and components that control that unmanned aircraft." According to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (Act), the FAA classifies UAS in three types: 1) Public (government) aircraft; 2) Civil aircraft (any aircraft that is not public); and 3) Model aircraft. The FAA regulates the public and civil aircraft registration and approval process.

Model Aircraft/Small UAS
In 2012 the Act defined model aircraft as an "unmanned aircraft that is capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere, flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft, and flown for hobby or recreational purposes." PL 112-95, February 14, 2012, 126 Stat 11. The Act specified that the FAA could not regulate model aircraft if the aircraft:
  • Is for recreational or hobby use, meaning that the a person cannot use the drone for the person's occupation or any business purposes;
  • Adheres to a community-based set of safety guidelines that are within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization;
  • Does not interfere or approach manned aircraft operations;
  • Does not fly within 5 miles of an airport unless the operator provides notice to the airport and air traffic control tower before flying; and
  • Weighs less than 55 lbs., including fuel or load.
There are other safety guidelines that a model aircraft operator must follow including remaining below 400 feet, and maintaining a visual line of sight by the operator (using natural vision and having an unobstructed view at all times) along with a good judgment to avoid endangering people, animals or property.

Additionally, operators must be aware of Temporary Flight Restrictions. The FAA establishes these restrictions at specific events including major sporting events. A model aircraft could easily interfere with law enforcement, media and other aircraft required for these events and threaten public safety. Operators are required to be knowledgeable about these restrictions and not to fly drones in prohibited areas.

FAA Registration
On December 14, 2015, the FAA announced registration requirements for small model aircraft. Any aircraft weighing more than 0.55 lbs. (250 g), operated by an individual for recreational purposes must register with the FAA. If the aircraft weighs over 55 lbs. (25 kg), it no longer qualifies as a model aircraft and must be registered through a separate aircraft registry process.

The FAA requires registration before flying the drone but gave an extended registration deadline of February 19, 2016 to those who had already purchased a drone prior to December 21, 2015. Registration can be submitted online along with a five dollar fee and failure to register may result in civil and criminal penalties.

Proposed Legislation
Since the purchase of drones has rapidly increased, many communities are seeking efforts to regulate their use to protect the public from harm and concerns about invasion of privacy. According to the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL), twenty states passed legislation relating to drones in 2015. Legislation has focused on study committees to further examine drone technology and their impact on the community, while other legislation has focused on privacy to prevent photography of individuals or property without permission, and prohibiting the use of drones to collect information or photograph critical infrastructure facilities.

Here in Arizona, House Bill 2073 has been introduced by Representative Sonny Borrelli (R) that would prohibit the use of an unmanned aircraft system to intentionally photograph, record, collect information, conduct surveillance or gather evidence on 1) a critical facility or 2) a person or person's property without prior written consent. A critical facility is defined as petroleum and alumina refineries, chemical and rubber manufacturing facilities, and nuclear power electric generation facilities.

The Town of Paradise Valley recently enacted an ordinance to regulate the commercial, recreational and emergency use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV or drones). Commercial users are required to register and provide notice to officials prior to using the drone. Recreational drone users must comply with privacy regulations that prevent trespass over private property without the property owner's consent. The ordinance also prohibits the transmission of any visual images or recordings of any person or property from a location where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy such as the inside of a person's home or an enclosed yard. Additionally, the Town restricts the use of a drone in a careless or reckless manner that could endanger the public or property.

State and local governments across the nation continue to consider drone regulation that best addresses the needs of their residents while balancing the increased popularity and use of drones for recreational and commercial use. It is likely that other potential state and local regulation may be introduced across the country as this technology continues to evolve. As the legislative session continues, check the League's website for updates on legislation relating to drones.

Federal Aviation Administration - Unmanned Aircraft Systems

FAA Hobby/Recreational Flying Resource

State and Local Regulation of UAS Fact Sheet

NCSL Current Unmanned Aircraft State Law Landscape

House Bill 2073 (Rep. Borrelli)

Town of Paradise Valley Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Ordinance

League of Arizona Cities and Towns
1820 W. Washington St.
Phoenix, AZ  85007
Phone: 602-258-5786
Fax: 602-253-3874

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