Don’t let states make a mess of drone laws

Delays in federal rule making and a patchwork of state laws could stifle a nascent industry.

Image credit: Getty
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“The nascent drone industry needs clear rules so that states do not inadvertently hamper innovation.”
In January, President Obama called for federal agencies to work with outside groups to develop a regulatory framework for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones.

This request, prompted by the discovery of an unauthorized drone on the White House lawn, could not have come soon enough. While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been ditheringly slow in creating commercial drone rules (draft rules are now indefinitely delayed), states are stepping in to fill the regulatory gap.

To date, 20 states have enacted laws addressing drone-related issues, with many more currently considering drone rules.

If this continues, future uses of drone technology—and the opportunities it represents to improve commerce, agriculture, and various other industries—will face a confusing patchwork of conflicting laws that will limit innovation and deployment of this technology.

In Virginia, for example, lawmakers recently introduced several bills aimed at allowing local governments throughout the state to ban individuals from operating small drones in their communities. In addition, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Washington State are all considering legislation designed to make it generally illegal for citizens to capture an image using a drone—a provision that could cripple a technology reliant on live-streaming video to operate. This is already creating confusion for drone users throughout the country, especially for the drone manufacturers who may ultimately have to follow different rules in every state.

While Congress has told the FAA to be ready with its drone rules by September 2015, the agency has repeatedly said it would not meet that deadline. In fact, at a recent Congressional hearing, James Williams, the supervisor of the FAA’s rollout of commercial UAS, said that the agency could not give a date for when the draft rules would be released—although he stated the final rule will not come until 2016 or 2017.

To be sure, the FAA has granted several companies exemptions for using commercial drones, including eight new exemptions this month, bringing the total to 24 companies. While this small step is helpful, the overall pace of FAA rulemaking will undoubtedly slow innovation. In fact, this uncertain climate has already caused some drone companies to relocate abroad.

If the government is not careful, the regulatory climate around drones could become as much of a morass as the one we now see with online sales taxes, where retailers must comply with separate rules in around 10,000 different sales tax jurisdictions.

The FAA last held a public meeting on this subject in May 2014, and in the proceeding months, cheaper and more powerful UAS technology has seen U.S. sales skyrocket—the users of which operate with little oversight. This process is simply going too slowly.

In fact, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently released a report finding that the United States lags behind other countries in establishing clear commercial drone regulations. The federal government should take the lead in setting clear, uniform rules in an expedient manner for these devices that can so easily transverse state borders.

It is well past time for the federal government—including the agencies charged by the president to oversee drone integration into U.S. airspace—to initiate commercial drone rulemaking and work with stakeholders to identify best practices for drone regulation and integration.

To be sure, safety is the utmost priority – no one wants to see a drone fly into a manned aircraft or be outfitted with a weapon. We need a thoughtful process to carefully consider the precedence of safety.

However, the nascent drone industry needs clear rules so that states do not inadvertently hamper innovation in an attempt to protect their citizens’ safety and privacy, and a multi-stakeholder discussion with industry, consumer protection groups, and other relevant stakeholders can help the FAA work through these issues. The FAA should take up the president’s call to action and recommit to meeting the congressionally-imposed deadline of September 2015.

Alan McQuinn is a Research Assistant with the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF).

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