Drone Federalism Act Would Bring Regulation to Local Level

Once again, a proposed bill is attempting to bring the regulation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) down to the local level. The bipartisan legislation, the Drone Federalism Act of 2017, would “establish a process for federal, state, local and tribal governments to work together to manage the use of recreational and commercial drones,” according to the senators who proposed it.

Of course, this bill comes at a time when the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) authority to regulate hobbyist drones is up in the air; last week, a federal appeals court decided that the FAA’s requiring recreational drone operators to register their aircraft is unlawful.

The bill is being rolled out by U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Mike Lee, R-Utah; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; and Tom Cotton, R-Ark. A few years ago, Feinstein also proposed the Consumer Drone Safety Act, which also would have regulated recreational drones.

In regards to the Drone Federalism Act, Feinstein says in a press release that the bill “allows communities to create low-altitude speed limits, local no-drone zones or rules that are appropriate to their own circumstances.”

“We need prudent regulations that respond to the variety of new risks that drones present,” she argues.

“We need to be confident that drones are operated safely no matter where they’re flown,” says Blumenthal. “This legislation protects the rights of state and local governments to implement reasonable restrictions on drones in their communities while ensuring that the Federal Aviation Administration keeps our national airspace the safest in the world.”

The press release states that the new bill would “create a flexible framework for collaboration between all levels of government” by doing as follows:

  • Keeping the FAA’s “general authority over the national airspace while preserving the authority of state, local and tribal governments to issue reasonable restrictions on the time, manner and place of drone operations within 200 feet of the ground or a structure”;
  • Reaffirming that the federal government “will respect private property rights to the airspace immediately above a property, including the first 200 feet”; and
  • “Directing the FAA to partner with a diverse group of cities and states to test out different approaches, inform the unmanned traffic management pilot program and report best practices.”

Lee argues that “neighbors, communities and local governments are all still trying to figure out the best way to balance the property rights of drone users, land owners and public safety.” In turn, he believes that “disputes need to be decided at the local level, not with top-down proclamations from Washington.”

According to Cotton, the Drone Federalism Act would “return power to regulate everyday drone use to the proper level.”

“By passing this legislation, we will protect private property rights and allow local communities to tailor drone rules to their specific needs,” he says.

The press release notes that the bill has received support from the United States Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties. In addition, the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the National Association of State Aviation Officials have written a letter of support to the lawmakers:

“States have been at the forefront of responsible drone regulation related to their traditional police powers. As Congress continues its work on a 2017 FAA reauthorization, we support bipartisan efforts to preserve state, local and tribal rights regarding drone operations.”


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