Drone laws today are confusing. Looking around the country we see that many states and cities have passed their own laws and regulations to ban or restrict the use of drones. For example, in Texas, Texas Government Code Section 423 provides that an individual commits an offense if they use a drone to “capture an image of an individual or privately owned real property with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image.” Thus, in Texas, you cannot use drones for spying. But, you can still fly them, right?
For now, it appears you can if you are a hobbyist and not using the drone for commercial activities. State and local governments have no authority over the airspace. The federal government, i.e. the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), under 49 U.S. Code § 40103 “has exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States.” If all navigable airspace is overseen by the FAA, what can state and local governments regulate regarding commercial drones? Those boundaries of the law will be tested in the years to come as drone use becomes more prolific.
As an example, the state and local governments may be able to control take-off and landing sites for commercial drones. The states may also be able to restrict flights by using regulations more akin to trespassing statutes than by trying to control the air space.
For example, Texas Government Code Section 423.0045 enumerates the offense of operating a drone over critical infrastructure, such as dams, power plants, etc… Why might this state restriction not be preempted by the FAA? The section restricts the offense to include areas only if “completely enclosed by a fence or other physical barrier that is obviously designed to exclude intruders, or if clearly marked with a sign or signs that are posted on the property, are reasonably likely to come to the attention of intruders, and indicate that entry is forbidden.” And, it is even narrower in application as the drone must be flown below 400 feet over the structure, make contact with (i.e. crash into) the structure or interfere with the operation of the structure. This is more akin to trespass than a direct attempt to control the airspace.
So what is the takeaway? States cannot control the airspace per se, but it appears they might be able to use statutes that rely on other enforcement actions, like trespass, to restrict drone flight.
Tressie E. McKeon is an associate in the firm’s Litigation Department and head of its Aviation practice, resident in its Dallas office.