While drones have been used to capture breathtaking and heartbreaking images of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath,  the FAA has issued a warning to drone operators.

The FAA has issued reminders that unless drone operators have specific authorization from the FAA, they are not permitted to operate where Temporary Flight Restrictions (“TFR”) are in place.  The primary reason is that operating an unauthorized drone in these areas could interfere with local, state, and federal rescue missions.

The FAA notes that if a drone operator interferes with emergency response operations, they could be subject to significant fines. In addition, even in areas where TFRs are not in effect, operating a drone without authorization in or near a disaster area  may violate federal, state, or local law.

Even in the absence of a natural disaster, operating a drone over people is prohibited by Part 107, unless a specific exemption has been granted by the FAA. Moreover, reckless operation of a drone is also prohibited.

While drones have incredible abilities to assist first responders and others, whether through providing real-time images and data that would be difficult or impossible to obtain through other means, unauthorized drone operations also have the potential to interfere with the efforts of first responders.

As tempting as it may be to fly a drone in or near a disaster area to capture footage, for the safety of all, please refrain from doing so unless you have specific authorization from the FAA.

Powered by developments in aviation, sensing, and software technology, the drone industry is projected to be one of the fastest growing industries, with sales expected to top $12 billion by 2021.[2] Within the next decade, the commercial drone industry alone is expected to generate more than $82 billion and could provide 100,000 new jobs.[3]

The unprecedented growth of the drone and unmanned aerial systems (“UAS”) industry has not waited for governmental regulation to catch up. Now, federal, state, and municipal governments are struggling with how to regulate UAS use. Regulation of UAS by both federal and state governments has led to issues relating to federal and state preemption, with both authorities continuing to assert that they possess the authority to regulate drones. For instance, the U.S. Senate recently introduced the Drone Federalism Act of 2017.

Illinois is another State that has recently has taken its first steps to lay the groundwork for UAS regulation and the future use of drones in the State.

Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act

Presently, the only statute in Illinois expressly addressing drone use is the Freedom from Drone Surveillance Act (the “Act”).[4] The Act provides generally that law enforcement agencies cannot use drones to gather information.[5] However, the Act allows for the use of drones by a law enforcement agency in the following limited circumstances:

  1. to counter a high risk of a terrorist attack if the United States Secretary of Homeland Security determines that credible intelligence indicates there is that risk;
  2. if a law enforcement agency first obtains a search warrant based on probable cause, provided the warrant is limited to 45 days;
  3. if a law enforcement agency possesses reasonable suspicion that swift action is needed to prevent imminent harm to life, or to forestall the imminent escape of a suspect or destruction of evidence; provided, however, the use of the drone is limited to a period of 48 hours;
  4. if a law enforcement agency is attempting to locate a missing person, and is not also undertaking a criminal investigation;
  5. if a law enforcement agency is using a drone solely for crime scene and traffic crash scene photography; provided, however, the use of a drone on private property requires a search warrant based on probably cause or lawful consent to search; and
  6. if a law enforcement agency is using a drone during a disaster or public health emergency.[6]

Moreover, except as provided by one of the exceptions above, a law enforcement agency may not acquire information from or direct the acquisition of information through the use of a drone owned by a private third party.[7] If a court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that a law enforcement agency used a drone to gather information in violation of the Act, then the information is presumed to be inadmissible in any judicial or administrative proceeding.[8]

The Illinois Unmanned Aerial System Oversight Task Force

On August 18, 2015, Public Act 99-392 became effective, creating the Unmanned Aerial System Oversight Task Force (the “Task Force”). The mission of the Task Force was “to study and make recommendations for the operation, usage, and regulation of Unmanned Aerial Systems.”[9] On June 30, 2016, the Task Force submitted its recommendations to the Governor and General Assembly, which struck a balance between safety, deference to federal oversight, and allowing commercial use of UAS to become a considerable economic driver in Illinois.[10]

The Task Force found that UAS operations should generally be permitted if they do not cause a safety hazard, do not infringe on the privacy or property rights of others, and if performed in accordance with applicable FAA rules and regulations.[11] Any legislative action relating to UAS was recommended to be flexible to adapt State-level oversight to the changing UAS regulatory landscape at the federal level.[12]

To this end, the Task Force found that statutes currently exist that address individual concerns, such as privacy and property rights.[13] For instance, statutes and ordinances exist regarding voyeurism, harassment, stalking, disorderly conduct, public nuisance, reckless endangerment, and recording of individuals in locations where there exists a reasonable expectation of privacy.[14] As such, the Task Force found no reason to create numerous new laws or amend existing statutes related to acts committed by UAS.[15] Rather, it was recommended that the General Assembly consider a global “extension of oneself” clause that would serve to link the operator with the UAS.[16]

The increased use of drones also raises questions regarding the balance between federal and state regulation. Importantly, the Task Force analyzed the topic of preemption at length.[17] With regard to federal preemption, the Task Force determined that any State-level oversight relative to UAS operations should complement and not conflict with FAA rules and regulations.[18] As to State preemption, the Task Force recommended that the General Assembly enact State-level preemption regarding UAS oversight in Illinois.[19] The Task Force reasoned that a patchwork of local ordinances would lead to confusion and would place an increased burden on UAS operators and the UAS industry.[20] In addition, a patchwork of local ordinances would negatively impact commercial and public operators that operate UAS in multiple locations throughout the State and across municipal boundaries.[21]

The Task Force also focused on the potential commercial use of UAS in Illinois.[22] Finding the commercial use of UAS is heavily regulated at the federal level, the Task Force noted that commercial use should generally not be subjected to additional operating restrictions provided operations are performed safely and in accordance with the FAA.[23] The Task Force determined that UAS can develop into an economic driver for the State, by enhancing employee efficiency and productivity, through retail sales revenues, and also by creating or sustaining jobs in UAS design, development, manufacturing, distribution, retail, and professional commercial operators.[24]

City of Chicago

Chicago was the first major American city to approve a comprehensive set of drone regulations.[25] The regulations appear to balance protecting public safety while at the same time encouraging innovation and technology.[26] The ordinance provides that it is unlawful to operate a drone in the City unless it is registered with the Department of Aviation.[27] Registration is valid for one (1) year and costs an annual fee of $50.[28] In addition, the owner of a drone must maintain a liability insurance policy that insures the owner, lessee, and operator of the aircraft.[29] The insurance policy must name the City of Chicago as an additional insured.[30] A drone must also have a valid identification tag issued by the Department of Aviation affixed to it.[31]

Under the ordinance, it is unlawful for a person to operate a drone in City airspace: for the purpose of conducting surveillance, unless permitted by law; within five (5) miles of an airport; that is equipped with a firearm or other weapon; with intent to use the small unmanned aircraft to cause harm to persons or property; within one-quarter mile of an open air assembly unit, school, hospital, or place of worship; at any altitude higher than four hundred (400) feet above ground level; outside the line of sight of the operator; while under the influence of alcohol or drugs; whenever weather conditions would impair the operator’s ability to do so safely; or between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m.[32] Any person who violates the ordinance will be fined not less than $500.00 nor more than $5,000.00 for each offense, or may be incarcerated for a term not to exceed 180 days, or both.[33]

Favorable regulations relating to drone use could result in great economic potential for the future use of drones in Illinois, a notion that the Task Force seemed to understand. The Task Force’s recommendations balance the competing interests of public safety and commercial use. It is still too early to tell if the General Assembly will heed the Task Force’s advice. However, practitioners and businesses operating in Illinois should be on look-out for legislative and regulatory changes in this burgeoning area of the law. In addition, continue to visit Fox Rothschild’s blog for updates on how such changes will affect the general landscape of UAS regulations.

[2] BI Intelligence, The Drones Report: Market forecasts, regulatory barriers, top vendors, and leading commercial applications, June 10, 2016, available at http://www.businessinsider.com/uav-or-commercial-drone-market-forecast-2015-2

[3] The White House, Fact Sheet: New Commitments to Accelerate the Safe Integration of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, August 2, 2016, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/08/02/fact-sheet-new-commitments-accelerate-safe-integration-unmanned-aircraft

[4] 725 ILCS 167/1, et. seq.

[5] 725 ILCS 167/10.

[6] Id. at § 15.

[7] Id. at § 40.

[8] Id. at § 30.

[9] 20 ILCS 5065/15(a).

[10] Illinois Unmanned Aerial System Oversight Task Force, UAS Recommendations Report, June 30, 2016, available at http://www.idot.illinois.gov/Assets/uploads/files/Transportation-System/Reports/Aero/IUASOTF/UAS%20Recommendations%20Report-IUASOTF-2016-06-30.pdf.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Justin Peters, SLATE, Chicago Becomes the First Big City to Enact Drone Regulations, Nails Them, Nov. 20, 2015, available at http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2015/11/20/chicago_enacts_drone_regulations_that_are_really_good.html.

[26] Id.

[27] Chicago Municipal Code, 9-121-020(a).

[28] Id. at 9-121-030(a).

[29] Id. at 9-121-040(a).

[30] Id. at 9-121-040(b).

[31] Id. at 9-121-050(a).

[32] Id. at 9-121-060(a).

[33] Id. at 9-121-070.

The challenge presented by having federal, state and local authorities all attempting to regulate drones is a topic we have addressed on this blog and in other publications (see links below). Unfortunately, a solution to that challenge remains elusive.

State and local authorities continue to assert that they possess the authority to regulate drones. That position, coupled with the current state of the federal regulatory process , has now been further complicated by the introduction of the Drone Federalism Act of 2017 (“Drone Federalism Act” or “Act”) also known as S. 1272, which was recently introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senator Feinstein.

If enacted, the Drone Federalism Act will amend Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act and will provide states broad rights to regulate drone operations. It requires the FAA Administrator to not only define the preemptive effect of federal regulations regarding unmanned aircraft operations, but it also requires the Administrator to: “preserve, to the greatest extent practicable, legitimate interests of State, local, and tribal governments, including— (A) protecting public safety; (B) protecting personal privacy; (C) protecting property rights; (D) managing land use; and (E) restricting nuisances and noise pollution.”

The Drone Federalism Act also requires the Administrator, when enacting regulations or standards regarding drones, to “ensure that the authority of a State, local, or tribal government to issue reasonable restrictions on the time, manner, and place of operation of a civil unmanned aircraft system that is operated below 200 feet above ground level or within 200 feet of a structure is not preempted.”

The Act specifically states that “reasonable restrictions” include:

  • Limitations on speed
  • Prohibitions or limitations on operations in the vicinity of schools, parks, roadways, bridges, or other public or private property;
  • Restrictions on operations at certain times of the day or week or on specific occasions such as during parades or sporting events;

  • Prohibitions on operations while the operator is under the influence of drugs or alcohol;

  • Prohibitions on careless or reckless operations; and

  • Other prohibitions that protect public safety, personal privacy, or property rights, or that manage land use or restrict noise pollution.

58499289 – no drone, multicopter prohibited symbol. not fly zone. sign indicating the prohibition or rule. warning and forbidden. flat design. vector illustration. easy to use and edit.

If enacted, the Act will only lead to a further patchwork of state and local laws, making compliance for drone operators exceedingly difficult. We have addressed some of those concerns in other writings.

While a solution to the patchwork of laws is necessary, the Drone Federalism Act does not solve that problem. Rather, it only exacerbates the problem.

Recently, several members of my Firm and I had the opportunity to speak on a panel at the New York City Drone Film Festival (“NYCDFF”) regarding legal issues and drones. Thanks to the excellent moderation of Randy Slavin, the founder of the NYCDFF, we had the opportunity to discuss several legal issues. While the presentation was directed to attendees of the NYCDFF, the discussion encompassed a fairly wide breadth of legal issues.  Among the issues discussed are the current state of drone regulations, first amendment issues, liability issues, intellectual property, drone cinematography, releases, and insurance issues. I recommend anyone who is interested to watch the video of the panel presentation. Also, if you are not familiar with the NYCDFF, I highly recommend checking it out.

 

 small drone

Some of the legal issues discussed in this blog merit a more in-depth analysis and discussion. That level of analysis and discussion, however, is not well-suited for a blog, due to length and other issues.

For that reason, we also publish in other forums which are better suited to a more in-depth analysis and discussion. An example of an issue meriting more in-depth analysis and discussion is the tension between federal versus state regulation of drones.

State and local laws regulating drones often conflict in some way with both the FAA’s assertion of exclusive authority over the national airspace and its resolve to establish a single national policy for drones.

To address these contemporary and dynamic issues, Fox Rothschild attorneys Mark Connot and Jason Zummo, members of the firm’s UAS/Drones practice group, recently authored Everybody Wants To Rule the World: Federal vs. State Power To Regulate Drones, to be published in the widely recognized journal, The Air & Space Lawyer, Volume 29, Number 3, 2016.

In the article, Connot and Zummo analyze the ways in which federal preemption currently applies in the aviation context and the potentially fraught relationship between the interests of federal, state, and local governments in regulating drones. In addition to highlighting a recently introduced federal legislative measure that could provide a path to reconciling those regulatory interests, the authors conclude that state and local authorities should regulate drone uses with restraint, recognizing both the breadth of federal regulatory authority over aviation and the need to encourage, not suffocate, this burgeoning industry.

Click here to view the full article.

Published in The Air & Space Lawyer, Volume 29, Number 3, 2016. © 2016 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.

 

Fox

On May 24, 2016, we published an article discussing the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”) issuance of Best Practices for privacy and other issues surrounding drone use. Attached as an Appendix to those Best Practices is a list of guidelines for neighborly drone use intended to be a quick and easy reference guide for recreational drone operators. It goes without saying that for recreational users it is worth reviewing, and is reproduced in its entirety below:

Drones are useful. New, fairly cheap drones are easy to use. But just because they are cheap and simple to fly doesn’t mean the pictures and video they take can’t harm other people. The FAA and partner organizations have put safety guidance online at http://knowbeforeyoufly.org. But even safe flight might not respect other people’s privacy. These are voluntary guidelines. No one is forcing you to obey them. Privacy is hard to define, but it is important. There is a balance between your rights as a drone user and other people’s rights to privacy. That balance isn’t easy to find. You should follow the detailed “UAS Privacy Best Practices”, on which these guidelines are based, especially if you fly drones often, or use them commercially. The overarching principle should be peaceful issue resolution.
  1. If you can, tell other people you’ll be taking pictures or video of them before you do.
  2. If you think someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy, don’t violate that privacy by taking pictures, video, or otherwise gathering sensitive data, unless you’ve got a very good reason.
  3. Don’t fly over other people’s private property without permission if you can easily avoid doing so.
  4. Don’t gather personal data for no reason, and don’t keep it for longer than you think you have to.
  5. If you keep sensitive data about other people, secure it against loss or theft.
  6. If someone asks you to delete personal data about him or her that you’ve gathered, do so, unless you’ve got a good reason not to.
  7. If anyone raises privacy, security, or safety concerns with you, try and listen to what they have to say, as long as they’re polite and reasonable about it.
  8. Don’t harass people with your drone.

Drones are a uniquely transformative technology in the commercial and private sectors. Indeed, greater operational flexibility, lower capital requirements, and lower operating costs allow drones to enrich people’s daily lives by providing innovative services, safer infrastructure, recreational uses, and greater economic activity. The assimilation of this technology into everyday life, however, raises concerns for privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties.

In recent years drone popularity has soared. According to the FAA there are about 5,600 drones registered for commercial purposes and roughly 450,000 hobbyists who have registered at least one drone. This popularity has put pressure on the drone industry and privacy advocates to reach agreement on guidelines governing drone use.

Seeking to promote the responsible use of drone technology in a way that does not diminish rights and freedoms, President Obama, on February 15, 2015, issued the Presidential Memorandum, “Promoting Economic Competitiveness While Safeguarding Privacy, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in Domestic Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.”

That memo directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”) to establish a multi-stakeholder engagement process—including stakeholders from the private sector—to develop and communicate Best Practices for privacy, accountability, and transparency issues regarding commercial and private drone use in the National Airspace System. And so, on May 18, 2016, the stakeholders came to consensus and issued a document on Best Practices for privacy and other issues surrounding drone use.[1]

Best Practices

The purpose of that document was to outline and describe voluntary Best Practices that drone operators could take to advance drone privacy, transparency, and accountability for the private and commercial use of drones. These Best Practices may be implemented by drone operators in a variety of ways depending on their circumstances and technology uses, and evolving privacy expectations. Yet these Best Practices do not—and are not meant to—create a legal standard of care by which the activities of any particular drone operator should be judged. Nor are the Best Practices intended to serve as a template for future statutory or regulatory obligations—doing so would make these standards mandatory (not voluntary) and could therefore raise First Amendment concerns.

At its core, the Best Practices call for drone users to notify other individuals of drone use and data collecting activities; practice caution when it comes to collecting and storing the data of specific individuals; restrict use and sharing of that data; implement measures to ensure security of covered data[2]; and comply with laws on the use of drones.

These Best Practices focus on data collected via drones, which includes both commercial and non-commercial drones; they do not apply to news gatherers and news reporting organizations or to safety and rescue missions and other emergency response efforts.

In any event, here are the Best Practices in their entirety:

  1. Inform Others of Your Use of Drones
  • (a) Where practicable, drone operators should make a reasonable effort—what qualifies as a practicable and reasonable effort to provide prior notice will depend on operators’ circumstances and the context of the drone operation—to provide prior notice to individuals of the general timeframe and area that they may anticipate a drone intentionally collecting covered data.
  • (b) When a drone operator anticipates that drone use may result in collection of covered data, the operator should provide a privacy policy for such data appropriate to the size and complexity of the operator, or incorporate such a policy into an existing privacy policy. The privacy policy should be in place no later than the time of collection and made publicly available. The policy should include, as practicable:
    • (1) the purposes for which the drone will collect covered data;
    • (2) the kinds of covered data the drone will collect;
    • (3) information regarding any data retention and de-identification practices;
    • (4) examples of the types of any entities with whom covered data will be shared;
    • (5) information on how to submit privacy and security complaints or concerns; and
    • (6) information describing practices in responding to law enforcement requests.
  1. Show Care When Operating Drones or Collecting and Storing Covered Data
  • (a) In the absence of a compelling need to do otherwise, or consent of the data subjects,[3] drone operators should avoid using a drone for the specific purpose of intentionally collecting covered data where the operator knows the data subject has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
  • (b) In the absence of a compelling need to do otherwise, or consent of the data subjects, drone operators should avoid using a drone for the specific purpose of persistent and continuous collection of covered data about individuals.
  • (c) Where it will not impede the purpose for which the drone is used or conflict with FAA guidelines, drone operators should make a reasonable effort to minimize drone operations over or within private property without consent of the property owner or without appropriate legal authority.
  • (d) Drone operators should make a reasonable effort to avoid knowingly retaining covered data longer than reasonably necessary to fulfill a purpose as outlined in § 1(b). With the consent of the data subject, or in exceptional circumstances (such as legal disputes or safety incidents), such data may be held for a longer period.
  • (e) Drone operators should establish a process, appropriate to the size and complexity of the operator, for receiving privacy or security concerns, including requests to delete, de-identify, or obfuscate the data subject’s covered data. Commercial operators should make this process easily accessible to the public, such as by placing points of contact on a company website.

  1. Limit the Use and Sharing of Covered Data
  • (a) Drone operators should not use covered data for the following purposes without consent: employment eligibility, promotion, or retention; credit eligibility; or health care treatment eligibility other than when expressly permitted by and subject to the requirements of a sector-specific regulatory framework.
  • (b) Drone operators should make a reasonable effort to avoid using or sharing covered data for any purpose that is not included in the privacy policy covering drone data.
  • (c) If publicly disclosing covered data is not necessary to fulfill the purpose for which the drone is used, drone operators should avoid knowingly publicly disclosing data collected via drone until the operator has undertaken a reasonable effort to obfuscate or de-identify covered data —unless the data subjects provide consent to the disclosure.
  • (d) Drone operators should make a reasonable effort to avoid using or sharing covered data for marketing purposes unless the data subject provides consent to the use or disclosure. There is no restriction on the use or sharing of aggregated covered data as an input (e.g., statistical information) for broader marketing campaigns.
  1. Secure Covered Data
  • (a) Drone operators should take measures to manage security risks of covered data by implementing a program that contains reasonable administrative, technical, and physical safeguards appropriate to the operator’s size and complexity, the nature and scope of its activities, and the sensitivity of the covered data.
  • (b) Examples of appropriate administrative, technical, and physical safeguards include those described in guidance from the Federal Trade Commission, the National Institute of Standards and Technology Cybersecurity Framework, and the International Organization for Standardization’s 27001 standard for information security management.
  • (c) For example, drone operators engaging in commercial activity should consider taking the following actions to secure covered data:
    • Having a written security policy with respect to the collection, use, storage, and dissemination of covered data appropriate to the size and complexity of the operator and the sensitivity of the data collected and retained.
    • Making a reasonable effort to regularly monitor systems for breach and data security risks.
    • Making a reasonable effort to provide security training to employees with access to covered data.
    • Making a reasonable effort to permit only authorized individuals to access covered data.
  1. Monitor and Comply with Evolving Federal, State, and Local Drone Laws
  • Drone operators should ensure compliance with evolving applicable laws and regulations and drone operators’ own privacy and security policies through appropriate internal processes.

These Best Practices are at present voluntary, however, they may end up as rules that commercial and non-commercial drone operators will have to follow in the future. Indeed, the U.S. Senate has asked the NTIA for a set of privacy guidelines that could serve as the basis for further federal legislation. See FAA Reauthorization Act of 2016, Sec. 2101. With all the news stories about irresponsible individuals using drones for illegal activities or violating people’s privacy, the existence of these Best Practices could be legal fodder for anyone who wants to prosecute you or your company for drone activities. Do yourself or your company a favor, take the initiative and start applying these guidelines today.

Endnotes:

[1] The stakeholders that support this Best Practices document include: Amazon, AUVSI, Center for Democracy and Technology, Consumer Technology Association, CTIA, Future of Privacy Forum, New America’s Open Technology Institute, PrecisionHawk, X (Formerly Google [x]), Small UAV Coalition, Online Trust Association, News Media Coalition, Newspaper Association of America, National Association of Broadcasters, Radio Television Digital News Association, Digital Content Next, Software & Information Industry Association, NetChoice.

[2] “Covered data” means information collected by a drone that identifies a particular person. If data collected by a drone likely will not be linked to an individual’s name or other personally identifiable information, or if the data is altered so that a specific person is not recognizable, it is not covered data.

[3] The term “data subjects” refers to the individuals about whom covered data is collected.

Today, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta (“Huerta”) announced plans to make it easier for students to fly drones as part of their coursework. Huerta first recognized the uncertainty surrounding when a drone is a model aircraft operated for “hobby or recreation.” That uncertainty, Huerta noted, left a number of questions on the use of model aircraft by students and faculty in connection with participation in coursework at educational institutions.

As part of Huerta’s announcement, the FAA released an Interpretation Memorandum (“Memo”) that specifically addressed two key issues: (1) the use of drones for “hobby or recreational purposes” at educational institutions and community-sponsored events (e.g., demonstrations at schools, boy or girl scout meetings, science clubs, etc.) and (2) student and faculty use of drones in furtherance of receiving and providing instruction at educational institutions. Essentially, the FAA sought to clarify the applicability of Section 336 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”) in the educational context.

Drone teacher

Hobbyist Use of Drones to Conduct Demonstrations

As a matter of background, Section 336(a) of the FMRA provides special rules for model aircraft. Those rules require, among other things, that the aircraft be: (1) flown strictly for hobby or recreational use; (2) limited to not more than 55 pounds and; (3) operated in accordance with a community-based standards of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization. Importantly, for an operation to qualify as a “model aircraft” operation and be subject to Section 336 above, depends on whether the drone operation is for “hobby or recreational” purposes.

Accordingly, the FAA clarified that a person may operate a drone for “hobby or recreation” in accordance with Section 336 at educational institutions and community-sponsored events provided that the person is (1) not compensated, or (2) any compensation received is neither directly nor incidentally related to that person’s operation of the aircraft at such events.

In substance, the FAA interpreted “hobby or recreational” use to include operation of drones to conduct demonstrations at accredited educational institutions or at other community-sponsored events subject to the above requirements being met. This is important because now a model aircraft hobbyist or enthusiast lawfully may fly drones at such institutions or events to promote the use of drones and encourage student interest in aviation as a hobby or for recreational purposes.

Student Operation of Model Aircraft for Educational Purposes

Next, the FAA considered whether a student’s course work of learning how to operate and use a drone constitutes a hobby or recreational activity within the meaning of Section 336’s definition of model aircraft. The FAA found that “the use of [drones] by students at accredited educational institutions as a component of science, technology and aviation-related educational curricula or other coursework such as television and film production or the arts more closely reflects and embodies the purposes of “hobby or recreational” use of model aircraft and is consistent with the intent of Section 336.”

Therefore, the FAA concluded that student use of drones at such institutions as a component of their educational curricula, or other coursework, is “hobby or recreational use” within the meaning of the FMRA. Note that the student still must comply with all other elements required for lawful model aircraft operations pursuant to Section 336, that is, not receiving any form of compensation directly or incidentally to his or her operation of the model aircraft.

Faculty Use of Model Aircraft

Respecting faculty, the FAA found that because a faculty member engaging in the operation of a drone is being compensated for his or her teaching or research activity, they would not be engaging in a “hobby or recreational activity.” Accordingly, the faculty member may not rely on Section 336’s concept of “hobby or recreational use” to either operate a drone or direct student drone operations in connection with such research.

Nevertheless, the FAA found that a faculty member teaching a course that uses drones as a component of that course may provide limited assistance (e.g., the faculty member steps-in to regain control in the event the student begins to lose control, to terminate the flight, etc.) to students operating drones as part of that course without changing the character of the student’s operation as a hobby or recreational activity or requiring FAA authorization for the faculty member to operate.

This “de minimis” limited instructor participation would apply to courses at educational institutions where the operation of the drone is secondary to the design and construction of the aircraft, such that the primary purpose of the course is not operating a drone. The FAA illustrates this limited circumstance with two examples.

The first example involves an instructor teaching an engineering course in which construction and operation of drones are one part of the curriculum. In this scenario, the instructor would be able to conduct limited drone operations as described above. Students would fly drones to test the validity of design or construction methods to show mastery of the principles of the course. But the faculty member’s drone operation would be secondary to the purpose of instructing engineering courses.

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Conversely, this limited circumstance would not apply to a course related to drone flight instruction. In this scenario, the student’s primary purpose for taking the course is to learn to fly a drone. Flight would be expected to be demonstrated on a regular basis. Indeed, the faculty member’s drone operation is closely tied to his or her purpose of instructing how to fly a drone. Similar to student operations, these faculty operations must also abide by the provisions of Section 336.

Students and faculty members who wish to operate drones outside of these parameters above must seek FAA authorization. Currently, there are three ways to lawfully conduct drone operations in the U.S.: (1) as public aircraft operations pursuant to the requirements of the public aircraft statute and under a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) from the FAA; (2) as limited commercial operations by type certificated drone, provided the operator obtains a COA from the FAA; or (3) pursuant to a Section 333 of the FMRA grant of exemption provided the operator obtains a COA from the FAA.

Schools and students will no longer need a Section 333 exemption or any other authorization to fly provided they follow the rules for model aircraft and operate within the parameters described above. Further, faculty will be able to use drones in connection with helping their students with certain types of courses as set forth above. Schools and universities are incubators for tomorrow’s great ideas. The FAA’s interpretation is going to be a significant shot in the arm for innovation.

Federal versus State

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The quote above aptly describes the present legal landscape surrounding drones. Drone technology and popularity continues to skyrocket. But as numerous state and local laws regulating drones conflict with both the FAA’s contention that it controls the airspace and the FAA’s desire to establish a single national policy for drones, the legal and regulatory framework in the U.S. remains murky.

The FAA’s authority to regulate airspace, noise control, and safety is not questioned. Indeed, any attempt by states to regulate those aviation subfields will be deemed preempted. Despite this, many argue that “the FAA’s authority over safety still leaves a lot of room for states to act, and they have.” Furthermore, whether that authority extends to issues like privacy is questionable.

This is a world of action, and not for moping and droning in.”

– Charles Dickens

State and local governments have enacted hundreds of statutes and ordinances that seek to regulate drones. Those statutes and ordinances have created a patchwork of varying laws and regulations affecting drone operations.

 “I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free.”

– Charles Dickens, Bleak House

In an effort to clarify the responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments with respect to the regulation of drones, Senator John Thune recently introduced “Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2016” (the “FRA”) in the U.S. Senate.

Section 2142(a) of the FRA would establish a federal preemption for state and local laws relating to the design, manufacture, testing, licensing, registration, certification, operation, or maintenance of a drone, including airspace, altitude, flight paths, equipment or technology requirements, purpose of operations, and pilot, operator, and observer qualifications, training, and certification.

However, under Section 2142(b), state or local laws (including common law causes of action) relating to nuisance, voyeurism, harassment, reckless endangerment, wrongful death, personal injury, property damage, or other illegal acts arising from the use of drones would not be preempted if they are not specifically related to the use of a drone.

Express preemption occurs when Congress has explicitly stated that state law will be preempted by the enactment of federal law or regulation. The FRA is a bold and important proposal because only two other instances of express preemption exist regarding aviation: (1) Congress has expressly asserted “exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States,” and has placed “exclusive authority for regulating the airspace above the United States with the [FAA]” and (2) Under the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, Congress prohibited states from enacting laws “related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier that may provide air transportation.”

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“‘Do you spell it with a ‘V’ or a ‘W,’ inquired the judge? That depends upon the taste and fancy of the speller, my Lord.”

– Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

The FRA is Congress’ attempt to establish a single national policy for drones by explicitly granting the FAA supremacy over all laws seeking to regulate drone operations. But many argue that it “would also block local governments from adopting measures prohibiting encroachment on private property.”

The patchwork of laws whereby federal, state, and local governments all seek to regulate drone operations creates a Byzantine scheme that only inhibits the growth of the drone industry. It is unnecessary for state or local governments to enact drone specific legislation, as existing state or local laws already cover the areas delineated in Section 2142(b) of the FRA.

Shaken and disoriented, the young student dragged himself down a dark and empty alley in a slum of Mumbai. As warm blood trickled down his forehead into his eyes, momentarily blinding him, a voice in his head screamed “why didn’t I just hand over the stupid money…he had a knife!” As his hunched over shape materialized from the darkness of the alley, curious bystanders gathered around as he collapsed from his many gaping wounds.

Quietly hovering above the closed set and crowd of extras, a drone captured the action on film using a high quality Red One camera for an episode of Criminal Minds. As filmmakers use drones more regularly on set, they are changing the way that movies and television shows are made.

The dynamic ability of drones provides directors and cinematographers with a myriad of unique opportunities. Drones are becoming popular tools for the film industry because they allow filmmakers to create more distinctive shots quicker, safer, and cheaper.  With their ability to go where people and manned aircraft simply cannot, drones allow filmmakers to capture previously unattainable images such as overhead imagery from perspectives too low for a manned helicopter and too high for a crane.

As drone technology evolves and high definition cameras become more durable and compact, formerly difficult, expensive, and dangerous shots will become easier and more viable to obtain. This will ultimately open up new cinematic possibilities that will push innovative and creative boundaries in the industry.

The dynamic filmmaking ability and cost effectiveness of drones on TV and film sets has allowed filmmakers to minimize the use of manned helicopters, both reducing hazards and costs. Although less than 10% of all film productions currently use drones, aerial cinematography companies using drones typically cost Hollywood studios $4,500 to $8,000 a day, compared with $15,000 to $25,000 for a helicopter shoot.

While drone use in cinematography may reduce flight risk and costs, it is not without limitations. Image quality and stabilization continue to present technical challenges. Additionally, with a limited battery life, drones carrying heavy high definition movie cameras do not allow for long shoots. Furthermore, when it comes to filming high-speed action scenes, helicopters are often preferable to drones. However, as drone technology continues to improve, the future of drone filmmaking is limited only by imagination.

The FAA has jurisdiction over the use of drones for commercial purposes. Therefore, using a drone for filming without specific FAA approval violates current FAA regulations. Although the current legal and regulatory framework in the U.S. is murky, the FAA intends to issue final regulations governing commercial drones sometime this year.

Until those new regulations are issued, here are some current basic guidelines for closed set motion picture and television drone filming:

  1. Drones are not permitted to fly within 5 miles of an airport, unless written permission is obtained.
  2. The drone must weigh less than 55 pounds, including energy source(s) and equipment.
  3. The drone may not be flown at a ground speed exceeding 87 knots (100 MPH).
  4. Flights must be operated at an altitude of no more than 400 feet above ground level (AGL).
  5. The drone must be operated within visual line of sight of the drone operator at all times. All operations must utilize a visual observer.
  6. The drone operator must possess at least a private pilot certificate.
  7. The drone must remain clear and yield the right of way to all other manned operations and activities at all times.
  8. Drone operations may not be conducted during night.
  9. The drone may not be operated from any moving device or vehicle, i.e., operator must operate from a stationary position.
  10. The drone may not be operated directly over any person, except authorized and consenting production personnel essential to the close-set film operations, below an altitude that is hazardous to persons or property on the surface in the event of a drone failure or emergency.
  11. The operator must ensure that no non-participating persons and vehicles are allowed within 500 feet of the area except those consenting to be involved and necessary for the filming production. This provision may be reduced to no less than 200 feet if it would not adversely affect safety and the FAA has approved it.

If you intend to use drones for commercial filming, it is critical that you verify the drone operator you engage is authorized by the FAA and any applicable state law to operate drones. It is also up to you “to verify that such authorization is for the purpose for which you engage the drone operator.” This is an important detail because while operators may be granted an exemption to operate drones for “aerial cinematography,” there are also exemptions for other purposes not related to filming, such as aerial surveillance of pipelines, crops, and real estate.

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In addition to authenticating that the drone operator has proper credentials, it is important to verify if other permits, exceptions, or permissions are needed for your specific use as mandated by the FAA or other applicable law.

It is also important to note that “just because a company has been granted an (via Section 333) exemption, that does not necessarily mean it can legally fly a drone for commercial filming purposes.” Again, it is up to you to make sure that the drone operator you engage lawfully may provide the service. Before becoming involved in drone cinematography, either on your own or through the use of another company, it is important that you consult legal counsel knowledgeable in the area of drone law.