Publish date: 20151227
Author: Cecilia Kang
MIAMI — Frank Carollo, a longtime member of the City Council here, had worked for several weeks fine-tuning a proposal to limit the use of recreational drones, the increasingly popular remote-controlled flying devices. Minutes before the start of the vote on the rules this month, lawyers from the Federal Aviation Administration called him.
The lawyers said the Miami ordinance needed to make clear that the federal agency had ultimate control over airspace. Not wanting to delay the vote, Mr. Carollo complied, deleting requirements about permitting that would have duplicated those by the F.A.A., before getting the new law approved unanimously by the City Council.
“People we had not spoken to at the F.A.A. and at companies suddenly called for amendments,” Mr. Carollo said after the vote. “But there had been a void on public safety and the use of drones. We understand the F.A.A. regulates drones, but the F.A.A. doesn’t have bodies on the ground to enforce their rules. That is why I believed Miami had to have its own rules.”
The interjection by the federal lawyers — the first substantive conversation Mr. Carollo had with federal officials about his proposal — foreshadowed a message that the agency would send more widely just days later. The F.A.A. said it was in charge of anything in the air. The agency took the position as part of an introduction of new recreational drone rules, which included requiring users to register in a national database starting this month.
The F.A.A.’s new stance sets up potential clashes across the country. Local and state lawmakers, concerned about the safety and privacy risks that drones pose, have been passing rules about the machines at a rapid pace.
More than 20 states approved drone laws this year, as have major cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and Miami, with many of the regulations placing tough restrictions on areas to fly and clamping down on the use of drones to snoop on neighbors.
The intervention of the F.A.A. is now frustrating local lawmakers, who complain that the agency wants them to back off their own rules — even as it is seen as too lenient on drone users. Lawmakers said the agency’s drone rules did not go as far as many states and municipalities that are explicitly banning flights within cities and over homes, strengthening privacy protections and imposing steep criminal and financial penalties on violators.
As a result, some state and city officials are digging in to defend their own drone regulations. Ted Gaines, a Republican state senator in California who recently announced he would reintroduce drone bills that had been vetoed by the governor in September, said he took issue with the F.A.A.’s message of control.
“We are a nation under the threat of terrorism, and the risks to our citizens and to our children are only greater with hundreds of thousands of these drones expected to be sold during the holidays,” Mr. Gaines said.
Federal rules on recreational drone registration, he added, were too weak. Vowing to stick with plans to introduce his bills early next year, Mr. Gaines said: “Tell me how a registration system resolves the illegal use of drones? There is such a vacuum on practical ways to address safety.”
The F.A.A. said that as the top regulator of airspace, it should handle any bans on flights or permits for drone pilots. The agency released a fact sheet on Dec. 17 on federal laws that would pre-empt local rules. Because the F.A.A. was given that authority by Congress, the agency said, many local or state drone rules would not stand up to a legal challenge.
“We believe the state and local government decision makers will benefit from this information, no matter what approach they take,” the F.A.A. said in a statement.
Any rollback by the F.A.A. of local drone regulations would benefit one group: tech companies.
Companies such as Amazon and Google have hired dozens of lobbyists over the last year to visit aviation committees on Capitol Hill, explaining their plans to deliver packages and create entirely new segments of entertainment and sports. The companies want a light touch by regulators to help give their drone efforts the widest possible latitude.
“The F.A.A. is saying it has jurisdiction over all airspace — that means from the top of blades of grass to infinity — so I think and I hope you will start to see some rollback in these local regulations,” said Tom McMahon, a vice president for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a lobbying group that represents drone makers.
There was not supposed to be such a divide between local and federal drone regulations. Congress instructed the F.A.A. three years ago to write laws for drones, a nascent technology at the time. Yet the agency struggled to create first-time rules for the category that would balance a public outcry over safety concerns with the economic benefits drone makers promised from the machines.
So local and state lawmakers stepped in. Many local legislators have since called for broader no-fly zones and strict privacy rules around drones. New rules also give local police officers permission to explore ways to take down errant drones without having to ask for permission from the federal authorities.
In Chicago, drones are now prohibited above schools, libraries, churches and private property without permission. In Miami, drones are banned within a half-mile radius of a “large public event,” and the police are able to use jamming technologies to take them down. In Los Angeles, drone users who operate near airports can face up to six months in jail.
Now, the F.A.A. has ramped up its rule making around drones. With the fact sheet it released this month, the agency said 45 states had pursued drone laws in the last year, and it warned that the creation of a “patchwork quilt” of regulations around the nation would make the skies more dangerous.
“Substantial air-safety issues are raised when state or local governments attempt to regulate the operation or flight of aircraft,” the agency said.
An official at the agency said the guidelines were released in response to questions its lawyers were getting, including from local and state lawmakers.
Drone makers and hobbyists said they had been asking the agency to put out that message to stem the tide of new laws, which they regard as overblown.
“The sharp rise in local regulations are a response by lawmakers to address concerns by their constituents who are seeing these reports,” said Brendan Schulman, head of government affairs for DJI, the giant manufacturer of recreational drones, referring to widespread news accounts of incidents involving drones. “But the vast majority of operators are operating them safely.”
In November, Mr. Schulman spoke at a hearing in New York City on proposed municipal rules around drones that would ban most flights in the city, require users to get licenses and insurance, and attach criminal misdemeanor penalties to violations. Mr. Schulman said the legislation would hurt businesses and prevent the city from using drones to survey buildings and power lines.
Daniel R. Garodnick, one of the City Council members who proposed the rules, said he would not back down. No blanket federal rule about the machines would address the unique concerns of New York, a target of terrorist attacks, he said.
“New York City is different from the cornfields of Iowa,” Mr. Garodnick said. “That should be obvious to everyone, but that isn’t reflected in F.A.A. rules.”