New approach to state drone laws balances privacy and innovation

An influential group of attorneys called the Uniform Law Commission (ULC) will meet in Anchorage in July to debate and vote on model state legislation concerning drones. Thankfully, the ULC has made a great deal of progress since it first considered a one-sided, unworkable, 200-foot “line in the sky” approach last year. The current ULC proposal appropriately balances the rights of property owners with the needs of drone operators to access airspace.

The ULC’s proposal recognizes the same capabilities that make drones transformative for search and rescue, inspection and logistics, can – when misused – challenge the quiet enjoyment of property. If enacted by a state, the law would allow judges to weigh how many times and for how long the drone flew over the property, how low it was flying, why it was flying over the property, whether anyone saw the drone, and the time of day during which the flight occurred, when determining whether a drone has caused “substantial interference” with a property owner’s use and enjoyment of their land.

By giving courts the power to weigh each case on its own merits, the “Tort Law Relating to Drones Act” will allow drone flights for commercial purposes – such as package or medical supply delivery – to continue without fear of frivolous lawsuits or a complicated and conflicting patchwork of airspace restrictions.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), more than 400,000 drones are registered to operate for commercial purposes in the United States. Drones may have to fly over property to deliver medical supplies to a nearby hospital or assess damage after a storm. First responders, too, may need to use drones to provide situational awareness during hostage situations or to help firefighters detect hot spots and search for people in burning buildings.

Working together, the ULC and U.S. drone industry have made significant strides to take into account the views of stakeholders, including the FAA and the U.S. Department of Transportation, which have likewise cautioned against drawing an arbitrary flight ceiling. Federal control over our airspace has been a bedrock principle of aviation safety for more than 70 years and is one of the reasons our nation’s aviation safety record is the envy of the rest of the world.

The ULC and the U.S. drone industry share the same goals when it comes to the regulatory framework for drones: uniformity and moving our nation forward. The ULC’s proposal for uniform state drone laws will maintain federal control of the skies while providing recourse for property owners whose property is interfered with by careless, reckless, or unlawful activity. It is a commonsense compromise that protects property owners on the ground while also allowing safe, responsible drone operations to take flight.

We appreciate the progress the ULC has made in collaboration with all the relevant stakeholders, and in particular its recent decision to reject an eleventh-hour proposal that would have reinstated certain altitude restrictions. We urge the full ULC to pass the proposal in its current form at its upcoming annual meeting in Anchorage, and to reject any last-minute attempts to amend it further. The current version strikes a reasonable balance between the concerns of property owners and the rights of drone operators.

Uniformity and reasonableness in the law are goals that, working together, we can accomplish.