3 Things Every City Should Know About Drones

With Congressional action on drones just around the corner, here are three things you should know about the current landscape of unmanned aerial vehicles.

The FAA has issued more than 2,600 exemptions to allow commercial operators to fly in the National Airspace System. (Getty Images)

Imagine you and your family are trying to enjoy a Labor Day parade while twenty drones buzz loudly overhead, filming the parade route. Or maybe it’s your daughter’s big soccer game, and the same drones are flying just feet above their heads. What if your neighbor placed an order online late at night, only to have one buzz just past your bedroom window to deliver it?

This is what our communities might look like if our mayors and councilmembers aren’t given the authority to decide if, when, and where drones operate. Unfortunately, this may be reality within a matter of months. With Congressional action on drones just around the corner, here are three things you should know about the current landscape of unmanned aerial vehicles.

1. Drones Are Already Here

Roughly 700,000 recreational drones were sold in 2015, a 63 percent increase from the previous year. The vast majority of these drones are small, lightweight aircraft that pose very little threat to the safety of Americans when operated within the bounds of the law. Most recreational drone operators are now required to register with the FAA – but ensuring the more than one million model aircraft in our skies are following the letter of the law still largely falls to local law enforcement.

Commercial drones are less prevalent for now, but it is a quickly growing field. The FAA has issued more than 2,600 exemptions to allow commercial drone operators to fly in the National Airspace System. While our online purchases may not be arriving on our doorsteps just yet, these drones are being used for a growing list of purposes, including aerial photography, crop monitoring, and conservation efforts.

2. States and Cities Are Acting

Twenty-six states have already issued their own drone-related regulations, nearly all 50 states have considered drone-related legislation, and a growing number of cities have begun issuing regulations on when and where drones can operate.

Land use and zoning, regulating hours of flight at local airports, and enforcing sobriety laws and speed limits are all essential functions performed by cities, and it makes perfect sense that cities should issue regulations regarding how, when, and where drones operate within their jurisdictions.

So far, the FAA has examined local and state regulations on a case-by-case basis to ensure they don’t conflict with their authority. Around airports and at heights that may interfere with passenger and private aircraft, this makes a great deal of sense. The FAA has a clear role to play in the regulation and safety of our airspace. But city leaders are better equipped to tell drone operators whether or not they can fly over a parade or just feet above a school.

3. U.S. Senate May Overturn Local Actions

A provision in the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee’s long-term reauthorization of the FAA would prevent cities, counties, and states from enacting or enforcing any laws regarding the operation of drones. If this legislation is passed into law, cities may not even be able to enforce existing privacy, nuisance, and harassment ordinances.

Commercial drones create tremendous potential for innovation, economic growth, and new business opportunities, but city leaders must be partners when it comes to their operations, and not relegated to the sidelines. We are excited that one day soon, shoes we order online might arrive in our back yards in mere minutes, but we should have a say in the path they take to arrive there. Telling the citizens of our cities that their voices are not important is a dangerous step forward for Congress. We have been down the path of federal preemption enough times to know that it may take decades to claw our way back to the negotiating table – and this technology wont simply sit and wait while we do.

The National League of Cities sent a joint letter with the U.S. Conference of Mayors expressing serious concerns about this provision to Senate Commerce Committee leadership, and is currently working with Congressional staff in hopes that they will exempt certain regulations, like zoning and operations, from preemption before the FAA bill goes before the entire Senate for a vote.

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About the author: Matthew Colvin is the Principal Associate for Infrastructure and Development on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. He leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory, and policy efforts on surface, air and marine transportation issues. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @MatthewAColvin.