A drone could be the hot item on your Christmas wishlist—perhaps you’ll find one under your tree in a few weeks. Or maybe, there’s a drone currently conducting private or government surveillance near you right now.
Drones are on the Christmas lists of everyone from hobbyists and private businesses to government entities. With their hovering capabilities, ease of maneuvering, and GPS- and camera-ready designs, they can be lots of fun. But their usefulness certainly doesn’t stop at mere recreation.
Many companies are using the tech and flight capabilities of drones to survey land, protect natural resources, and complement their security measures. And around the world, military organizations are pushing the limits of drones with extreme surveillance and unmanned airstrikes.
Some private drone users are even abusing the privilege of flying a drone by crossing boundaries—both legal and physical—into trespassing and the violation of privacy.
Reevaluating the Rules of the Game
This week, a panel of experts in the field of unmanned aircraft gathered in Colorado Springs, the site of the Colorado Counties, Inc. winter conference. They were discussing current drone regulations, aware of the fact that as drones gain traction with a larger user base, they may need to introduce more localized guidelines.
Peggy Littleton, E Paso County District 5 Commissioner, moderated the discussion. “Do we need to have more rules?” she questioned. “And, if so, what is that going to look like?”
The county of El Paso, Colorado has, thus far, abdicated any potential for self-regulation to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA.) The county’s only self-created rule has been a ban on launching unmanned aircraft in parks. The panelists in Colorado Springs all concluded that the FAA rules are sufficient—for now.
El Paso County Undersheriff Joe Breister weighed in, saying, “At this point, the FAA is really the only agency that is writing laws or guidelines for enforcement of the use of these drones.”
In August of this year, the FAA released new regulations which clarified the acceptable commercial usage of “small unmanned aerial vehicles”—aka drones.
Commercial drones must:
· Weigh less than 55 pounds
· Fly to a maximum altitude of 400 feet
· Fly at a maximum speed of 100 miles per hour
· Only be operated during daytime—up to 30 minutes before sunrise and after sunset
In addition, drone operators be at least 16 years old and pass qualifications for flying certificates.
In the past, drone operators who wanted to use UAVS for commercial purposes had to apply for special FAA waivers, a process that could be both expensive and time-consuming. Commercial drone operators might spend months waiting for their exemption waiver to be approved. Businesses also had to hire pilots with a manned aircraft license from the FAA. The red tape created barriers to business’ access to the benefits of drones within their particular industry.
Under the more recent rules, many more industries will be able to explore the use of drones: agriculture, conservation, construction, surveying, search and rescue, firefighting, film and video production, and academic research among many more. Operators will still need to go through the waiver application process if they wish to fly drones at higher altitudes, faster, or at night.
Per the FAA, the rule change has the potential to generate over $82 billion in the US economy and aid in the creation of over 100,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.
Drones are increasingly easy to find, from public parks to the internet. The “stocking stuffer” variety—smaller, short-range UAVs—can be bagged for under $100. High-tech drones with GPS and high-def camera capabilities go for anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over a grand. With the ease of purchasing a drone comes the potential for trespassing and safety concerns.
Drones may be relatively small, but their ability to fly into smaller, less accessible spaces—like near roadways and backyards—means that the spinning blades of a drone, in the hands of an inexperienced operator, could go crashing into your car windshield or your child’s swing set.
It’s important to note that drones, while unmanned, are indeed aircraft. And while they’re of similar size to some large RC planes, their flight capabilities put them in a different league. All drones—even the smallest ones—require an operator certification in order to be used.
In El Paso County—at least so far—the vast majority of calls to the Sheriff’s Office about drones have had from drone users themselves, wanting to be more responsible. Undersheriff Breister said that they have received fewer than five complaints in the past year.
After the holidays, El Paso County expects it may receive an uptick in drone-related calls, mostly related to less-expensive aircraft that may be used by children.
The FAA offers a smartphone app—B4UFLY—designed to provide real-time flight local flight regulations and location-specific updates for drone users.
The recreational and business opportunities provided by drones are exciting. But one of their uses—surveillance—involves complicated facets of access philosophy. And the FAA rules seem to have some difficulty in reaching the underlying ethics.
Law Enforcement versus Free Press
In the skies above North Dakota’s Standing Rock protest, the FAA has imposed a Temporary Flight Restriction, or TFR. For just under 2000 feet above the ground, the airspace is off-limits to any aircraft other than those explicitly permitted to fly—ie, aircraft running support for the activities of law enforcement. A TFR must be designed to protect people, in the air or on the ground, from potential hazards or conditions.
No journalists, mainstream media, or citizen activists are authorized to fly in that area, so no drones have been able to document what law enforcement is doing. And according to the accounts of protestors—or water protectors, as they call themselves—law enforcement have been shooting down drones, as well as flying their own low-altitude aircraft through the TFR with illegally-altered registration numbers.
To many, it would appear that the FAA-imposed TFR wasn’t to protect protestors, but to shield law enforcement from public scrutiny.
Michael Schmiege, a criminal defense and civil rights attorney in Chicago, noted, “As the use of drones becomes more prevalent for both government and civilians, we need transparency about the implementation of new rules and policies. Law enforcement and the public are ultimately on the same side. We’re all working for the greater good. And as we venture into this new tech together, we need to be building trust.”
The law offices of Mr. Schmiege can provide you with a free consultation if you’ve been charged with a crime. If you’re currently under investigation for trespassing, a privacy violation, or another drone-related offense, you need the experience and dedication of Mr. Schmiege as your legal counsel. Contact him today.