Report: Drone Legislation a Priority for States Across the U.S.

The popular new technology has the potential to generate considerable economic activity, but there are some very real safety and privacy concerns that have yet to be fully worked out.

by / July 11, 2016

To date, 32 states have taken legislative action when it comes to unmanned aerial systems, more commonly referred to as “drones.” What’s more is that every state in the nation, with the exception of South Dakota, has at least considered the value in putting rules on the books over the course of the last three years, according to a recent report by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

The larger conversation around the popular new technology is two-fold at the state level. On the one hand there is considerable economic advantage to being “drone friendly,” with some estimates predicting as many as 100,000 jobs and billions of dollars in economic benefits by 2025. However, there are some very real safety and privacy concerns associated with the devices.

According to NCSL policy associate Amanda Essex and committee director Ben Husch, who worked on the report Taking Off: State Unmanned Aircraft Systems Policies, states have had to negotiate their own paths between the issues around drones.

While states like Alaska have sought measures to welcome the industry within the state’s borders, others have focused on protecting the privacy of their citizens and the safety concerns surrounding the unmanned systems.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say there is one state doing it better than the others. They’re all kind of taking their own approaches as to what they think is going to work for their state and what is best in their situation.” Essex said. 

In addition to the legislative tug of war between business and the societal issues, there is also the concern of a rules pre-emption on the part of the federal government, which could eliminate the state say in regulation and has many state-focused organizations uneasy.

Section 2152 of the U.S. Senate FAA Reauthorization Act of 2016 would leave some questions as to whether or not states could regulate drones effectively. Despite efforts on the part of NCSL, the National Governors Association and the National Association of State Aviation Officials to amend the language, an amendment sponsored by Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) was not adopted. 

Husch said much of the concern about the pre-emption comes from the fact that the technology and understandings around some of the issues it creates have not had time to fully mature.

“To think that we have a full understanding of how this technology is going to impact many different and unrelated industries and to completely take away the ability of state and local governments to respond to the issues that have presented themselves, as well as will present themselves, seems like it will create more problems down the road,” he said. “The issue of pre-emption is one that we are watching as text of the FAA extension is released.”

Even between two state legislators involved in the creation of the report, Essex said there were considerable differences in how the issues are being addressed in their respective states. She doubts a federal rule would meet the diverse cross-section of state needs in this environment.

“To completely take away the ability of state and local governments to respond to their own needs is tough,” she said. 

Eyragon Eidam Web Editor

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as  assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at eeidam@erepublic.com.