Technology is constantly advancing and as we get closer to the world promised in Back to the Future, the more creative the government must be in coming up with regulations for these advances. Drones are a perfect example of advances in technology that have become available to widespread users and are now subject to federal and state regulation.

Drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), are defined as unmanned aircraft (UA) with the associated support equipment, control station, data links, telemetry, communications, and navigation equipment necessary to operate it.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization Reform Act of 2012 will have the FAA amending its regulations for airplanes and similar aircraft to include rules for UAS. An unmanned aircraft (UA) is considered an aircraft and falls under FAA regulation. Federal and state governments have deemed it necessary to enact laws to regulate drones. Approximately thirty (30) states have passed laws to regulate drones. The federal laws deal with airspace regulation, registration, and safety while the laws in most states focus on privacy.

Can I Fly my Drone?

On January 3, 2012, 49 U.S.C. § 40103 went into effect. Section 40103 requires the FAA to regulate aircraft and UAS operations. 49 U.S.C. §§40101 -113 regulates all unmanned aircraft. At this point, most drone use by everyday citizens is recreational. Still, the government may require you to register your drone. Small drones are considered to be drones that weigh more than 0.55lbs and less than 55lbs, including all the attachments and payloads such as cameras. Small drones may be registered online. Large drones are considered drones that weigh 55lbs or more. Large drones must be registered through a paper system. The following are the federal requirements for flying drones recreationally.

Drone Rules

The FAA has implemented multiple regulations for recreational drone flying. The regulations for flying a drone for fun include the following:

  • must be at least 13 years old;
  • must be a U.S. Citizen or legal permanent resident;
  • must be clear of all aircraft, people, and structures;
  • must operate UAS within visual sight at all times;
  • must not fly UAS no higher than 400ft;
  • must contact the airport or airport traffic control towers before flying within five miles of an airport;
  • must not fly within three miles and up to 3,000 ft in altitude of any major sporting event;
  • must not fly near or over sensitive infrastructures (such as electric plants);
  • must not fly in adverse weather conditions; and
  • must not fly while under the influence.

The FAA has an app that helps UA operators determine whether there are any restrictions or requirements in effect in the location where they want to fly their drone. The app is called B4UFly.

Should Pennsylvania Enact Drone Laws?

In PA, the Legislature has tried to introduce drone legislation in multiple sessions. In 2015, the Legislature proposed four bills and regulations, but none passed. Most recently, on January 20, 2017, the Pennsylvania Senate introduced a bill to amend Title 18 (Crimes and Offenses), in obstructing governmental operations, providing for the offense of unlawful drone activity over correctional institutions. Whether drone regulation will pass has yet to be seen.

Since the FAA laws focus primarily on safety and airspace regulation, the state’s laws have focused mostly on privacy. In Pennsylvania, however, some argue that Pennsylvania does not need additional laws to regulate drones for privacy because existing laws already protect against private citizens spying on others. Private Citizen privacy regulation is just one side of the issue.

A lack of laws regulating government use of drones could become a real issue as drone use becomes more prevalent. The idea that law enforcement could use drones to fly over a person’s private property and potentially gather evidence is scary. The holding by the US Supreme Court in Kyllo v. the United States, 533 U.S. 27 (2001), where the Court held, “[w]here, as here, the Government uses a device that is not in general public use, to explore details of a private home that would previously have been unknowable without physical intrusion, the surveillance is a Fourth Amendment ‘search,’ and is presumptively unreasonable without a warrant,” comes to mind.

According to U.S. officials, approximately one million drones were sold last holiday season, and that number is expected to increase. The holding in Kyllo soon will not apply to drones because unmanned aircraft will not be considered “a device that is not in general public use.” As general drone use continues to increase, it will be important to pay attention to how law enforcement agencies use drones.

Additional Resources

Section § 44102 –Visit the Office of the Law Revision Counsel, the United States Code page for the full statutory language include the subsections of the Federal statute regulating drones.

Fly for Fun –Visit the Federal Aviation Administration website for a list of rules and requirements for flying a drone recreationally. Find the age and citizenship restrictions for flying and also find links to the pages to register your drone.

Interactive Drone Map –Visit Smithsonian Magazine, the official website of the Smithsonian museum, which places a “Smithsonian lens” on the world, looking at the topics and subject matters researched, studied and exhibited by the Smithsonian institution.

Flying a Drone in PA Parks – Visit the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Services for more information on the rules for flying drones in the various Pennsylvania State Parks.

Article Author

Michael J. Skinner, the founder of Skinner Law Firm LLC, is a former prosecutor with the Chester County District Attorney’s Office.

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