Saturday, February 9, 2013

Notes on proposed Drone Legislation

Media Certified Drone Hobbyist!
Here's some notes I'm putting together on the legislation being proposed in Texas by Rep. Lance Gooden (R, Terrell) [1], but I think they're applicable in other cases as well.

It's interesting to note that the citizens of Terrell, Texas and Berkeley, California seem to have a pretty consistent set of concerns regarding this issue. [2][3] (and as a personal aside, I used to live near Terrell in Garland, Texas, and now live just down the road from Berkeley in Piedmont, California.  In many ways so different, and yet surprisingly similar!)

I'll be updating this posting periodically.  Please add your comments below if you think there's some use cases, thought, ideas, etc, that might be useful.

My goal is that this will be a useful information/idea source for Representative Gooden in particular, and others interested in drone legislation in general.

My emphasis will be on hobbyist, non-commercial, and "emerging commercial" interests.  I'm assuming "Big Drone" will be capable of speaking for themselves (but hey guys, if you do need some help, give me a shout!)

Background and Disclosure

I'm an RC plane pilot and self-described "drone hobbyist."  I've been featured as such by the Wall Street Journal, NPR, the AP, and CBS (details here [6]).  I don't have any financial ties to the industry, other than as a customer and beta tester for several RC products.  I blog both here at and at By day I'm a software engineer.

One thing that started me thinking seriously about the legislative aspects of drones was when my AP story appeared on both the Fox News and Huffington Post websites.  People's concerns were almost identical across the political spectrum!

Text of Legislation

Some Use Cases

Here are some use cases that may serve to clarify some of the goals of the legislation.  My emphasis, it bears to repeat, is on the "small" user.

(in progress)

1. Hobbyist flying in neighborhood, with camera.

It will be hard to engage in recreational flight without having people's private property in the background.  In general, this is incidental and looks about like what you would see on Google Maps. This should be a protected use.

Question:  at what point/altitude does the FAA cede authority?  It's clear that flying a private plane over a neighborhood at 500 ft isn't considered a problem by anybody.  How about flying an RC drone at 400 feet? 100 feet? 10 feet?

2. Peeping tom spying on neighbor's swimming pool for non-commercial use.

It seems obvious that few people will approve of this usage.  The tricky part will be in getting the right language that catches this, while not catching up someone innocently flying a small copter in their own back yard.  How does the law handle someone standing on a ladder in their own yard, peeping over a fence at their neighbor?

Is there a useful distinction between having a video downlink, and making a recording of that video? Or sharing of that video?

3. Paparazzi taking pictures/videos of celebrity's swimming pool for commercial use.

Again, this seems pretty obvious.  We don't want paparazzi doing this.  Since they will be selling the pictures, it seems this easily falls under the current prohibition on commercial use.  If commercial use is licensed, that would be the proper place for regulations to be specified.

It may be the case that a blanket requirement that the aircraft be flown in a safe manner and within the guidelines of a generally accepted flight organization could take care of most of these cases, since remotely flying a quadcopter (for instance) close enough to snap pool bikini pics is probably flying too close for safety.

4. Pro or semi-pro drone pilot taking aerial photos or video of house for real estate advertisement.

This seems like a reasonable thing to do.  Would licensing be necessary?  I would imagine so, in order to ensure proper insurance coverage.

It seems to me that licensing on par with a Ham license would be appropriate.  A license on par with a private or commercial pilot's license would be overkill -- both too expensive, and covering a lot of unnecessary information.

5. Pro or semi-pro engaged in product development base on flying models.

It would be a shame to accidentally block a new high-tech industry, especially as Texas seems a prime area for development -- lots of open, flat spaces, many potential customers in the farming, ranching, resourcee management fields, etc., and a good business environment for small companies.

It would be great if the regulatory environment for small commercial-use drones were such that it encouraged innovation and growth in this sector.

It seems that requiring a commercial "small drone" license with appropriate insurance would cover the case of most small businesses.  Is there a gap caused by the hobbyist working on a potential product in his garage shop?

6.  In general, flying over someone's property.

This might be broken down into the types of property.  Flying over someone's open field (say for example at a large church on a weekday) is different than flying next to someone's window.

My Analysis of This Legislation

Googling didn't reveal the text of the proposed regulation. I've contacted Rep. Gooden for a pointer, but if you know where it might be please leave a comment!  For now I'm going by what has been reported in several venues. [4][5]
update: Rep. Gooden's office has provided a copy of the text.  It's online here: [1]

(in progress)

Suggested Language

Based on the previous sections, here are some suggestions for how to clarify the proposed legislation.

(in progress)



[2] Erk. My home town, Berkeley, wants to establish a "no drone zone"
[3] Berkeley rejects proposal to ban drones

[4] Lawmakers Aim to Limit Drones and Safeguard Privacy

[5] Texas "Anti Drone" Laws Would be Toughest in USA
[6] Press coverage

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for taking the time to put this together, and for (at least trying) to keep the politicians informed of the potential damage they could do to our hobby and the industry.

    I'd just like to comment on one thing, where you ask "... How does the law handle someone standing on a ladder in their own yard, peeping over a fence at their neighbor?" That kind of behavior is already illegal, there's no need to try and legislate sick behavior by banning RC models. It would make more sense to ban ladders.

    And finally, I think it's unfortunate that our hobby devices are now being referred to as "drones" by the media, and even by some in the hobby such as yourself, since it has so many negative connotations. I will always refer to what I fly as "radio control toys", because that's what they are. :)