Drone rules get local treatment as state, feds mull regulations

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    The Federal Aviation Administration has granted hundreds of exceptions to its rule limiting drone use to non-commercial purposes, but hasn’t issued regulations specific to the machines. More than 30 states are considering laws, but haven’t adopted them – and that includes Pennsylvania. 

    Local governments are confronting drone regulations absent concrete guidelines from state and federal lawmakers.

    Like most states, Pennsylvania doesn’t have laws in place, although the state Senate and House of Representatives each passed bills earlier this year and another three remain under discussion in committees.

    Used mainly by the military at first, the unmanned aircraft now come in smartphone-sized versions that cost as little as a few hundred dollars.

    Expanded accessibility and rapidly-developing technology have outpaced drone-specific regulations.

    The Federal Aviation Administration has been working on its own regulations for years, meanwhile applying general aircraft rules to drones and limiting their use to non-commercial purposes unless the agency grants an exception.

    Lancaster County’s Conoy Township was the first municipality in the Commonwealth to tackle the issue 18 months ago with an ordinance requiring consent to fly drones over private property.

    Recently, Harrisburg’s City Solicitor Neil Grover got a call from a real estate photographer wanting to know if he could use a drone to take pictures of a building where condos were going on the market.

    Grover couldn’t help him.

    “We have no rule, the state has no law. The feds have no law – they have recommendations,” Grover said.

    Grover said Harrisburg isn’t working on its own ordinance. But he’s not the only local government official who’s been confronted by the issue. That’s why the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs brought in media lawyer Michael Berry to speak about the topic at its annual municipal law conference outside of Harrisburg this week.

    “We don’t have any regulations. It’s the wild west out here,” Berry said.

    Berry said about a dozen states have passed laws, and most others are considering them – including Pennsylvania.

    “We’re really at just the very beginning of this story. We don’t know how it’s going to unfold,” said Berry.

    He points to North Carolina’s laws as notable for creating a drone registry and including news gathering exceptions.

    But Berry is critical of most measures enacted and proposed thus far.

    They’re too narrow or too broad, or both, much of the time. And almost always vague about what, exactly, they’re trying to accomplish, he said.

    They also might be unnecessary because existing laws already address many privacy and security concerns linked to drones, he said. And Berry cautions against over-regulation, lest it curtail the ever-expanding arsenal of uses for the machines.

    The FAA wants to inform its forthcoming rules, which need to be published by next year, using information gleaned from its six test sites.

    Hosts include Texas A&M University Corpus Christi, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, Griffiss International Airport in New York and Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University.

    In the meantime, hundreds of government agencies and contractors have been granted certificates of authorization, or exceptions to rules limiting drone use to hobbyists, according to FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette.

    The agency recently opened up the application process to private companies, Duquette said.

    Amazon, the Motion Picture Association of America and agriculture companies are among the applicants, she said.

    Smaller businesses have tried the same thing.

    Typically, FAA regulators have dealt with that by sending cease and desist letters, said Berry.

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