Local authorities should curtail recreational drones from peeping into backyards and surveilling crime and accident scenes from above, a north metro fire chief said in what he calls a bid to protect privacy in an age of growing technology.
Andover Fire Chief Jerry Streich is urging his City Council to be one of the first suburbs in the Twin Cities to regulate local recreational use of the unmanned aerial vehicles. If it passes, violators within city limits could face a misdemeanor and be ordered to down their aircraft.
"Someone is flying a 50-pound bowling ball in the air. You can almost fly these right out of the box. You can fly them 35 miles per hour and several thousand feet high," said Streich, noting that recreational drones with cameras now cost less than $1,000 and are widely available. "We need to protect public safety first."
The fire chief's proposal evoked animated discussion at a recent City Council workshop, raising questions about the city's authority to regulate airspace and the potential loss of liberties for residents.
There have been no complaints in the Anoka County suburb of 30,000, but Streich said this is about planning ahead — like smartphones, he predicts drones will become ubiquitous in the next few years.
Drone delivers package
Drones are now widely available to consumers. They're often seen buzzing overhead at concerts and outdoors events. On Friday, a drone dropped off a package to a home in Nevada — the first fully autonomous urban drone delivery in the country. A bill limiting drone use was also introduced in the Minnesota Legislature.
FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said the FAA had no information on Andover's proposal but said in an e-mail that the FAA's authority over U.S. airspace "generally pre-empts any state or local government from enacting a statute or regulation concerning matters — such as airspace regulation — that are reserved exclusively to the U.S. Government."
Streich said his proposed ordinance would require recreational drone users to compile with all FAA drone rules.
"It isn't our intent to supersede FAA's rules. The challenge is the FAA has the rules, but they do not have the enforcers," Streich said.
Streich owns a drone and said he understands firsthand both their usefulness and their ability to cause trouble.
The proposed ordinance makes it illegal to fly a drone in a way that will "endanger, harm, harass, spy, intimidate, trespass, peep or damage property." It also prohibits their use at night. It would ban drones within a half-mile of an "emergency scene or disaster area" including raids, tactical positions, crowd control and scene investigation. The ordinance would even create a drone DWI — making it a violation of city code to use one while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
FAA has authority
Mayor Julie Trude is skeptical of the city's legal authority to pass such an ordinance.
"I think the FAA is in charge of airspace and our city should not be one of the first to attempt to regulate activities under the FAA's purview. I do not want to end up in court over cutting-edge ordinances when no one in Andover has had a complaint," Trude said.
"In addition, I think property owners have constitutional rights that may protect their use of recreational drones on their own property that our city should not interfere with."
Council Member Jim Goodrich said he can see the need to control drone use especially over large crowds including the annual Fun Fest city celebration but said there's still much to sort out.
"We want to make sure we don't trample on anyone's rights more than we have to," Goodrich said. "We also want to make sure we are not inconsistent with any FAA guidelines."
Quinn O'Reilly, a staff attorney for the League of Minnesota Cities, said Andover is one of the first cities statewide to consider a drone ordinance. He said the FAA is expected to release further rules on civil drone use this year, including commercial and government uses.
The FAA currently requires online registration of recreational drones and requires a more intensive registration process for civil drones.
"We will probably see more actions from cities down the road. Right now everyone is still waiting on the FAA," O'Reilly said.
He added that some of the nuisance issues caused by drones be addressed with existing statutes, such as peeping laws.
ACLU weighs in
Teresa Nelson, legal director of the ACLU of Minnesota, said the organization hasn't taken any formal position on drone regulations. "More of our focus has been on government use of drones. We generally have privacy concerns about drones," Nelson said.
At the same time, the proposed Andover ordinance, which blocks their use around accident and crime scenes on public streets, raises some alarms.
"We strongly support police accountability and videotaping police conduct so that part would be troubling." Nelson said.