WASHINGTON – When a Minnesota brewery wanted to use drones to deliver beer to remote icehouses, the Federal Aviation Administration shot down the idea.
Minnesota cities that tried to regulate drone traffic on their own also learned most of their authority stops at the sky. Now Congress is considering new rules that would give cities and counties more control over drone traffic, while aiming to preserve the potential of drone-based commerce.
Lakemaid Beer might not have realized its dream of buzzing beer across frozen Lake Mille Lacs, but the drone economy is coming. Amazon is testing drone delivery in the United Kingdom. Farmers are using drones to keep watch over their fields. Minnesota sheriffs are sending the little unmanned crafts up on search and rescue missions.
“This could be a brave new world — and a cool way to get your stuff,” said Minnesota’s U.S. Rep. Jason Lewis, a Republican who recently introduced bipartisan legislation to give state, local and tribal governments jurisdiction over drones flying at 200 feet or lower. It’s an effort, he said, to encourage a new technology without trampling on privacy and property rights.
Lewis, who sits on the House Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation, doesn’t want cities to be able to ban drones outright. But he does want local governments to be able to set their own drone traffic guidelines and to start figuring them out now, before fleets of Amazon drones start cruising down the street.
His “Drone Innovation Act,” one of several similar bills recently introduced in Congress, would direct the U.S. Department of Transportation to work with state and local governments to develop a regulatory framework for unmanned aircraft systems — drones — that would protect individual rights and privacy without squelching drone-based commerce.
“If you’ve got a neighbor who’s staying up late at night and invading your space” with a camera drone outside your bedroom window, “you don’t go to the FAA, you go to the city,” Lewis said. “I’m trying to make sure local units of government have their control over that, as opposed to, ‘Hey, I’ve got to call the FAA to get this drone out of my backyard.’ ”
Lewis’ bill is one of several drone measures circulating in Congress. While no hearings have been held on his legislation, his position on the committee working on FAA reauthorization positions him to potentially work his drone language into the larger bill. Lewis’ work on the FAA bill, he said, first drew his attention to the drone issue and led to him becoming “the drone guy.”
The FAA does not comment on proposed legislation, but it has warned against turning the nation into a “patchwork quilt” of conflicting drone regulations. Cities might wish they could ban noisy airplanes from taking off or landing overhead, but that would hamstring national air traffic. A recent FAA policy paper argued that allowing local control over drone traffic could have similar results.
“If one or two municipalities enacted ordinances regulating [drones] in the navigable airspace and a significant number of municipalities followed suit, fractionalized control of the navigable airspace could result,” the agency wrote in 2015.
Local regulation efforts
Existing privacy laws give local police the authority to go after people who use drones for remote voyeurism, the FAA has ruled.
As more and more drones take to the air — entry-level models now retail for as little as $400 — more and more communities want control over them. By 2015, 45 U.S. states had considered some sort of restrictions on drones. Back in 2013, the Hennepin County town of St. Bonifacius called for a ban on drones within its 1-square-mile city limits.
But wanting to ban drones and being able to ban drones are two different things — as the city of Andover discovered.
Andover officials were worried about the devices. They’d seen stories about camera drones hovering creepily outside bedroom windows or buzzing around wildfires in swarms so thick it made it hard for bucket planes to reach their targets.
But when city officials sat down to craft a local drone ordinance, they found out that they don’t have much say about what goes on in their skies.
“We found out how little control we have,” said Andover City Administrator Jim Dickinson. Despite concerns raised by the city fire chief last year, plans for a drone ban were quietly shelved.