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Author says U.S. has a bewildering array of UAS laws, regulations

By Patrick C. Miller | March 16, 2017

The author of a new book that takes a comprehensive look at unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) laws and regulations across the U.S. believes the country is a long way from having a coherent legal and regulatory system for drones.

Sarah Nilsson, Ph.D., is a pilot and attorney who teaches aviation law, global UAS regulation and global UAS risk management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. Her book, Drones Across America, was recently published by the American Bar Association.

“The intended audience is lawyers and anyone who studies drones as a degree program at a university,” she said.

After writing the 349-page volume that tracks the development of state and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) UAS regulations for both commercial and recreational UAS use, Nilsson said she was left feeling bewildered by the hodge-podge of rules and regulations that fail to address some important issues.

“I wasn’t as much surprised as I was bewildered at how many of these laws could be argued both ways because they’re trying to essentially govern the same thing,” she explained.

For example, Nilsson said privacy is one area in which states are implementing their own laws—laws that hamper FAA Part 107 UAS businesses with multi-state operations.

“They’re governing for privacy—and that’s a state matter—rather than governing it for airspace reasons, which is an FAA matter,” she said. “But you’re really governing the same activity and movements of an aircraft. It’s not going to get any better unless we have a federal privacy mandate.”

She said UAS legal precedents can be set by state courts, but they apply only to individual states.

“How is an operator who tries to have a Part 107 business operating out of multiple states supposed to comply with everything if every state is going to be different?” she asked. “It’s discouraging to an operator when they have to know all this just to do their job.”

Nilsson’s research for the book also revealed that other countries are having an easier time implementing UAS laws and regulations because in the U.S., states have the right to govern themselves.

“Other countries have it much simpler because they don’t have this fight between federal laws from the FAA and the states doing their own thing,” she explained. “Most countries make one blanket law for the entire country. They don’t have each state or each city or each township doing their own thing because it’s not necessary.”

Nilsson is also concerned about states passing laws that allow drones to be shot down or not enforcing federal laws against such activity. In addition, she said there’s a need for regulations when multiple UAS are sharing the same airspace for the same activity.

For example, Nilsson said there’s nothing covering what happens when multiple news organizations show up to cover a car accident with their drones and law enforcement wants to fly its drone to survey the scene for an investigation. Do 1st Amendment rights take precedent over law enforcement’s duties?

Even when there are laws or regulations covering a specific situation, Nilsson questions whether they can be properly enforced.

“How is the FAA going to enforce this?” Nilsson questioned. “They don’t have the resources or the manpower. It’s nice and fine have rules, but they don’t help if they’re not going to be enforced or there’s no way of enforcing them.”

Nilsson said because of the rapidly changing nature of UAS laws and regulations in the U.S., she will continue to track new developments and update her book on a regular basis. She doesn’t expect it to be an easy task, however.

“We are our own worst enemy because we have too many fingers in the pie,” she concluded.