Time to Engage! Dogfight Between Drones and the Law

The report of a statewide work group on drone use in Maryland describes the challenges drones create for local law enforcement and the need for clarification of rules and authorities.

There are rules about flying drones. But enforcement of those rules is a bit. . . up in the air.

Not every hobbyist who received a drone for Christmas will be well-versed in FAA regulations before they set their new gift airborne. And, aerial rules prove difficult to enforce, too.

A recent report from a statewide work group delves into these issues, setting the background for a discussion of whether more clarification is needed in state code, or at the county and municipal levels of government.

One enforcement challenge is geometry. According to the FAA, both commercial operators and recreational drone user must keep their drones within their eyesight – this is called the Visual Line of Sight or VLOS rule. However, when a police officer sees a drone overhead, and its operator is not visible from where the officer is standing, it may be impossible for that officer to find the operator, even if the operator is in compliance with the VLOS rule. It’s a triangle.

Another challenge is resources. In the example above, a police officer on the ground could pursue finding the drone operator, but it could be costly and time-consuming. Federal partners like the FAA set rules for drone use, but do not have the resources for enforcement — they depend on local partnerships for that.

Another challenge is change. The FAA have altered regulations several times over the course of Maryland’s study of this area, and recently announced another major change – a waiver allowing small drones to fly at night and over people. Also over the course of the work group’s study, Virginia passed legislation clarifying the powers and authorities of local responders to protect airspace over emergencies.

In Maryland, the same legislation that mandated the work group’s report on drones also preempted local governments from regulating drones. The question now is whether it is time to revisit that preemption, or take on the task of updating other aspects of law, such as nuisance and trespass, to apply to this evolving technology.

Recreational use of small drones, or small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS), continues to grow. As stated in the Maryland work group’s report,

The FAA predicts that the growth of hobbyist sUAS use will likely double in the next five years. According to the FAA, as of 12 July 2018, the number of sUAS registrations in the US is 1,150,241. Of those, 20,770 sUAS registrations are in Maryland, ranking the state 17th in the US. . .

Screenshot 2019-01-19 13.50.02
Here is a dogfight between a USAF F-105D and a North Vietnamese MiG-17, 1967. Today, drones challenge traditional standards of aircraft, existing laws, and enforcement capabilities.

The work group’s report includes information from surveying local governments about incidents of unsafe or inappropriate drone use or use that interferes with public safety operations.

Starting 1 January 2017 to 30 June 2018 any incidents that included one or more of the following criteria were reported to the MCAC:

  • Flight of drone too near to persons or property (10)
  • Drone flight creating a nuisance to general public (5)
  • Restricted or Prohibited Airspace Violation (10)
  • Flight of drone too near an airport or helipad (4)
  • Spying, Voyeurism, or Unauthorized Photography (8)
  • Flight too close to or causing hazard to an aircraft (2)
  • Crash of Drone or sUAS (8)
  • Hindering Police, EMS, or Fire Department Operations (1)

For more information, read the full report, Unmanned UAS in the State of Maryland.

Note: the author participated in the work group on drones on behalf of Maryland counties.