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Drone Fight Heats Up

May 19, 2016
The drone industry is still out to pre-empt local ordinances via pending state legislation. The industry continues to uniformly oppose SB 868 (Jackson), a League-supported measure and the only bill regulating drones that expressly protects local ordinances.
SB 868 brings California into conformity with the existing few meaningful federal regulations governing recreational drones. Under this measure, drone flights would be prohibited above 400 feet, flights within 5 miles of airports, and any interference with manned aircraft.

The bill contains other provisions enhancing public safety, including:
  • Prohibits flights within 500 feet of any critical infrastructure so identified by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES) without the permission of the owner/operator of the infrastructure;
  • Prohibits flights within 1,000 feet of a heliport without appropriate permission;
  • Prohibits flights within any other area in which OES determines that unrestricted use of remotely piloted aircraft presents an imminent danger to public health and safety;
  • Restricts flights over state parks, and any lands managed by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and within 500 feet of the State Capitol; and
  • Prohibits drone operations constituting recklessness, nuisance, or trespass. 
While the League and the California Police Chiefs Association successfully defeated an attempt to force state pre-emption on cities in AB 2320 (Calderon and Low), drone industry representatives continue to walk the halls of the Capitol, pushing for pre-emption of local ordinances. 
This same scenario is playing out in Washington D.C. where the industry is aggressively lobbying for complete federal pre-emption of state laws regulating unmanned aerial systems in the FAA re-authorization bill that will set new regulations for recreational drones. This is noteworthy and troubling because in previous years the industry has successfully fought to block meaningful federal regulations on drones, such as a requirement for mandatory unique identifiers on their products as they leave the factory, or an easily enforceable registration requirement.
A March 16 joint letter issued by the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation rejects the concept of pre-emption in any federal law or regulation pertaining to recreational drones. 
Cities that have enacted or are thinking of enacting regulations regarding drones should be alert to the threat this situation poses to their local regulatory authority. A well-financed and well-represented industry is working hard in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento to pre-empt your ordinances and render them meaningless. The irony is that currently, the strongest regulations of recreational drones are not at the state or federal level — they are regulations that have been enacted by cities.  
Cities concerned about pre-emption should actively support SB 868, since local ordinances could well be struck down by state legislation this year. Cities that have enacted drone ordinances have the most to lose: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Poway, to name a few.
Next Steps
Cities are urged to send in SB 868 support letters to the Senate Appropriations Committee, calling out the fact that the bill contains express protection for local ordinances. A sample letter is available at www.cacities.org/billsearch by plugging SB 868 into the search function.

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