Peacock Tales • Winter 2017


Drones Changing The Legal Landscape

By:  Susan T. Roberts

This past Christmas you may have unwrapped a present from under your Christmas tree that can fly. Did you get a drone? These gadgets are relatively new but concern is growing that they have the potential to violate privacy, dangerously interfere with large aircraft and generally cause mischief. Although they can be lots of fun, drones can also land people in trouble.

The term "drone" refers to a variety of flying devices that are controlled with either onboard computers or remotely with a handheld remote, computer or smart phone. Also called unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), drones can be small toys or large industrial or military aircraft. Consumer or personal drones are played with as children's toys, enjoyed by flying hobbyists and even deployed in competitive flying and racing. They are commonly used for recreational filming or in industries such as farming or mining to view terrain or crops. People are captivated by the limitless uses of flying both personal and commercial drones. However, with the sale of over 2 million drones in the United States last year, the rules surrounding the operation of drones have become a point of focus for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), leading it to adopt regulations in 2016 to minimize the risks to other aircraft, people and property on the ground.

You do not need permission from the FAA to fly your drone for fun or recreation but there are certain requirements that apply to flying a drone outdoors.  Before you fly outside, you must register your drone with the FAA at if your drone weighs more than .55 pounds and less than 55 pounds. (A camera attached to a drone is included in the calculation of its overall weight.) You must also label your drone with your registration number. Registration is $5.00 and is valid for three years. Criminal penalties for flying a drone without registering are a maximum jail sentence of 3 years or the imposition of fines up to $250,000.00. A person must be 13 years of age or older to fly a drone or, if the drone owner is less than 13 years of age, a person 13 years of age or older must register the drone. You must also be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident to fly a drone.

Many areas of the country ban the use of drones so be sure to do your research before you fly. The FAA rules currently prohibit flying your personal drone above 400 feet and prohibit you from letting it out of your sight. There are also prohibitions on flying drones near airports or populated areas such as a stadium. Many cities and towns are also adopting ordinances to regulate the domestic use of drones.

As drone use grows, so have privacy and safety concerns. Personal drones can go where satellite and other cameras cannot. Existing nuisance and invasion-of-privacy statutes apply to drone owners but some states are trying to strengthen their protections. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives approved a bill in 2016 to criminalize the use of drones for the surveillance of people in private places. The bill calls for up to three months in jail and a $300.00 fine for first-time offenders. The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration and will likely become law in 2017. Most state statutes that address drone flight are carefully worded to focus on a drone's ability to capture images because states cannot control where drones fly, that is up to the FAA. However, some people have taken measures to protect their privacy by shooting down prying drones. In light of such self-help measures, the FAA has interpreted relevant federal law to confirm that it is a federal crime to shoot down an aircraft, including drones.

We will all have to decide how we respect each other's privacy now that we can fly a camera into someone's backyard. The challenge is to find the right balance between access to the skies and the right to privacy. 


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