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    Virginia General Assembly Seeks to Regulate Drones

    By Greg Webb, January 23, 2015

    The Virginia General Assembly is considering drone regulation in this (2015) session, with five bills, all aimed at restricting or regulating drone use in Virginia. On the national level, the FAA continues to wrestle with its regulations for drone usage.

    The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, with 7,000 members, has an opinion—it wants as few regulations as possible. The association claims that commercial usage of drones could generate up to 70,000 jobs and $13.6 billion in economic activity for the U.S. in the next three years. In discussing the pending legislation and the FAA rulings, the association expresses the concern that flying model aircraft might be banned along with regulation of larger commercial drones.

    Any conversation about unmanned aircraft has to look at the risks to the public. In the last 7 months there have been 175 incidents of near misses, or sightings, of drones spotted near airports or in restricted airspace, as reported by pilots and air traffic controllers.  In the fall of 2014, there were numerous reports of unauthorized drones flying over large sporting events.

    Del. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, and Sen. Jennifer Wexton, D-Leesburg, are proposing a bill that would allow local governments to ban individuals from flying drones less than 55 pounds, a restriction similar to that already imposed by the FAA. Without detailed definitions and exceptions, this bill could be applied to hobbyists who fly model aircraft.

    As I noted in a recent article on the FAA regulations of drones, “One version of the FAA’s proposed rules, … would require drone pilots to have a pilot’s license and experience flying manned aircraft as a prerequisite for flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s). Other proposals would restrict commercial drones to daytime flights and required them to fly below a ceiling of 400 feet. The FAA is setting these guidelines for all drones weighing less than 55 pounds. The proposed ruling does not make a distinction between hobbyists who fly drones for pleasure and commercial drone users, a fact that concerns legislators and businesses.”

    Bills submitted by Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, and Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, would also require governments to secure warrants to use drones, with exemptions for emergencies and institutions of higher education. Gilbert and McEachin take the legislation a step farther, restricting ways in which data, obtained from drones, could be used in court. This measure would provide some safeguards to protect privacy.

    Ironically, Virginia Tech was chosen in August 2014 as one of six national sites for the study of national unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). The sites are tasked with conducting research vital to integrating UAS into the nation’s airspace.“  And, as of last week, “10 news agencies, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, announced a partnership with Virginia Tech to research the use of drones in journalism. The partnership allows researchers at Virginia Tech to fly simulated tests for news-gathering drones. It does not permit any of the news organizations to use drones in their current reporting.”

    In 2013, Virginia became the first state to pass a (two-year) moratorium regulating government drones. The moratorium also banned drone use for warrantless surveillance and for carrying weapons. Exceptions can be made in the case of emergencies, as was the case in the search for missing University of Virginia student Hannah Graham in the fall of 2014. Lawmakers hope to have new regulations in place by the time the moratorium expires in July.

    Drones are here to stay—part of our ever-growing technology. No one questions the idea that drones will advance commercial ventures in the state of Virginia. The challenge before the General Assembly (and the FAA) is to balance the safety and privacy concerns of the public, the recreational use of unmanned vehicles, and the commercial application of unmanned aircraft.  With our airspace becoming more crowded, the risk of great harm increases, especially with drones flying in or around airports, or in or around commercial airspace.  Without well-thought-out, and enforced, regulations, the dangers of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, outweigh the benefits.  Kudos to the General Assembly for taking on this blossoming commercial industry;  let’s hope our legislators do not cave in to the drone makers’ lobbyists, who would prefer our airspace to resemble the Wild West of the 1880’s.   Less regulation equals more profits, but at the expense of public safety.