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Look Who Wants States and Communities to Control Drone Regulation

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wants drones regulated, and she wants them regulated now. And, along with strong bi-partisan support, the goal is to have them primarily regulated at the state and local level. 

It won’t happen in Washington. A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled last month the Federal Aviation Authority lacks authority to regulate drone use by hobbyists or to require they register their drones in a national database, and legislation the senator introduced to regulate drones in the last Congress went nowhere.

So she has opted for another approach. She has joined forces with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a frequent ally, and Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., with whom she agrees less often, to introduce legislation that would let states and local governments regulate drones themselves.

Lee and Cotton are champions of federalism – the notion state and local governments should control all decision-making not specifically designated for Washington – and have consistently supported such measures. Feinstein, who served as mayor of San Francisco before she was elected to the Senate, understands local governments will have a better feel in this instance for what needs to be done.

The Drone Federalism Act proposes the Federal Aviation Administration choose up to 10 state, local and governments to create two-year pilot programs in which local governments would work with the agency to create their own rules on individual use of drones that fly no higher than 200 feet. This legislation affirms the primary responsibility for regulating drones resides with state and local governments.

The Federal Aviation Administration would work with local governments to determine how to enforce the rules and what to do about a NASA proposal to create a national drone air traffic management system and would serve as a go-between with other government agencies. In simple English, the role of the federal government would be restricted to assuring the safety standards for equipment and protect the safety of the airspace for interstate commerce.

Any time you have Sens. Feinstein and Blumenthal co-sponsoring legislation that has the word ‘federalism’ in the title, you have to assume a good thing has happened. And it has. Two Democratic senators have acknowledged not all regulatory wisdom emanates from Washington, D.C., and that in this case, the needs and interests are so diverse, the concerns so different that an individualized, community-by-community approach is required.

That when it comes to drones, state and local governments should determine the manner, time and place in which they operate.

These are not airliners. They are small, lightweight craft that typically fly no more than 200 feet off the ground. Their commercial uses are plenty – networks use them to gather news, farmers to monitor and fertilize crops and oil companies to watch their rigs for spills or other problems among them.

But those for personal use pose different levels of threat depending on the communities in which they operate. The air space over Fort Scott, Kan., and Fort Lee, N.J., require different, localized levels of regulation.

Moreover, localities already are working on this – 135 local governments in 31 states have enacted regulations on drones. The rules range from outright prohibition, to prohibiting cameras, to specifying drones can’t be used for voyeurism or to hunt, fish or harass those who hunt and fish.

The point is not that all these are wonderful regulations; it is that they were promulgated locally. They apply where they are needed and not where they’re not. This is the way drones should be regulated – but not everyone sees it that way.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Drone Advisory Committee – a group of industry leaders and lobbyists – continues to push for federal regulation. Other than the one committee member who actually works in local government – San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee – the special interest-dominated group is determined to have Washington decide whether you in Kansas or rural Colorado can fly a drone in your backyard.

It is telling that such a politically broad group introduced the Senate legislation. It is even more telling the National Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislators, National Association of State Aviation Officials, National Association of Counties, National League of Cities and U.S. Conference of Mayors all not only accept the responsibility of regulating drones but actively seek it.

Whether a drone should be allowed to fly above a public park in Sioux Falls, S.D., should not take up a minute of time of a single bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. This is one area where one size truly won’t fit all, and as much as federal regulators would like to get their hands on this, they truly are not needed.

Voters in 2016 clearly expressed the desire to be heard when it comes to the rules and regulations that impact their lives. A remote federal government, disconnected from the specific needs of specific communities, was an important element in the outcome. They voted against having Washington in their lives dictating rules that don’t fit and aren’t needed. They voted for the federal government to get out of the way and let the people themselves make all the decisions they could.

And whether toy airplanes can fly over our communities is about as local a decision as we could make.

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