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Lawmakers slowly move to spell out drone regulations
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For the past two legislation sessions, the Georgia House of Representatives has discussed a bill proposal that would put certain laws in place to regulate the usage of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or better known as drones.

HB 5, proposed by State Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, both in 2014 and 2015, would have made it unlawful for anyone operating a UAV to capture certain images and then display or disclose those images. The intent was to prevent people from using their drones as a surveillance device on privately owned property or an individual

Typically, UAVs have been used for a variety of situations, including law enforcement operations, land surveillance, wildlife tracking, search and rescue operations, disaster response, border patrol and photography, and at least 20 states have laws on the books to define UAVs and how they can be used for public, private and business needs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Geisinger has been trying to make Georgia the 21ststate to follow this trend, but, like last year, his bill didn’t make it to a House vote. Geisinger wasn’t available for comment for this story.

One reason for Geisinger’s urgency may be because there aren’t any federal laws related to UAV usage. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has certain guidelines and requirements for usage based on the purpose.

“That’s where the confusion may happen because the FAA has established policies to operate in national airspace,” says Rich Hanson director of public relations and government affairs for the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). However, he adds, “There are no federal laws.”

To help educate people on the rules surrounding UAVs, Hanson’s AMA organization, the Small UAV Coalition and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International founded the “Know Before You Fly” campaign in partnership with the FAA in December.

The whole purpose of the campaign is to raise awareness for people to know what they can and cannot do with their UAVs, says Hanson.  The campaign also attempts to get manufactures to include the official FAA regulations with every UAV sold.  

So far, at least 15 manufactures, including the two largest recreational distributors of UAVs, Horizon Hobby and Hobbico, have agreed to include the additional literature with their products, says Hanson.

“We’ve been successful,” he said.

One of the current FAA policies includes needing a Certificate of Authorization (COA) or a Special Airworthiness Certificate-Experimental in order to operate a UAV. These certifications will specify the intended activity and could have certain provisions or limitations imposed by the FAA, but only apply to people using UAVs for a business or public entity.

Hobbyists who use UAVs are encouraged to follow the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) model aircraft standards from 1981. These operating standards suggest flyers “exercise good judgment” when using UAVs, don’t fly near heavily populated areas like a school or hospital, don’t fly higher than 400 feet above the ground and to notify an airport operator when flying within three miles of an airport.   

While no criminal charges can be brought against a person who violates these guidelines, the FAA can and has pressed civil charges, says Hanson.

In 2012, the FAA fined Raphel Pirker $10,000 because they deemed he flew his drone “in a careless or reckless manner” after Pirker allegedly flew his UAV in the “vicinity” of the University of Virginia in 2011 and received compensation for pictures and video he took of the campus.

Pirker initially won the case in March 2014 after a judge ruled that his UAV was a model aircraft, and thus the FAA regulations didn’t apply. However, the FAA appealed the ruling, and in November, the National Transportation Safety Board overturned the decision.

The FAA and Pirker settled the case with Pirker having to pay the FAA $1,100.

In February, the FAA released a proposal for new regulations for the non-recreational operations of small UAVs and micro UAVs, traditionally fewer than 55 and 4.4 pounds. The proposed rule would require an operator, who has to be at least 17 years old, to maintain line of sight with the small UAV and limit flights to daylight operations.

Other proposed regulations include:

  • A small UAS operator must always see and avoid manned aircraft. If there is a risk of collision, the UAS operator must be the first to maneuver away.
  • The operator must discontinue the flight when continuing would pose a hazard to other aircraft, people or property.
  • A small UAS operator must assess weather conditions, airspace restrictions and the location of people to lessen risks if he or she loses control of the UAS.
  • A small UAS may not fly over people, except those directly involved with the flight.
  • Flights should be limited to 500 feet altitude and no faster than 100 mph.
  • Operators must stay out of airport flight paths and restricted airspace areas, and obey any FAA Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs).

“We have tried to be flexible in writing these rules,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in a press release. “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.”

The FAA is seeking public comment on these guidelines and the public until April 24 to voice their opinion, according to Hanson.

“The new regulations would address 80 to 90 percent of what’s occurring today,” he said.

While the FAA is working to make regulations for the UAVs, any federal law is still years away, says Hanson, but momentum to get something done picked up steam when a UAV landed on the White House lawn in January.

“That drew a lot attention (in Congress),” Hanson said.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, D-California, plans to introduce a new bill that she hopes will strengthen drone safety laws to protect U.S. airline passengers and U.S. airspace. She also wants the FAA to increase enforcement of existing regulations.

A press release from December says states that Feinstein received a letter from the FAA indicating there were at least 190 “drone safety incidents” reported last year, including 24 near mid-air collisions.

“I recognize the proliferation of highly-capable, inexpensive drones operated by untrained individuals is a new challenge to your mission,” Feinstein said in a press release. “But the FAA is responsible for the safety of the airspace, and it must aggressively confront this challenge now, before an airliner is brought down.”

New language to address some of the security and privacy concerns the U.S. Congress has with UAVs could be written into the FAA’s 2015 reauthorization bill until federal laws can be implemented, says Hanson.

The FAA Reauthorization & Reform Act of 2012 is set to expire this at the end of the 2015 federal fiscal year, Sept. 30.