Technology & Privacy: Drone Legislation to the Rescue

Drones used to exclusively be military and government tools for surveillance and intelligence purposes. Over the past few years, however, that’s changed considerably. Drones have now made a push into the private sector as more and more people get into building and flying them. In fact, owning and flying drones is now considered a “hobby,” most similar to homemade rockets, remote control planes, and more.

Just as the popularity of drone usage is on the rise, so is the legislation related to them. Some are lobbying that drones pose a privacy and safety threat in highly populated areas. That said, there are already plenty of laws in place restricting the operation and usage of potentially intrusive technologies, even if they don’t explicitly mention drones. Some states have more strict laws in place regarding drones, while others have yet to tackle the issue.

Before we dive into the particulars of drone legislation, it makes sense to take a closer look at drones in an effort to identify what they really are.

What Are Drones?

By definition, a drone is a moving transport that carries neither a pilot nor passengers. In other words, it is a driverless machine, but that only serves as a loose definition.

It is a common misconception that all drones include surveillance equipment such as a microphone or camera. While those are features common in most drones – even privately owned ones – some are devoid of them entirely.

According to the FAA, hobby or recreational-based flying does not require their approval. They specify recreational aircraft as those weighing fewer than 55 pounds. In addition, there are currently no federal regulations for unmanned aircraft.

That said, Congress passed a law two years ago that requires the FAA to issue national rules on the legalization of drones for commercial purposes, which is supposed to happen by September 2015.

In 2011, the FAA charged drone videographer Rapheal Pirker $10,000 for using a drone. Pirker challenged the fine in court, and a federal administrative-law judge dismissed the penalty as a result, further adding that there are currently no laws preventing the commercial use of drones.

What that means for the rest of us is that there are no strict laws in place preventing the use of small drones. The FAA did, however, release a series of safety guidelines, which offer tips on drone flying etiquette.

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Are Drones Legal Where You Live?

Even though there are no federal regulations on the use of small drones, there may be local state laws in place depending on where you live. States such as Texas, Utah, Oregon, Minnesota, Illinois, Florida, and a few others have laws in place that govern drone operation. Most of the legislation permits law enforcement to use the devices to gather intelligence, evidence, or information on citizens. A few other states have proposed laws that may or may not go into effect soon.

If you’d like to know whether or not there are laws concerning small drones in your state, you can view this map.

Wait, Drones Are Available to Everyone?

Some of the cheapest drone models can be purchased for close to $100, which is relatively inexpensive. It’s safe to say that drones are available to pretty much everyone these days. You can purchase them at high-end hobby stores, some retail and department stores, and even in a few toy stores. Of course, the hardware and equipment they include depends on the price tag. For example: a cheaper $100 drone probably isn’t going to include full HD video capture support. As with everything else on the market however, you can purchase better quality drones that include more features and functionality.

The increased prevalence of these drones is one reason why laws are starting to crop up more and more. The FAA guidelines state that drones cannot be flown higher than 400 feet, otherwise they start to cause issues with the national airspace. In addition, they must be flown at least four miles away from an airport. Then again, these are just guidelines currently, and as such they aren’t regarded by many as actual laws or rules.

As more and more amateurs get their hands on these relatively powerful devices, accidents do happen. The FAA fined a Manhattan resident more than $2,000 just for flying a small drone off the top of a building that accidentally bumped into nearby structures and landed on a public sidewalk. Needless to say, it caused a bit of a fuss, even though nobody was injured.

Even more folks are concerned with the privacy and security threats drones pose. Even so, Brendan Schulman, a Manhattan-based lawyer, seems to believe there are plenty of regulations in place to protect everyone.

“You have trespass laws, anti-stalking laws, Peeping Tom laws, unlawful surveillance. Those would apply to the use of any technology. These are real technologies that are going to save lives and help people.”

Make no mistake about it: these things are popular. So popular, in fact, that a new trend has emerged on social media, fueled entirely by drone owners. Instead of taking boring old selfies, drone owners are now taking what they call “dronies” – a self-captured photo taken from the vantage point of a drone camera. You know things have gotten serious when a new form of selfie enter the mix.

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