HomeShould Local Government Regulate The Use Of Growing Tech?

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While commercial operators await federal rules governing the use of drones, two Arizona communities are exploring local laws that aim to protect the privacy of residents by limiting the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Phoenix and Paradise Valley have entered the national fray over camera-carrying drones, which are increasing in popularity as more hobbyists fly them for fun and companies like Amazon discuss using them to deliver air-born packages.

Paradise Valley is considering an ordinance that would make it illegal to fly drones in town without a permit. Backyard hobbyists and law-enforcement agencies that may need to use drones during emergencies would be excluded from the proposed ban.

“Our residents move to Paradise Valley because they like the privacy,” said Mayor Michael Collins, who presides over a community that counts celebrities, sports stars and Discount Tire founder Bruce Halle, the richest person in Arizona, among its residents. “They like the large lots. They like the distance between neighbors. They like the dark quiet skies and they really cherish the quality of life that brings.”

In Phoenix, Councilmen Michael Nowakowski and Sal DiCiccio unveiled a draft ordinance last year that aims to safeguard privacy, making it illegal for drones to be used “to intentionally or surreptitiously” record or film someone without consent, among other restrictions. DiCiccio said Phoenix’s law remains on the back burner until the new federal rules are completed for small commercial drones, which is likely to be about 14 months.

Elected officials across the country have cited the potential invasion of privacy as well as safety risks associated with drones, which can fly hundreds of feet in the air. They worry about drones colliding with other aircraft, crashing to the ground or scaring onlookers or drivers on the road.

Privacy champions generally welcome the proposed regulations, but those in the industry argue that city-level ordinances wrongly infringe on federal regulations, restrict the technology and craft a confusing patchwork of laws between cities.

“I think these local leaders will find themselves in a position where they will lose,” said Michael Drobac, executive director of the Small UAV Coalition, a drone-advocacy group.

“I get local communities have an interest,” Drobac said. “The problem is they typically don’t address the larger scale issue of how we’re going to utilize this great technology.”

Paul Huebl, a private investigator who flew his drone in a Paradise Valley neighborhood, sparking the town’s discussion, said concerns are overblown. “Drones are like the new flying saucers,” he said. “When they’re out there, people see them and go into a panic.”

Controversy over the ordinances touches on a larger debate unfolding across the country as drones take to the skies in greater numbers. How — and should — local governments regulate the use of the growing technology?

Drones buzzing for profit, defense

Often the word “drone” conjures up images of military-driven surveillance, bombings and the nation’s war on terror. But small drones, described as up to 55 pounds, can be used in many ways, from search and rescue operations to border patrol and disaster relief. Amazon has unveiled plans for Prime Air, which would deliver items by drone to a customer’s doorstep in 30 minutes or less.

Federal regulations for commercial drone use are still being developed, but drone enthusiasts who fly recreationally don’t need approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees safety in the nation’s skies. Hobbyists are simply instructed not to fly their drones in ways that pose hazards to other aircraft or to people and property, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. In February, the administration released proposed rules for small, commercial drones used for business purposes, which have yet to be finalized.

Meanwhile, at least 25 states have enacted their own laws addressing drone issues, and at least five others have passed resolutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Many cities and local governments have proposed similar regulations, but “maybe only a handful have gone anywhere,” said James Arrowood, a drone-law expert and senior counsel at the Frutkin Law Firm in Scottsdale.

The few laws passed on a local level “have been geared almost entirely toward preventing law-enforcement abuse,” said Arrowood.

Cities that have passed regulations include Berkeley, Calif., where the City Council in February agreed to enact a one-year moratorium on police use of drones, and Charlottesville, Va., which in 2013 became the first city in the nation to pass an anti-drone resolution.

Gregor said local governments can’t enforce any laws that encroach on the FAA’s jurisdiction over navigable civil airspace.

However, a city could pass laws that prevent people from taking off or landing the remote-controlled aircraft from public property, including parks and streets, he said.

Several drone organizations said they are carefully watching Phoenix and Paradise Valley and oppose local attempts to regulate the aircraft.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry trade group, considers Paradise Valley’s ordinance “an onerous regulation,” said Mario Mairena, government-relations manager for the group.

Mairena said that the drone association believes there are plenty of governments erroneously trying to legislate airspace. In Paradise Valley, “we feel it will have an adverse effect,” he said.

Real-estate groups say they oppose local attempts to regulate drones because laws could affect the livelihood of real-estate agents keen on using drones to photograph large houses and estates, like those in Paradise Valley.

The Scottsdale Area Association of Realtors does not see a need for any local regulations over and above the FAA’s, said Amanda Sue Piltz, director of communications and technology for the association.

Flying drones for fun

Doug Andriuk, president of the Phoenix Area Drone Users Group, owns eight or nine drones and flies them recreationally. Underground drone-racing leagues are now popping up across the world, he said, and spectators can watch as drone pilots race each other on a lighted track.

“There is a huge demand within our user group to develop the racing side, rather than just flying it around the field,” Andriuk said.

The Phoenix group connects and educates drone pilots, representing them at the government level.

Andriuk, a U.S. Air Force pilot for 21 years, said most pilots are careful and follow the FAA’s guidelines for recreational drones.

Still, all it takes is one wrong move, which is why guidelines are crucial to teach pilots how to fly responsibly in public places, Andriuk said.

“I liken it to walking a dog,” he said. “If I take my Rottweiler and let if off a leash and it bites someone, I wasn’t supposed to be doing that in the first place.”

On the commercial side, not all operators are banned from flying drones.

The FAA has started issuing exemptions for the pilots, allowing them to take to the skies for business purposes before the federal rules are finalized.

Douglas Trudeau, an Arizona real-estate agent, became the first person in the country to receive an exemption from the FAA for drone real-estate marketing.

Trudeau can now legally use his DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ Quadcopter with built-in camera, advertised at more than $900 on Amazon, to show and sell houses.

Trudeau, with Tucson-based Tierra Antigua Realty, said he has spoken at industry meetings to let people know that “if we are not responsible with this technology, there will be McCarthy-ism style laws prohibiting use.” The Paradise Valley proposal is a prime example, he said.

“Responsible use will lead to responsible legislation for use,” Trudeau said.

Others have found creative ways to do business with drones while the industry waits on federal regulations.

Lucas Pierzina, of Chandler-based Aerial Raiders, said he simply doesn’t charge for flying his drone when capturing photos and videos, avoiding the “commercial” designation.

“I only charge for the editing,” said Pierzina, who has shot real estate, films and car dealerships.

He said he follows common-sense rules of safety, staying away from airports and remaining aware of his surroundings.

“I try to keep my copter within my sight,” Pierzina said. “It can be pretty far away, but I can still see it.”

Huebl, the private investigator who was involved in the incident that spurred Paradise Valley to look into a drone ordinance, was later charged with violating a state statute known as careless or reckless aircraft operation.

Huebl argues that drones are noisy, making it nearly impossible to use one to spy on someone without drawing attention. And there haven’t been any reported instances of small drones colliding with a manned aircraft, he said.

Huebl also noted there are laws against stalking, harassment and being a nuisance, which should apply to drone pilots who break the rules.

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Even so, that hasn’t changed minds completely.

“This isn’t a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Paradise Valley Councilman Jerry Bien-Willner. “There was an incident already in town where someone felt endangered. Yes, it’s true we had a means to deal with it, or a prosecutor found a means to deal with it, but one could imagine very different scenarios.”