By Ben Husch
U.S. Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced the Drone integration and Zoning Act of 2019 today, restarting a multi-year conversation on the exact role states should play in the deployment of unmanned aircraft, commonly called drones.
Currently, states are extremely limited in their ability to regulate drone operations, because drones are considered aircraft that operate in the navigable airspace, the same as a Boeing 737.
While manned aircraft operate at tens of thousands of feet above ground level, the federal government has prohibited drones from going above 400 feet. This means the general public is much more likely to engage with drones, especially as they become more common. In only a few short years, the number of registered drones has grown exponentially, easily surpassing the number of registered manned aircraft, which have been around for the better part of a century.
States do have authority over land use and can exercise that power in determining where the drone operator is located.
The Drone Integration and Zoning Act of 2019 would significantly expand state authority. It would require the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure that states could issue reasonable restrictions on time, manner and place of drone operations, below 200 feet, with 200-400 feet remaining under the FAA’s authority.
The bill would eliminate an existing preemption states face in regulating the rate, route, or service of an “air carrier,” generally an aircraft engaged in certain commercial activities, such as package delivery.
While the bill does provide states with significant new legislating authority, it also includes some restrictions on states, including prohibiting a state from enforcing a rule that “unreasonably or substantially impedes” the ability of a drone to access navigable airspace above 200 feet.
A few other key provisions in the bill, including Section 9, would require that states be more involved in the testing and implementation of Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM) systems, a robust radar system for tracking drones. Additionally, while the bill protects the authority of states to continue prescribing where drones may take off and land, it does prohibit states from discriminating between commercial drone operators.
The chances of enactment are highly uncertain, but the bill’s provisions show that Congress has come a long way from 2015, when it considered a measure that would have imposed a strict preemption on states.
Ben Husch is federal affairs counsel to NCSL's Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee.