By Jonathon Bates
Public officials continue to seek unique strategies to aid the response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, in part by reducing contact among individuals.
A March 2020 study by George Mason University’s Mercatus Center recommended using drones, also known as unmanned aircraft systems, “to break out into a mass service and reduce person-to-person contact.”
Since the study was published, a small but growing corps of so-called “pandemic drones” have helped deliver food, medicine and enforce social distancing measures.
In Florida, drones are being used to monitor beaches and announce public messages about social distancing and in the summer may be used for rescue missions by giving a life jacket to distressed swimmers without making human-to-human contact. Local governments in Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey and New York are also using drones to perform police and fire functions such as dispersing groups of people by advising people about social distancing laws, warnings and fines.
Drones have also benefited businesses during the pandemic and reduced person-to-person contact. In Virginia, a pastry parlor reportedly increased its deliveries by 50% over an average weekend. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has a drone delivery service called “Wing” that is using drones to ship household goods from Walgreens to customers, including medicine, toilet paper, baby food and pasta.
The creative use of drones to limit person-to-person contact as society enters what some have coined “a new normal” will likely continue in the foreseeable future.
However, the controversial nature of using drones for surveillance will continue to cause concern regarding civil liberties and privacy. In New York, the FAA is investigating a privately operated drone announcing at public gatherings it was the “Anti-COVID-19 Volunteer Drone Task Force.” Nonetheless, the current pandemic may accelerate the awareness and adoption of drone technology in certain instances.
Of course, all drone operations are required to comply with FAA rules and regulations that primarily fall under Part 107 (commercial operations) and Part 135 (air carriers) unless the FAA has provided a waiver. The FAA is also encouraging drone innovation through the Integration Pilot Program that brings together industry, state, local and tribal governments to realize the benefits of drones, while informing future rules and regulations.
Though state and local governments have authority for drone take-off and landings, the FAA has consistently stated that it controls operations in the entire navigable airspace. This existing preemption of state authority does limit how creative states can be since they can not authorize drone operations that would conflict with FAA rules and requirements. Addressing this would likely require action by Congress.
Introduced before the onset of the coronavirus, the Drone Integration and Zone 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.
For additional information on coronavirus, states can access ongoing resources from NCSL, including daily updates across federal agencies. For additional information on drones, states can access NCSL’s current state law landscape.
Jonathon Bates is a policy associate in NCSL’s Energy, Environment and Transportation Program.