woman standing in open field operating a drone

Drone Policies Soar in 2020

By Jonathon Bates | Nov. 4, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Drones hovered, swarmed and zipped through the skies in 2020, including to aid the pandemic response, and so too did drone policies soar as legislators continued debating both allowable uses and prohibitions.

At least six states—Florida, Idaho, Minnesota, Missouri, South Dakota and Virginia—have enacted 11 bills concerning drones, also referred to as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS, in 2020. The topics debated in statehouses included allowing drone use to assist in emergency management, prohibiting drone use over and near correctional and mental health facilities and stadiums, and authorizing law enforcement agencies to use drones for traffic crash reconstruction, search and rescue missions and general training purposes.

Florida lawmakers, for example, appropriated funds to further the use of drones to hunt invasive Burmese pythons in the state. The snakes can grow up to 26 feet in length and weigh more than 200 pounds, according to Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The commission advises residents to help remove invasive species such as pythons and has worked to remove obstacles to killing the snakes year-round.

Florida lawmakers appropriated funds to further the use of drones to hunt invasive Burmese pythons in the state.

Florida, Idaho, Minnesota and South Dakota allowed drones to be used for emergency management, including wildfire containment. And Virginia allowed localities to regulate the take-off and landing of drones on property owned by the local governments. Previously, the commonwealth’s localities were prevented from regulating drones.

Since 2013, at least 44 states have enacted laws addressing drones and an additional three states adopted resolutions. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 1.2 million recreational drones are federally registered as of October 2020. Drones are increasingly a part of our daily lives, especially among hobbyists, and will inevitably be debated in statehouses for the foreseeable future. Lawmakers are likely to continue addressing the operation of such devices in general and their allowable and prohibited uses in particular. In addition to prohibiting drones from flying over correctional and mental health facilities, some lawmakers would ban their use near defense, telecommunications and railroad properties. Others are encouraging drone use in an FAA test site program.

No matter the decisions made federally and at the state level, it is difficult to imagine a future without drones in America’s skies.

Jonathon Bates is a policy associate in NCSL’s Environment, Energy and Transportation Program.

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