Taking Off: State Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Drones) Policies



Man flying a drone. Over the last few years, unmanned aircraft systems (“UAS” or drones) have exploded into the public’s awareness. Many individuals fly UAS for pleasure, and private business applications are almost limitless—from farmers improving crop yield by assessing conditions, to insurers using drones to conduct roof inspections, to delivery of packages to a consumer’s door. Federal, state and local governments use UAS to supplement or improve existing practices, such as assessing road conditions or conducting search and rescue missions. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the number of registered UAS owners in the United States exceeded the number of registered manned aircraft by more than 5,000. The total number of registered UAS owners as of early February 2016 exceeded 325,000.

The FAA Aerospace Forecast for fiscal years 2016 to 2036 projected that sales of small UAS would increase from 2.5 million in 2016 to 7 million in 2020. A March 2013 report from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) projects that by 2025 more than 100,000 jobs will be created with an economic impact of $82 billion. An October 2015 article projected that the U.S. commercial drone sector would “generate $2.3 billion in investments [in 2016]. By 2025, its economic impact is set to almost double, forecast to surpass $5 billion.” While the precise scale of the economic impact of UAS is not certain, it is likely to be significant.

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As a result of the increased availability and popularity of UAS with commercial users and the public, a number of states have taken action to address what has been viewed as both an exciting new technology with great promise and a technology of which many are wary. At time of publication, 31 states had enacted laws addressing UAS issues, and an additional five states had adopted resolutions. Every state but South Dakota considered legislation between 2013 and 2016.

This report begins with a brief definition of UAS. Federal actions related to UAS then are highlighted, followed by comprehensive details on the wide range of related topics that state legislatures have explored, including preemption, privacy implications, hobbyists, insurance, commercial and governmental uses, criminal penalties for misuse, uses related to hunting and fishing, security concerns, and studies and task forces. This report focuses primarily on enacted state legislation, although it should be noted that a number of state agencies and localities have adopted regulations and developed ordinances regarding UAS. Furthermore, some state laws and legislative action may be “technology-neutral,” meaning that, although they do not specifically mention UAS operation, existing laws, such as those related to hunting or privacy, may still apply to certain UAS operations. These technology-neutral laws are not addressed in this report.

Defining UAS

Unmanned aircraft systems are known by a number of names—including UAS, drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, remotely piloted vehicles—that often are used interchangeably. Tennessee legislation defines a drone as “a high powered, aerial vehicle that : (A) Does not carry a human operator and is operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft; (B) Uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift; (C) Can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely; (D) Can be expendable or recoverable.” While the terms “unmanned aerial vehicle” and “drone” generally refer to the aircraft itself, “unmanned aircraft system” refers to the aircraft and all included components. Most state laws that define UAS include some or all of these elements. The general public initially became aware of drones in regard to their use by the military. The use of unmanned aircraft by the military has roots as far back as World War I.

Small UAS (sUAS)—those that weigh less than 55 pounds—are the primary focus of this report. Within sUAS, even further distinctions exist, such as micro UAS—those weighing less than 4.4 pounds­­—and UAS that weigh less than .55 pounds, the last of which are not subject to registration requirements. State legislative action has focused on these small UAS because they are more readily available for use by the general public. Larger drones are primarily used for military purposes by the federal government. For that reason, this report primarily focuses on sUAS.

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