A recent article in the New York Times outlines an interesting take on local drone laws, which are proliferating, despite the fact that the FAA is the controlling agency for all U.S. airspace. The article points out that some city officials, particularly in New York City, believe that their airspace is somehow special and deserving of stricter regulations because of the current climate of terrorism, and that this somehow makes their city’s airspace even more special.
This is kind of ridiculous, because terrorism can happen anywhere and via means—I almost hate to say it, but far more effective means—other than a hobby airplane or drone. Raising the specter of terrorism has become the flavor du jour for anything remotely connected to the safety of citizens, and suddenly every type of drone or model aircraft, from heavier airplane models to tiny lightweight quadcopters, is a terrorism tool. Sorry, but that is just ill-informed and clueless.
Here in Los Angeles, the city council has decided, too, that it needs special rules, and it recently passed an ordinance that is highly restrictive for any kind of model aircraft. The ordinance covers any kind of model aircraft, including my newest drone (pictured above). It precludes operating a model aircraft/drone “within 5 miles of an airport without the prior express authorization of the airport air traffic control tower.” The ordinance doesn’t say anything about facilities without control towers, such as the Goodyear blimp base or heliports.
The ordinance also specifies:
No interfering with manned aircraft, and must give way to manned aircraft.
No operating beyond visual line of sight.
No operation at night (sunset to sunrise).
No flying above 400 feet agl.
No flying closer than 25 feet to other people.
No careless or reckless operation or violation of TFRs, Notams or federal regulations.
This situation is only going to get even more confusing, and according to the New York Times article, the FAA is trying to intervene and explain to local officials why their rules might not stand up in a court battle. Technically, the FAA has yet to publish actual drone regulations, but the agency does point out: “All civil aircraft are subject to FAA regulation under law: 49 U.S.C. § 44701. For example, 14 C.F.R. Part 91 applies generally to the operation of aircraft.” And because all model aircraft, even paper airplanes, are defined as aircraft, they are subject to existing FAA regulations. For example, the FAA can and will pursue enforcement action against a drone operator who is flying carelessly or recklessly.
This situation just makes the operation of model aircraft and drones even more confusing. In Los Angeles, the new rules (which have yet to be signed into law by the mayor) add yet another legislative layer onto the model owner’s perpetual question: “Where can I fly?” Currently, there are still places in Los Angeles that are legal, and the same goes for other big cities. The CameraLends blog publishes useful maps that show where not to fly in Los Angeles, New York City and San Francisco. However, there is a Los Angeles Parks Department rule that prohibits flying model aircraft/drones in any park, beach, etc. And the Cameralends site does not delineate these areas.
Obviously there are many areas where it would be stupid to fly a model aircraft or drone, but despite all the hype about new regulations, these devices can be flown in many places. But it is still incumbent on the operator to find out first before launching into the wild blue yonder.