The Federal Aviation Administration is open to discussing jurisdictional issues with state and local governments when it comes to regulating small drones, says Administrator Michael Huerta. But it wants direction from those governments on the authorities they would like to have, he told the Drone Advisory Committee (DAC) meeting May 3 in Herndon, Virginia.
“I have a very clear sense of what existing FAA authorities are [and] what our processes are to enforce them ” said Huerta. “I don’t have a great deal of clarity in my mind as to what state and local and government entities would desire to regulate.”
The issue was raised during a progress report by the DAC’s “roles and responsibilities” working group. Reacting to an onslaught of state and local laws seeking to regulate small drone operations, the FAA has asked the group to develop recommendations to help define the extent of low-altitude airspace that is “susceptible” to local government interests. “Notwithstanding the enactment of such legislation, since the Air Commerce Act of 1926, federal law has provided the United States government exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States and that citizens have a public right of transit through the same,” the agency states in its tasking order.
But small drones—relatively easy to fly, capable of taking off or landing nearly anywhere, and typically operated at very low altitudes—have drawn local governments into the equation. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, a DAC member, said in the past he assigned all aviation matters to his airport director. With drones, the entire city in effect becomes an airport, creating issues over zoning, privacy, law enforcement and even job displacement. “This transformation is big for cities,” Lee said. “They’re going to resist intrusions into their space as opposed to accepting the good [that drones do] and ferreting out in a collaborative way what may be challenging.”
Huerta agreed that the traditional way the FAA does business may no longer apply when it comes to drones. “We respect a city’s right to place an airport wherever they choose. Once it is there, they agree with their grant assurances and through their acceptance of regulatory oversight to operate in conformance with federal regulations. We have found ways to co-exist where we respect each other’s authorities,” he said.
“When you’re talking about an entire city essentially being an airport, the model that has served us well for airports doesn’t work very well,” he conceded. “I think it’s unrealistic to expect that an FAA inspector will adjudicate homeowner disputes” over property rights affected by drones.
Matthew Zuccaro, Helicopter Association International president and CEO, made a countervailing case on behalf of helicopter operators who also operate at low altitudes. “Now we’re into areas where we’re talking about potentially up to what altitude a local municipality or a state can mandate aeronautical decisionmaking or [exercise] authority over aircraft,” he argued. “We’re heading down the road where state and municipal authorities seem to be, in my mind anyway, potentially breaching the preemption of airspace control by the FAA.
“As we fly along, certainly in the work we do and the altitudes we fly and the places we land, are we going to have to carry around a computer database and check every town and village that we fly over? We’re very concerned about this,” Zuccaro added.
Robert Boyd, a Riley County, Kansas, commissioner who represents the National Association of Counties on the DAC, said his organization “is looking to collaborate, not regulate” when it comes to drones.
Huerta, who spoke earlier this year at the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, accepted Lee’s invitation to address the conference’s annual meeting in June in Miami Beach to continue the FAA's public outreach. “We are open to looking at the question of how we can resolve this; the first thing we need to understand is what it is—what exactly the state and local governments would like to [control] and how can we find a way to coexist,” he said.