Over the past few years, the popularity of consumer and hobby drones has exploded in the United States.
While the exact numbers are not available, we do know that as part of the recent registration requirements with the FAA (which we’ll discuss a bit more below), more than 325,000 individuals have already registered their drones — and many of these individuals have more than one drone.
In fact, it’s estimated that the average owner has 1.5 drones. (And there are likely an unknown number of drone owners who have neglected to register their devices.) Notably, this number is greater than the number of traditional aircraft that are currently registered with the FAA.
With this many new aerial devices flying around, it’s not surprising that drones are starting to make an impact on our society and on the relevant underlying regulatory and legal infrastructure.
One of the biggest societal issues surrounding drones is personal privacy. Because drones can fly over a neighbor’s home or property — at relatively close range — it’s now trivial for a drone owner to hover above the highest fence, and see what they were previously unable to see. The existing privacy laws simply aren’t equipped to deal with some of the conflicts we’ve been seeing. Consider the issue raised by a recent case where a homeowner allegedly shot down a drone that was flying over his property because the drone was spying own his teenage daughter who was in the back yard sunbathing.
Drone Licensing and Registration
There have also been privacy concerns expressed by drone owner on the recent imposition of licensing and registration requirements. In fact, the Academy of Model Aeronautics (representing approximately 180,000 hobbyists and drone pilots), argued strongly against the new FAA rules on behalf of their members. The registration program began on December 21, 2015, and individuals who owned drones on that date were required to register by February 19, 2016. Individuals who acquire drones any time after that date must register with the FAA prior to the first drone flight.
The FAA notes that about 7,000 planes are flying in U.S. airspace at any given time. So it’s not surprising that there are an ever-increasing number of conflicts and near-misses between drones and manned aircraft. In fact, the FAA says that they currently receive about 100 reports each month from pilots who reported near misses with drones.
Drones have the potential to improve the effectiveness of certain law enforcement initiatives, such as discovering illegal marijuana grow operations or other investigations that take place over large areas of rugged wilderness.
Use in National Parks and Local Open Spaces
Not surprisingly, one of the most contentious policy issues surrounding drones is whether and under what circumstances to permit their use on public parks and lands. Because cities, counties and states are likely to make different determinations regarding drone use, it’s likely that a patchwork of different and potentially conflicting rules may come (and to some extent already are) into place.
As drones continue to gain in popularity among hobbyists, and potentially begin to play a role in certain commercial activities, we are sure to see many more impacts in various aspects of society.