In May 2017, the District of Columbia Circuit Court struck downthe Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) December 2015 rule requiring recreational drone registration. In the absence of clear federal regulations, state legislatures are taking it upon themselves to regulate drone use in their skies to protect its citizens from accidents and address privacy concerns.

Before 2017, at least 40 states enacted laws addressing unmanned aircraft systems, commonly called unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, and three other states adopted resolutions. In this year’s legislative session, at least 38 states are considering legislation relating to unmanned aircraft systems. These laws and regulations range from defining “drone” to determining how they can be used by state agencies and the general public.

Many have criticized local law enforcement for its implementation of drones. The public outcry was so strong in response to Seattle’s announcement on the use of drones in its force that the entire program was grounded prior to implementation. Los Angeles faces similar public outrage following its announcement of a one-year pilot program to incorporate drones into the city’s police force. Two seven-foot drones, which have been grounded since 2014 due to public criticism, would be used to gather critical information without placing officers at risk during dangerous situations such as hostage standoffs, bomb scares or shootings with a gunman still at large. It will be months before the police department can fulfill the necessary requirements of holding public hearings, obtaining Police Commission approval of its guidelines and receiving certification from FAA to train officers to use the drones in order to implement its pilot program.

In an effort to limit the scope of FAA’s preemption of drone regulations and protect states’ rights to implement drone laws and regulations, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) teamed up with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) to introduce the Drone Federalism Act of 2017. The act would give states the power to regulate the time, place and manner of drone use in their airspace and permit states to implement “prohibitions that protect public safety, personal privacy rights, or that manage land use to restrict noise pollution.” 

Additionally, the act attempts to clarify the issue of airspace over private property, which is defined by the act as the airspace within 200 feet of the ground or a structure, including “any area where operation of the aircraft system could interfere with the enjoyment of use of property.” 

The National Council of State Legislatures applauds the act for “protect[ing] the FAA’s authority to ensure safety of the airspace, while also maintaining state and local authority to protect public safety and security, personal privacy, property rights and manage land use regarding the operation of drones.” However, critics argue that the act may burden the drone industry with a patchwork of 50 separate sets of regulations. Opponents further criticize the act’s definition of airspace, noting that obtaining permission from property owners to fly drones within 200 feet of their property will greatly hinder both recreational and commercial drone use.

The act has twice been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.