On a recent warm spring day in western Crozet, Camilyn Leone was gardening in the front yard of her home while also keeping tabs on her pair of rambunctious bird dogs when a strange thing happened. Both dogs moved to a breezeway between the front and back yards and gave Leone a warning bark. “They were saying, ‘What’s that?” so I immediately knew that something was up,” she said. “I went over to the dogs and they were both pointed in the same direction, looking up over my patio. And I looked too, and about 15 feet away, right at eye level, was a drone.”
Leone was briefly stunned at the sight of the thing just hovering in the air, quietly buzzing. “It was very small, the size of a Dixie cup,” she said. “I took my hat off and wiped the sweat from my forehead and thought, ‘What the heck?’ It had this black eye on the front of it and little propellers suspending it in the air. I felt like I was looking at the drone and the drone was looking back at me. It was so weird.” The dogs gave another questioning bark, and before Leone could make a move the drone rose straight up and flew off to the northeast, out of sight.
“The thing that was so upsetting about it was that it was well below the roofline,” said Leone, “at a level that it could have been looking in our windows, taking pictures. I felt violated, really, because it was so close and so low. The buzzing was so quiet that I’m not sure I would have noticed it if not for the dogs.”
As drone ownership and operation proliferates in the U.S.—over 200,000 remote pilots are certified and almost one million drones are registered to fly—state and federal regulations are evolving to keep up with this rapidly advancing technology and the people who want to work and play with it.
Drones of all sorts can be picked up online or in stores like BestBuy for anywhere from $20 for a remote-controlled toy to many thousands for a model with a longer range and battery life plus camera and payload capabilities. Drones and the equipment used to operate them are officially referred to as unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and are governed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates all airspace in the U.S. People who wish to operate a drone are categorized by recreational or commercial use, and there are rules for each.
“If you get anything of value for a service done with an unmanned vehicle—from mapping a construction site to filming a TV commercial to taking pictures of a wedding—you need a Part 107 Remote Pilot License,” said Ben Cunningham, founder and CEO of Blue Ridge GeoGraphics, an Afton-based geospatial consulting and aerial imagery services company. “Anyone else can fly [for pure recreation] without having to go through the $150 license process. Under a recreational permit, everybody who owns one of these aircraft that weighs over 0.55 pounds has to register it with the FAA for a $5 online fee.” In addition, the FAA just this month added an aeronautical safety test requirement for recreational users.
Virginia state law says that no locality may regulate the use of privately owned drones, a rule that the General Assembly fired off shortly after Charlottesville became the first city in the U.S. to pass an anti-drone resolution in 2013. While Charlottesville’s hopes to ban drones entirely from airspace over the city were thwarted by the state law, it did pass a two-year moratorium on the city’s use of drones for official business, which has now expired.
Both federal and state laws apply to all drone pilots. “The FAA regulations are about safety for all aircraft in the sky, whereas the state laws cover more of the privacy and trespass issues,” said Cunningham. For example, the FAA decides whether Part 107 remote pilots can fly their drones at night, over people, and over moving vehicles. Until this year, the answer to all of these was no unless the pilot applied for a specific waiver, a process that could take 90 days or more.
In an effort to better integrate unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System given the huge surge in interest in flying drones, the rules have been recently relaxed for some types of drones with various limitations. For instance, a Part 107 commercial remote pilot may now fly over crowds of people with a very small drone that is equipped with a special tracking ID and does not have “any exposed rotating parts that would lacerate human skin.” Waivers must still be secured for activities such as flying higher than 400 feet above ground level, flying over 100 mph, and flying at night without lights.
Cunningham says that recreational pilots, who are still not allowed to fly over people and vehicles (and only at night with lights showing direction and altitude), don’t always abide by the rules. “Lots of people don’t know the law or don’t follow it or don’t care,” he said. “I’ve seen people break the rules that are designed to protect people. Those spinning rotors are made of plastic but they’ll cut you if the drone falls on you. If a 3-pound drone falls from 400 feet in the air, that could kill somebody.”
For regular citizens concerned about privacy in and around their homes, like Leone, state laws come into play. In Virginia, drones may not be used to “peep or spy” into dwellings or occupied buildings, nor may they be flown within 50 feet of a dwelling with the intent to “coerce, intimidate, or harass” someone, or to follow them in violation of an official restraining order. Virginia law also says that drones cannot photograph or follow people without their permission. People who violate these laws can be charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.
Also in Virginia, fire chiefs have the authority to maintain order at an emergency scene by limiting drones in the immediate airspace. Though state law stipulates that police departments may not use drones for law enforcement unless they have a search warrant, a lengthy list of exceptions to this law are provided, such as in cases of Amber Alerts, to survey the scene of an accident for purposes of crash reconstruction, to survey the residence of the subject of an arrest warrant before serving the warrant, to locate a suspect who has fled a crime scene, and whenever a drone is deemed “necessary to alleviate an immediate danger to any person.”
If you think a drone is too close (to you or your home or family) for comfort, can you shoot or otherwise disable it? “If you shoot a drone out of the air, the FAA is not going to be cool with that because it means the pilot is no longer in control of the aircraft and it could cause injury or damage to others,” said Cunningham. “Safety is what the FAA is all about.” However, if a drone is flying within 50 feet of a dwelling and down below the roofline, at what point does the contraption represent an intruder?
Leone said if she could have disabled the drone, she would have. “It was definitely within the personal space of our home, or what some people might call the ‘curtilage’ of the house,” she said. Most people would agree, but the FAA asserts control over all airspace, theoretically down to the ground, and it’s a federal crime to destroy a drone in the air. Since drones are considered aircraft by the National Transportation Safety Board, they are as protected as is a 747 flying overhead and may not be jammed or pointed at by a laser. The FAA aside, it’s illegal to destroy (or steal) others’ personal property of any kind unless there is a mortal threat.
The best course of action is to try to locate the drone operator, if possible, and to involve the police if necessary. Federal regulation mandates that drone operators must keep the aircraft within (naked eye) visual distance at all times, or coordinate with a “designated visual observer” who can watch the drone for the pilot as he or she navigates. Leone watched as the drone flew “at least a thousand yards” and beyond her vision before disappearing, with no pilot in sight, so she doesn’t believe that rule was followed either.
“It was probably kids [flying the drone],” said Leone, “and despite feeling violated, I found it hilarious that my bird dogs spotted it.”
As technology advances to allow widespread use of the devices for commercial deliveries to homes across the country, low-flying drones will become a common neighborhood sight, and laws controlling them will have to balance personal privacy against the wonder of same-day delivery.