The bad use of drones brings on the pressure to legislate in California

September 16, 2015 |

It has long been predicted that the increasing use of drones will prompt, eventually, some form of substantive legislative response. The reckless use of drones will bring that one more quickly.  Legislatures around the world have tended to ignore the issue though state legislatures have responded on an ad hoc basis, sometimes quite assertively.  The ongoing “Valley Fire”, in Northern California may prompt a change in the law.  As the BBC reports in Raging Valley fires could mean swift new drone laws that this reckless use of drones have disrupted the deployment of air tankers and helicopters. It is entirely predictable that the legislature would respond with alacrity.  In a piecemeal fashion.  Unfortunately it is a classic case of hard cases make bad law.  The reported response is hurried, dramatic and ultimately unduly limited in scope and operation.  As a narrowly focused response to a particular problem it misses/ignores  other critical issues, such as privacy, associated with drone usage.  As battery life improves, the payload increases and the ability to operate without the need for line of sight (such as through pre programming a flight path or following a particular target) the need for a more comprehensive regulatory framework will be even more apparent.  It is not that Australia is in any better state of preparedness.

The article provides:

 In some parts of Northern California it’s hell on earth.

Wildfires are rampaging through California, destroying homes. Officials here say there could be worse to come.

As if the struggle wasn’t great enough, the vast Valley fire containment effort is being hampered. Drones being flown near the huge blazes are disrupting the flights of aircraft being used to control the fires.

On Sunday, the LA Times reported, several wayward drones forced “two fire retardant-dropping air tankers and three helicopters to abandon their efforts”.

A spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection – or Cal Fire, for short – blasted the “irresponsible” drone operators.

“Someone will lose their home,” Karen Kanawyer told the newspaper.

“All their memories – everything is going to burn up because we don’t have that other tool from our toolbox. A fire can turn catastrophic in the blink of an eye.”

On Friday, Cal Fire posted a public service announcement to YouTube urging hobby drone users to stay away from the fire. The slogan is simple: “If you fly, we can’t.”

A dedicated tip line – 1-844-DRONE11 – has been set up for Cali residents to report suspected drone pilots.

New laws

But aside from asking nicely, what else can authorities do?

Not much else, but that could change dramatically in the next couple of weeks.

A bill hurried through by California State Senator Ted Gaines aims to give greater powers against drone use.

Specifically, it wants to make it possible for firefighters to knock drones out of the sky by using electronic jamming, without fear of being sued for compensation.

The bill, if passed, would mean California’s drone operators would face six months in prison if found to be flying a drone in a manner that hindered the efforts of emergency services.

Before it can become law, it has to be signed off by California governor Jerry Brown.

It has unanimous political support – the California State Senate voted 40-0 in the bill’s favour (the full text of which can be read here).

State of emergency

But that doesn’t quite make it a done deal.

Just last week Governor Brown slapped down a separate proposed law (SB-142), which sought to restrict drone use.

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson – who represents Santa Barbara County – wanted to make it illegal to fly a drone below 350ft (107m) above private property.

Governor Brown said the law in its proposed form would give rise to “burdensome litigation”, and called for more discussion on the subject before a decision was made. The drone community welcomed the delay over that particular issue.

But Governor Brown has until 11 October to make a decision on this latest bill – though given the scale of the crisis, he could sign it off sooner.

If he passes it into law, an urgency clause added because of the current state of emergency means the new powers would come into effect immediately.

On a related subject  Man fined after flying drones over Premier League stadiums reports that in the UK a man has pleaded guilty to flying a drone over professional football matches and London landmarks.  It provides:

A man has admitted illegally flying drones over professional football matches and London landmarks.

Nigel Wilson admitted nine breaches of taking video over football grounds and tourist attractions last year.

Wilson, from Bingham, Nottinghamshire, was originally accused of 17 breaches of the Air Navigation Order but some charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence.

He was fined £1,800 at Westminster Magistrates’ Court.

It was the first case in England of a person being prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service for using drones after a police-led operation.

Wilson, 42, was accused by Scotland Yard of flying the aircraft unmanned and “failing to maintain direct visual contact”.

The charges he admitted included flying the drone on:

  • September 16 – Liverpool v Ludogorets FC at Anfield
  • September 23 – Derby County v Reading at iPro Stadium, Derby
  • September 27 – Palace of Westminster, London
  • September 27 – Arsenal v Tottenham Hotspur at Emirates Stadium, London
  • October 9 – Queen Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace and north bank of the River Thames in London
  • October 18 – Manchester City v Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium, Manchester

The court heard police horses were startled by Wilson’s device as it flew over a Champions League group stage game between Liverpool and Bulgarian visitors Ludogorets at Anfield.

He was also twice arrested in London and had his drones confiscated.

Ignored safety warnings

District Judge Quentin Purdy told Wilson, a security guard, he had put the public at risk by flying the drones over busy, built-up areas.

He said: “At each and every one of these places an accident could have occurred simply by a gust of wind or something of that nature taking it out of your control.

“In each and every case you knew what you were doing. Several times you were warned by police, who seized drones from you, and on numerous occasions by people posting on your YouTube channel.

“It was the height of arrogance in terms of public safety.”

Wilson, a father-of-two, shot the videos using three unmanned aircraft and uploaded them to his YouTube channel, PV2+ Adventures.

Susan Bryant, defending, described Wilson as a “hobbyist”, adding: “It was something he put a great amount of time into in terms of improving his skill.”

The law on drones – Air Navigation Order 2009

Operators of any small unmanned surveillance aircraft must not fly them over or within 150 metres of any congested area, over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 people or within 50 metres of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the user’s control, unless they have obtained permission from the Civil Aviation Authority.

Users must also maintain direct visual contact with a drone throughout its flight path so they can avoid collisions with people and buildings.

One Response to “The bad use of drones brings on the pressure to legislate in California”

  1. The bad use of drones brings on the pressure to legislate in California | Australian Law Blogs

    […] The bad use of drones brings on the pressure to legislate in California […]

Leave a Reply