California state drone legislation
California State Capitol Dome

In a win for lobbying efforts in a budding industry, California has made it through another year with few limits on drones in its skies.

Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday signed legislation that protects emergency responders and volunteers from liability should they damage a drone in the course of their work. But he vetoed the last four pending drone bills, saying he found it “more prudent to explore a more comprehensive approach” to the regulation of unmanned aircraft systems.

As drones have multiplied in number and category, lawmakers in the 2016 legislative session had attempted to come up with a comprehensive approach. But drone manufacturers and associations boosted their politicking, successfully beating back several bills they said would create a patchwork of laws that vary by state and hinder innovation.

Of the bills Brown vetoed, one would have banned the use of drones in state parks without permission. Another would have made the use of drones unlawful during illegal activities such as violating a protective order, interfering with emergency response personnel or facilitating the delivery of contraband to jails.

In messages released with his veto signature, Brown said current laws were sufficient to prosecute those crimes, while authority fell to the appropriate parks and wildlife departments to develop their own regulatory approach on their properties. [NOTE The governor says he will be “directing both departments to explore how best to address the concerns raised by this bill.” ]

Brown also rejected a bill [AB2724] mandating that drones be sold with a copy of FAA rules and that those with GPS technology must be turned off near airports, sensitive infrastructure or fires. 

To that proposal, Brown said it created “significant regulatory confusion by creating a patchwork of federal, state and local restrictions on airspace.”

“I believe it would be fairer and more effective to explore a more comprehensive approach that takes into account federal regulations on this subject. Piecemeal is not the way to go.” 

On the face of it, this is a nice (albeit temporary) win for teh AMA, DJI, GoPro and the Consumer Technology Association. Though to be clear they were unable to stop the bills from passing and getting to Governor Brown’s desk. Brown, a fine jurist, made much the same argument as he has made in the past – and indeed that much of the drone bar makes – which is that there are already laws on the books to deal with many of these instances.
And while his point is well made, SB807 which he signed providing immunity for downing a drone that interferes with emergency services would, like the Utah bill HB3003, appear to be in conflict with the FAA.

This bill seeks to provide local public entities and public employees of local public entities with immunity from civil liability for any damage to an unmanned aircraft or unmanned aircraft system, if the damage was caused while the local public entity and public employee of the local public entity was providing, and the unmanned aircraft system was interfering with, the operation, support, or enabling of specified emergency services. This bill applies the same immunity protection for local public entities and public employees of local public entities, above, to emergency responders who are private entities or paid or unpaid volunteers, if those emergency responders are acting within the scope of authority.

The most forward-looking of the bills that were vetoed is AB2724 . The bill:

Requires a manufacturer of unmanned aircraft, known as drones, for sale to include a copy of the Federal Aviation Administration safety regulations for unmanned aircraft and, if the aircraft is required to be registered, a notification and a link to the FAA registration web site. Requires aircraft equipped with global positioning satellite mapping capabilities to be equipped with geofencing technological capabilities that prohibit flying near an airport.

What makes this interesting and perhaps problematic for the lobbyists is that FESSA (2016 FAA Reauthorization Bill) calls for manufacturers to include safety information in the box (SEC. 2203. SAFETY STATEMENTS) and for there to be a means by which drone operators can be remotely identified (SEC. 2202. IDENTIFICATION STANDARDS). Finally, there will in theory, be a system by which a wide range of facilities will be able to declare their facilities a no-fly zone (SEC. 2209. APPLICATIONS FOR DESIGNATION) Whether Brown knew this or not is academic.
No argument here that geofencing is not ready for primetime. Even DJI has walked back their positioning, noting at a geofencing session at InterDrone that it is a real-time awareness tool to aid pilot decision making, not a practical deterrent.
Leave it to Mark McKinnon at Denton’s in his post And The Winner For The Most Responsible State Is, to put a coda on the whole thing.

It is interesting to note that the UAS and consumer industry as a whole spent a great deal of time and effort to keep the legislature from passing these laws in the first place.  Apparently the pressure the legislators feel from their constituents outweighs concerns for the progress of the industry and California’s position as a leader in developing this technology.  If it were not for Governor Brown, the “drone climate” in California would be dramatically different.

I have been thinking a great deal about the growing patchwork quilt. A recent comment by Brendan Schulman to the effect that there are now somewhere north of 250 state and local initiatives has led me to wonder if being the naysayer is a good use of time or resources. I have concluded that it is not.
First, it is impossible to “win ’em all.” For one thing, it is not at all clear to me that anyone has done the research to determine if sufficient protections are already on the books in every state. And no one can know how those protections will be viewed when their day in court comes, which it will, over the coming years.
But I think the larger problem is one of public perception. Ours is an industry that will need a considerable amount of good will to grow. It is naive to assume that the entire world is thrilled or shares our fascination with our buzzing creations. Or to Mark’s point, that the benefits are clearly understood. They are not. In fact, there is an ever-growing body of research that suggests exactly the opposite. For a gauge of public opinion consider that SB807 passed the Senate 37-0 and the House 79-0. So yes, the pressure is on.
There is another important story here where California legislators complain bitterly about the uncooperative nature of the drone lobby. It seems to me that it would be much more productive to take a leadership role, using our resources to develop and suggest legislation that fairly addresses both the concerns of the elected officials and the communities that they represent and the parochial interests of our industry.
I very much like a quote I found from Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, who said a variety of local laws might not be so bad. He compared drone policies to other quality-of-life issues about noise and safety and privacy, dealt with through local legislation for leaf-blowers or handguns.
“It will be a patchwork,” Stanley said. “This is a complex, sausage-making process in place.”

It is time to move beyond the finger in the dike mentality.