No Drone Zones: Ensuring Public Safety Through Tighter Regulation

Tamara J. Patterson, KLJ Staff Editor[1]

The skydiver parachuting to the ground during the football pre-game show suddenly had to take evasive action.[2] A drone flew within twenty feet of his parachute, going on to crash into suite-level glass at the University of Kentucky’s Commonwealth Stadium.

This is by no means an isolated incident. Earlier that same week, a drone crashed into empty stands at the U.S. Open.[3] In August, a drone struck and damaged an office tower in downtown Louisville.[4] In January, a drone crashed into a tree on the White House lawn.[5]

Drones are quickly becoming part of our cultural landscape. And like any new technology, they are testing the boundaries of current law. But who—the states or the federal government—will define those boundaries? The “federalist” approach contends that states should be the primary architects of drone regulation.[6] There are many cogent arguments to support this view. First, many of these legal questions—particularly those relating to property and privacy rights—will arise from state law. Second, state legislatures are better positioned to adapt to the rapidly changing industry as new applications for drone use emerge and as new patterns of hobbyist behavior develop. Third, there is a long history of using the states as laboratories to create national consensus on emerging legal issues.

While this “federalist” approach makes sense for issues like privacy rights, recent events highlight the need for a more direct approach to ensure public safety. Besides the many drone sightings at sporting events around the country, drone sightings by pilots have more than doubled since last year, and drones have interfered with firefighting efforts in the West, grounding crews on several occasions.[7]

Instead of waiting for the combination of criminal convictions, civil penalties, and public service announcements to create an educated hobbyist drone culture, Congress should take the lead by requiring manufacturers to program hobbyist drones to prevent them from flying through restricted air space.[8] The technology already exists. Some manufacturers, responding to privacy concerns, now program their drones to prevent them from flying over certain addresses.[9] It would be a relatively easy step to require manufacturers to program their drones to avoid restricted airspace.

No one was hurt by the errant drone at Commonwealth Stadium. But the potential for serious personal injury and property damage from wayward drones is too great to leave FAA safety guideline compliance in the hands of unlicensed hobbyist drone operators. Public safety requires mandatory programming of hobbyist drones. Only then will “Drone Free Zones” be truly free of drones.


[1] J.D. expected May 2017

[2] Gary B. Graves, Student Charged with Wanton Endangerment After Drone Crash, Lexington Herald Leader (Sept. 11, 2015), http://www.kentucky.com/2015/09/11/4031082/student-charged-with-wanton-endangerment.html.

[3] Laura Wagner, Drone Crash at U.S. Open; New York City Teacher Arrested, NPR (Sept. 4, 2015, 2:24 PM), http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/09/04/437539727/drone-crash-at-u-s-open-new-york-city-teacher-arrested.

[4]Patrick Brennan & Rebecca Butts, Louisville Man Charged in Great American Tower Drone Strike, Cincinnati.com (Aug. 18, 2015, 5:07 PM), http://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2015/08/18/louisville-man-charged–great-american-tower-drone-strike/31898715.

[5] Michael S. Schmidt & Michael D. Shear, A Drone, Too Small for Radar to Detect, Rattles the White House, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/27/us/white-house-drone.html.

[6] Wells C. Bennett, Civilian Drones, Privacy, and the Federal-State Balance, Brookings (Sept. 2014), http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports2/2014/09/civilian-drones-and-privacy.

[7] The Associated Press, FAA:Pilot Reports of Drone Sightings More Than Double, N.Y. Times (Aug. 13, 2015, 2:26 PM), http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/08/13/us/politics/ap-us-drone-sightings.html.

[8] Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) recently introduced such legislation. Feinstein Introduces Bill to Improve Safety of Consumer Drones, (June 18, 2015), http://www.feinstein.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2015/6/feinstein-introduces-bill-to-improve-safety-of-consumer-drones.

[9] Laura Sydell, Now You Can Sign Up To Keep Drones Away from Your Property, NPR (Feb. 23, 2015, 4:48 PM), http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2015/02/23/388503640/now-you-can-sign-up-to-keep-drones-away-from-your-property.