Thursday, March 5, 2015

Research Q of the Week: Drones and Minnesota Cities (3/2/15)

Question: What can the city do to regulate the operation of aerial drones in city airspace? 

Answer: Interest in drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), is sky-high and climbing!

… Sorry, couldn’t resist. UAS are currently being used for law enforcement, firefighting, search and rescue, disaster relief, border patrol, port security, research, and environmental monitoring. UAS technology also has applications for industries like farming, construction, real estate, engineering, surveying, journalism, sports entertainment, and aerial photography. UAS can also be used for recreational purposes. But, serious safety and privacy concerns are on the horizon as UAS use soars. What authority do cities have to address these concerns?

UAS come in many shapes and sizes. They can be smaller than a remote control airplane or have a wingspan as large as a commercial jet airliner. However, regardless of size, UAS are subject to regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Federal law grants the FAA authority to make rules ensuring the safe and efficient use of U.S. airspace.

Proposed new rules
Governmental and commercial entities that operate a UAS in U.S. airspace must be certified by the FAA or granted an exemption from certification requirements. The FAA has proposed new rules for small UAS involved in non-recreational operations that weigh less than 55 pounds. The proposed rules are intended to maintain safety without overly burdening the UAS industry. They address operator certification, aircraft registration and marking, and operational limits. The proposed rules would not apply to model aircraft used for recreation or hobby purposes.

Just for fun?
FAA approval is not required to fly model aircraft, including UAS, weighing less than 55 pounds for strictly hobby or recreational purposes. But, model aircraft pilots still need to fly right. The model aircraft must remain visible to the operator at all times and it must be operated in a manner that does not threaten manned airplanes or persons or property on the ground. The FAA has authority to pursue enforcement action against any person whose model aircraft endangers the safety of the national airspace system.   

FAA authority generally preempts cities from enacting laws regulating airspace. According to the FAA, cities cannot pass ordinances that prohibit or limit the operation of aircraft, set standards for airworthiness, or establish pilot qualifications. So, a local ordinance that regulates that subject matter is likely to crash and burn. Cities do retain authority to control the use of UAS by their own police, fire, and other departments.

Written by James Monge. Contact the League's Research and Information Service staff by emailing, or by calling (651) 281-1200 or (800) 925-1122.

This blog post conveys general information. It’s not legal advice. Please check with your city attorney before acting on this information.

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