The Kahn Institute Explores Proposed Drone Regulations: New Drone Technology Raises Concerns About Personal Property Rights

Veronica Brown '17

Assistant News Editor

On Feb. 15, the Federal Aircraft Administration proposed a set of new rules for the flight of small unmanned drones. The FAA will open up the proposal to the public for comments until April 15. In order to educate the community about the benefits and drawbacks of the new drone regulations, Smith’s Kahn Institute hosted “Commercial Drones in Our Backyards and Communities” on March 4. Paul Voss, a professor of engineering at Smith, led the presentation.

The new regulations set limits on the weight and speed of an aircraft, so individuals cannot fly drones over 55 pounds or at speeds of over 100 mph. Drone operators must be at least 17 years old and have passed a written exam. Drones must also not fly at altitudes above 500 feet or out of the line of sight of the operator.

These regulations are likely to interfere with Amazon’s highly publicized plans to develop a driverless drone delivery system. Not only would delivery paths require drones to fly out of the operator’s line of sight and ideally above 500 feet, but drones carrying external weight are expressly forbidden under the proposed regulations.

Voss addressed the rule that prohibits drones from being operated within a five-mile radius of an airport. This regulation is in response to reports of mysterious drones flying dangerously close to flight paths at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York as well as Logan Airport in Boston. Voss pointed out that although some limitations seem reasonable, a five-mile radius is actually quite large and would mean no drones could fly in the city of Northampton.

He cited the public commentary period as the motivation for the presentation, calling it “a chance to have your voice disproportionately heard” because so few people actually take the time to contribute their thoughts. He urged everyone to submit his or her concerns about the regulations online. Although many lobbyists and government bureaucracies have worked together for years to come up with this proposal, Voss pointed out to the audience that “what’s missing is your perspective as landowners.”

One of the most important concerns when talking about drones is the question, “Who owns the sky?” As technology develops, the law remains unclear about whether property owners own just the land or everything above their plots as well. The FAA’s newly proposed regulations do not discuss landowner permission, giving drone operators license to fly a drone above anyone’s property without legal consequence.

In July of 2013, the city of Northampton passed the Resolution on Drone Aircraft. Although this resolution does not have standing against state or federal laws, it expresses the city’s desire for landowners to have exclusive control over their immediate airspace to prevent infringement on property and privacy rights.

Michael Huerta, administrator of the FAA, said in a statement, “We want to maintain today’s outstanding level of aviation safety without placing an undue regulatory burden on an emerging industry.” Growth in the drone industry certainly comes with economic benefits; “Business Insider” estimates the commercial drone industry would generate around $10 billion in new spending over the next 10 years.

Drones have enabled important developments in science and remain at the forefront of technological advancement. Like many other recent inventions, however, they raise concerns about how laws developed for human interactions can govern increasingly autonomous technology.