The Problem With Orlando Charging Drone Operators to Fly in Public Spaces

The Problem With Orlando Charging Drone Operators to Fly in Public Spaces

Orlando recently passed an ordinance that will now require drone users to pay to fly in many public spaces. The ordinance itself is very problematic and shows a serious lack of understanding of drones.

I'm all about drone safety. If you've read my other articles, you'll know I have zero tolerance for dangerous flying. But "safety" often becomes an umbrella under which irrational knee-jerk reactions, fear-mongering, and money grabs are justified. Such seems to be the case with Orlando's recently passed drone ordinance, effective immediately. In case you missed it, you can read the full ordinance here, but here, I'll present some highlights I'd like to talk about.

I looked up the minutes for the meeting and noted that five people gave public comment. Of those five, one gave general information and the other four, representing UAS organizations and the media, all indicated opposition. Despite this, the city council voted unanimously to approve the ordinance. Nonetheless, I find the whole of it tremendously problematic and inappropriate.

Increasing the "Ability" of Drone Operators

...the City wishes to increase the ability of hobbyists and commercial users to operate unmanned aircraft within the City of Orlando, while recognizing the need to protect the safety and privacy of the citizens and visitors to the city.

Frankly, I find the first half of the above quote to be a red herring. This ordinance does nothing but place restrictions on drone operations. By the very definition of the word, restrictions cannot possibly increase the ability to do something. The second half of the statement is also problematic. Is there truly a need to protect the safety and privacy of Orlando citizens? I tried to find data on crashes or incidents involving drones in Orlando but could find none; thus, I'm left to question the basis of this need.

Questionable Understanding

...technological developments now make it possible for unmanned aircraft to travel at speeds over 100 miles per hour, carry payloads, and fly more than a mile away from the operator at heights of over 3,000 feet, which has increased the potential for them to endanger the safety and well being of the citizens of Orlando and their property.

This line furthered my suspicion that little research was done by the city council before proposing this ordinance. No consumer drone flies anywhere near 100 mph, and the city council seems to have equated the ability to fly over 3,000 feet in the air with the act of doing so, completely glossing over the already standing federal regulation that prevents drones from flying over 400 feet, a regulation which is built into many systems as a software limit. Yes, there are racing drones that can reach the aforementioned speeds, but there was no attempt to distinguish the different types of drones or manners in which they're flown. This bothers me because writing relevant, reasonable laws requires a good grasp of that which is being written about and consequentially, precise language, and it's clear that the city council did not grasp that which comprises 99% of the drone-flying community. 


...unmanned aircraft also have the ability to be equipped with video cameras and other recording devices, and while the vast majority of those devices will undoubtedly be used to further commercial activity, hobbyists’ passions and the arts, it is important to recognize that they can also be used to conduct unlawful or unwanted surveillance or voyeuristic activities contrary to the privacy interests of the citizens of Orlando.

It's a bit peculiar to admit that the "vast majority" of people have good intentions, but to penalize and restrict them with your next words. And while I'm no legal scholar, people can misuse ordinary cameras in the same way. We've had this out numerous times in the courts, and there are very clear laws on the permissibility of using a camera in public spaces from specific cases all the way to the first amendment; it comes down to "reasonable expectation of privacy." The ordinance mentions this, but it's highly redundant and already on the books. Adding a permit fee does nothing relevant to enforcing those already existing laws, particularly since drones are already required to be registered with the FAA.


...while the proliferation and continued reduction in size of unmanned aircraft has made them more available and adaptable, it has also made them capable of being flown into stadiums, schools, and over large gatherings, potentially bypassing security checkpoints and other public safety measures designed to protect the citizens of Orlando.

Sure, this is true. But the situation this line is describing is already prohibited by FAA regulations, which forbid a drone operator from flying over any people not involved in the operation of the flight.

Photo courtesy of Nick Pecori


The Rules

The ordinance now forbids operating a drone without permit when that person is on city property and within 500 feet of any "venue," outdoor public assembly, large gatherings, detention centers, school, or any building owned or operated by the city without a permit. This is problematic for operators as the places that qualify under these restrictions are numerous and will make it excessively difficult for operators to efficiently and accurately ascertain if they are following regulations. Can you name every location and building owned or operated by your city? In addition, other regulations include not operating the drone while intoxicated or doing things like strapping a sword to it. I can get on board with those at least. 


Penalties range from arrest to fines of up to $400. In fairness, arrest is limited to flying while intoxicated, endangering life or property, or literally strapping weapons to your drone.


Permits cost $20 per event or $150 per year. 

Closing Thoughts

This ordinance discourages use (store owners have already noted a decline in sales) and solves a problem that doesn't seem to be there. It doesn't distinguish between commercial and hobby use, types of drones, size, capabilities, or usage scenarios. It's in many ways redundant to already standing FAA regulations. 

But most of all, I think it sets a dangerous precedent. Whether it's a money grab or an overreaction, charging (particularly for non-commercial) drone usage, seemingly without a basis for the need for additional regulation beyond those already in place at the federal level, stunts the growth of the industry and its economic potential and unfairly penalizes users, while creating broad regulations that will be difficult for users to successfully navigate. Regulating photography in public spaces on the basis of privacy is legally murky territory. It's also worth noting that 49 U.S. Code § 40103 states: "The United States Government has exclusive sovereignty of airspace of the United States." States and cities can petition for exceptions to this, but it underscores the vast complexity of factors and impacts that must be considered when making such decisions, and given the circumstances that arose in creating this ordinance and its results, I can't help but wonder if all such factors and impacts were duly considered before it was passed. 

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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all the "regulation" that is being imposed for drones is poorly written and executed. even the FAA regs have serious flaws.

This sounds more like a cash grab. "we can't stop drone flights so let's make the city some money".

You will never regulate people when it comes to drones...for instance the issue of safety: A certain popular Youtuber who skates and flies at the same time with commercial aircraft, buildings and large gatherings of people in close proximity.

What we need is common sense...make drone users accountable in similar ways to the operation of other vehicles. Throw them in jail when they cause serious damage, injury or death. Fine them when the issues are more minor in nature.

There is no common sense to this other thing in Orlando though...purely about filling the city's pockets.

agreed on the common sense side of it.

Well of course it's a cash grab. It's an ordinance passed by a city. What other purpose what it serve other than to put more cash into the city treasury which they can squander on projects that never see the light of day.

Red light cameras, parking tickets... you name it. Cash grab left and right. It's how the world works (unfortunately).

Common sense. This is America, remember?

Sad as that may be...let's not forget that in other countries there is 'NO" choice.

That's no consolation.

While I agree with you and I'm happy to have the right of choice, I shouldn't have to feel bad for having it because other countries don't. I serve this country proudly and HOPE one day for other countries less fortunate in their quality of living and rights of people share what the US population has and often takes for granted. That said, I can't allow myself to give up what so many have fought and died for just because other countries aren't so fortunate. I have a higher expectation for less stupidity from our elected officials and that's unfortunate. This is another stupid ordinance put in place by those who either don't know about the subject matter or don't care and just want money.

Want more money, pull over people texting while driving. I see them on a daily basis multiple times per day. They are a lot more hazardous then the renegade drone flier choosing to fly 100 mph at 3,000 feet while then dive bombing Disney. Like everything in life, the majority tends to focus on the minority here. Most drone pilots aren't law breaking people putting others in danger. Try and think about the beauty of drones before castigating those who fly. If you're not a fan of drones, please don't take pleasure in the breath taking photos they can capture.

I'll stop now because I could keep going lol :)

I just ask all the people commenting to not be extreme in your taking sides. People can usually meet pretty happily in the middle if they just take the time to listen to each other. I fly a drone and love it but I still realize if I wanted to I could do things that could harm others. Just because the potential is there if the wrong person uses it doesn't make the act bad. Just use your............Common sense.......oh right.....this is America lol I don't like that saying now that I think about it. America used to have common sense. I'm going to say......oh right.....this is America 2017 :)

Sadly common sense isn't something that can be imposed... And in many cases it can't be taught either.

As I see it 20 bucks isn't a killer deal... Besides what they want is in case of an accident there will be a record of who was flying on the zone where the accident happened and thus they can narrow the investigation.

While I won't deny there are responsible drone owners/operators (a lot), we have seen a lot of cases where common sense isn't present.

Youtube is choke full of drone fails, accidents, etc. While these won't represent the majority of the operators they serve the purpose to demonstrate that a drone in the wrong hands is dangerous. Just search Drone vs Humans.

This is a cash grab. Nothing more. I hope to god it doesn't set an example that other cities will follow.

Unfortunately, not everyone uses "common sense" no matter how you want to define it. That's why regulations are put in place. When some fool's drone takes out an eye or worse, "Whoops, my bad" isn't going to cut it. Most people just want to do their thing with the utmost care and caution. Regulations are for those who are just incapable or unwilling to use their God-given brains and act responsibly.

Every time I think about pulling the trigger on a drone, I see something like this article...or far worse, this:

A very misleading article.
Orlando is not "charging people to fly". They are restricting drone flights in public spaces without a permit, allowing them to regulate the annoyance and hazard created by such flights and to identify individuals responsible in the case of complaints. The fees cover the permit, as is standard practice.
<Insert applause here>
Lastly, this is not a "cash grab" as some describe it. That's ridiculous. The amount of revenue generated by such permits would be minimal.

Hey Bruce,

Sorry you feel it's misleading. To your points:

- The federal government is very clear that it has exclusive control of airspace (49 U.S. Code § 40103), so it's a bit questionable for Orlando to attempt to control it at the city level.
- In my opinion, something being subjectively annoying is not sufficient justification for legal regulation of it. Furthermore, the city showed no justification of a quantifiable hazard from drones at a level that requires additional regulation beyond that of the federal regulations in place.
- We already have a federal registry in place that allows identification of drones involved in mishaps. To register with the FAA costs $5 once. Why does Orlando need to charge 30 times that amount every year to cover costs of what's already a redundant system?
- There are approximately 5 million consumer drones flying in the United States right now. Orlando's population is 255,000. So, proportionally, that's (255,000/320,000,000)*5,000,000*150=$600,000 a year. I think that's a sizable chunk of change for a city of that size.

Legislation has been introduced in the South Carolina House and Senate to prohibit flying drones near or over prisons. Yes, drones can be used to drop contraband, such as drugs, cell phones, and weapons into prisons; but the South Carolina Department of Corrections working with the FAA to establish no-fly zones over correctional facilities may be better than creating state legislation that may not stand up in federal court. But then, the South Carolina legislature is fond of creating state laws that are shot down in federal court.

Typical Orlando politics. They don't have the resources to enforce it anyhow. They don't enforce a majority of their ordinances as it is.

I live in Orlando and this is sad. It also makes no sense considering the city is trying to be a tech leader.