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.
...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.
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.
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!