Just a few weeks ago, on March 1st, the Clarkstown police department in Rockland County, New York, helped locate a lost boy with autism thanks to its fast-growing drone program. Police were told that the missing teen had left his home unexpectedly and headed in an unknown direction. While police officers searched on foot, they also sent up a drone which quickly located the teen in good health within 45 minutes of being reported missing.
Drone program with seven drones and 18 certified pilots
This isn't the first time Clarkstown's fast-growing drone program, now with seven drones and 18 Part 107 certified pilots, has been in the News recently. Last November, the department's drones played a key role in rescuing a stranded hiker, and since its inception has had many successful missions finding missing children, Alzheimer's patients, and autistic persons, as well as documenting accidents, crime scenes, and natural disasters.
While this positive story could end here, it's important to note Clarkstown's successes come despite the fact that Rockland County has some of the most restrictive drone laws in the state, second only to New York City. For that story, we need to look back to June 2015, when the Rockland County Legislature broadly approved a new set of regulations introduced by state legislator Jay Hood Jr. and backed by the county sheriff's office.
Problematic County Drone Laws Hinder Hobbyists And Commercial Users Alike
The law, known as Local Law No. 2 of 2015, or the “Drone Regulation Law,” opens with fear-mongering imagery of spying, Contraband delivery, and even child predators luring away children. While it claims to target the illegal use of drones, which was already covered non-specifically in local law, it essentially bans all Legal drone use and severely decimated the hobby and industry for the entire county.
Much of this law relies on the faulty assertion that drones fly “below the navigable airspace (generally at 400 feet) which is not within the jurisdiction, regulation, and control of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).” This clearly contradicts FAA and federal regulations and appears to be the result of misunderstanding the term “uncontrolled airspace,” which simply means air traffic controllers are not directing air traffic within its limits. In fact, uncontrolled airspace is still under the purview of the FAA, which regulates all airspace from the ground up to and including FL600.
This misunderstanding is a major issue as Local Law No. 2 of 2015 goes on to ban flights over private property except one's own or with the owner's permission, and public property without controlling agency permission — something local law has no authority to do. In fact, similar local drone laws have been challenged in court and struck down by Federal Preemption (see Singer v. City of Newton).
Challenging Restrictive Drone Laws
For me, the author, this issue is personal. My last interaction with local law enforcement was just months ago after the Clarkstown Police were called about a completely legal short-range flight from my residence at 100' AGL. The officer, who was one of the drone pilots mentioned in the article about the missing boy, was polite and professional, though he lacked understanding of some federal regulations. We agreed to disagree, and he left without incident or issuing a citation.
I have reached out to Jay Hood, Jr., the Rockland County lawmaker responsible for the Rockland County drone laws, on multiple occasions to share my concerns and massive amount of supporting material. I've also offered my assistance in revising the law to align with federal regulations to be more friendly and fair to the drone community and industry while still addressing local safety and privacy concerns. The following was his response:
He did go on to say that he would have counsel look at the information I provided and would reach out if he needed anything further. It has been over a year since our last contact.
It's clear the police aren't interested in enforcing Rockland County's drone laws. Perhaps they understand they are federally pre-empted, and a losing case would cause the laws to be struck down. Many of us still fly for business and/or pleasure, but even though police action is unlikely, there is still a lingering fear that the Sword of Damocles hovers overhead with each flight.
Let us know in the comments below what you think of Rockland County's local drone laws, and, if you have encountered similar situations in your hometown.
Photos courtesy of ABC7NY and Clarkstown police department.
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