By James E. Mackler
Tennessee recently passed a bill making it a crime to fly an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, commonly known as a “drone,” over large, ticketed public gatherings of 100 or more people, into fireworks displays, or over jails. The law will take effect on July 1st. Although it might seem at first like this law is a solution looking for a problem, it turns out that the legislation was prompted by actual events.
In the past year, the FAA has investigated numerous drone sightings over professional stadiums sporting events. Also, on July 4th of last year, a man flew a drone into Nashville’s largest fireworks display, gaining national attention. There has also been a rash of incidents involving attempted air-drop deliveries of contraband by drones to jails.
It is dangerous and reckless to fly a drone over a large crowd, into a fireworks display, or over a jail to deliver contraband. Under current law, however, it has been difficult for the police to charge drone operators engaged in these activities. For example, although the FAA restricts flights over large outdoor events, there has been some question about whether these restrictions apply to drones. Flight into fireworks is not an obvious violation of any particular state law. Delivering contraband to a jail is already a crime, but until the payload is dropped, the flight itself is in a gray area.
Under the new law, drone operators can be sentenced to up to 30 days in jail for violations. Although there is no question that this law addresses serious safety concerns, the law raises some interesting legal issues. For example, the Federal government has long held exclusive jurisdiction over the “navigable airspace” above the surface of the earth. The law defining “navigable airspace,” however, developed before the widespread use of drones. Drones can and do navigate all the way down to the ground. The FAA, consequently, insists that its jurisdiction over drones extends to the ground. This means that Tennessee, through this law, is asserting a claim to govern the same space that the FAA claims the exclusive power to control.
Drone operators should not view this legal uncertainty as an opportunity to challenge the new law. They should, instead, understand that the law prohibits such flights for good reason. Operators who would violate the law are reckless and irresponsible. They risk injuring spectators. They also add to the undeserved public distrust of the large community of responsible drone enthusiasts. Increased distrust can only result in restrictions and regulations, which are likely to be much less reasonable than the law taking effect in July.