Schumer Said that Drone Technology Has Huge Potential, However the Boost in Use By Private Investigators to Spy on Unaware New Yorkers, Use By Dealers to Deliver Illegal Drugs & Recent Incident When Drone Interfered with an NYPD Helicopter Demonstrate the Need for Quick Rules from the FAA & Commerce


Schumer: NY Has Become Wild, Wild West for Hobby & Commercial Drones

U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today called on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Commerce Department to quickly develop and release privacy rules and guidelines for the use of small unmanned aircraft systems by the end of 2014. Schumer took particular concern with the use of drones among private investigators spying on unaware parties, use by drug dealers to deliver illegal drugs and serious public safety concerns, like the recent incident when a drone interfered with an NYPD helicopter. Drones are used by the U.S. to aid in military operations and are increasingly being used for commercial purposes. Schumer said that while there are innumerable benefits to this technology, there are also consequences that create privacy and safety concerns for the general public, particularly given that the FAA has not yet released clear rules for the definition and appropriate use of commercial and hobby drones. Schumer said that the federal government’s lack of clear rules on the use of small, non-military drones has led to confusion, abuses and dangerous situations, particularly in urban areas around New York; in July, a drone nearly collided with an NYPD helicopter, drones have been used to spy on individuals by Private Investigators, and it is reported that drones are being used by drug dealers.  Schumer today is urging the FAA to expedite their rule-making on small drones and to clearly distinguish between hobby and commercial drones, and the legal and illegal uses for each. Schumer is also pushing the soon-to-be empowered Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), under an anticipated executive order by President Obama, to prioritize privacy in their guidelines for drone data collection and storage.

“New York has become the wild, wild west for commercial and hobby drones, and until clear, smart regulations are put in place by the federal government, they will continue to threaten the privacy and safety of New Yorkers,” said Schumer. “More and more, small drones are being used by Private Investigators to spy on unaware New Yorkers or for illegal purposes like drug deliveries, and the lack of clear rules from the FAA holds a great deal of the blame for confusion as to what is legal, and the blatant abuses of this great technology. I’m urging the FAA and the soon-to-be empowered Commerce Department to develop and release much-needed regulations about small drones, along with specific privacy protections, by the end of this year, which must include a ban on drones used by private investigators and drug dealers. It is also critical there be strict penalties for the dangerous use of hobby drones, like the recent near-miss of an NYPD helicopter and one of these devices in July. There is no time to waste in getting clear rules on the books so that this technology can continue to create important advancements without threatening our quality of life and safety.”

Drones are unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that fall under three categories denoted by the Federal Aviation Authority: civil, public and model aircraft.  The public unmanned aircraft systems are used by government agencies, law enforcement agencies and research institutions to aid in their operations.  They are an incredibly important technology, and are helpful in collecting data, aiding with border patrol operations, agriculture, training the military and more.  The civil unmanned aircraft systems and the model aircraft systems provide opportunities for civilians to use drones recreationally and for commercial purposes. Schumer supports the use of drones under all of these categories, but said that there must be clear limits to their usage when privacy and safety are threatened. Traditionally, drones were used to aid in military operations overseas.  Drones have allowed the military to obtain information without putting American civilians in danger.  Technological improvements have led private companies and individuals to purchase drones for prices as low as $500.  According to the FAA, small drones should not be flown higher than 400 feet or close to airports and densely populated areas.

Drones have commercial applications that make them useful in terms of agricultural development, law enforcement, disaster relief, real estate sales and search and rescue missions. Specifically, drones can help farmers monitor their crops more effectively and may help realtors sell real estate by providing better photographs of for-sale properties. Drones can also be used to help firefighters spot wildfires and aid in search and rescue missions by locating missing individuals. Schumer said that there are innumerable benefits to drone technology, however, there are also consequences to the lack of regulation.

According to the Washington Post, there have been 15 cases of drones flying too close to airports in the last two years.  Since 2009, there have been 23 accidents and 236 incidents deemed “unsafe” by the FAA, in which registered civilian drones were involved. In many cases, the drones are too small and cannot be clearly identified on an airplane’s radar system.

This problem has led to quite a few close calls in New York City. According to the Washington Post, this past May an pilot flying into LaGuardia Airport spotted a drone at 5,500 feet in the air.  In March of 2014, a drone flying in Brooklyn hit two buildings and nearly hit a pedestrian in Manhattan.  Most recently, this past July, a drone almost collided with an NYPD helicopter over the George Washington Bridge.  Schumer today said that as this technology becomes even more popular, it creates an even larger cause for concern in terms of airline and pedestrian safety. Schumer explained that the FAA should make it clear whether hobby drones can be regulated, and how.

There has been a recent boost in the use of drones for commercial use. Recently, the New York Post reported that private investigators have been using drones to spy on partners cheating on each other, individuals lying about disabilities and individuals involved in criminal activities. Media reports have also pointed to drones being used for drug deliveries. Recently, it was also reported that a drone was being used to fly marijuana and cell phones into a South Carolina maximum-security prison; the drone crashed and the materials never made it on-site.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act was passed in 2012 and established “a special rule for model aircraft.” A model aircraft is defined as an unmanned aircraft flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft and flown for recreational or hobby purposes. This law prohibits the FAA from promulgating rules for model aircraft that meet the following criteria: flown strictly for hobby and recreational use; operated within a community-based set of safety guidelines and within the programming of a nationwide community-based organization; weighs 55 pounds or less; not interfere with manned aircraft; the operator receives permission from the airport operator and control tower if the device is being flown within five miles of an airport. The FAA may take action if the model aircraft is operated in a way that endangers the national airspace. There have been concerns, however, about the distinction between commercial and hobby drones, and the FAA has yet to issue a rule for commercial drones.  In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress said the FAA should come up with a plan for safe integration of drones by September 2015. A recent inspector general’s report suggests the FAA may not meet this deadline.

Earlier this year, a federal judge dismissed the FAA’s case against Pirker, an individual flying a commercial drone at the University of Virginia. They attempted to fine Pirker $10,000 for flying the drone for commercial purposes. Pirker claimed the FAA did not have the authority to regulate drones because of a 2007 FAA policy notice that excludes model aircraft from its scope of regulation. The judge agreed and ruled that Pirker’s claim was valid, however the FAA has appealed.  As a result, it is currently unclear what types drones fall under the definition of a model aircraft that the FAA does not have the ability to regulate and what is considered using a drone for commercial purposes.

Recently it was reported that President Obama will issue an executive order to have the Commerce Department develop guidelines and best practices for commercial drones. The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) would work with the industry to develop guidelines focused on privacy and best practices while the FAA would issue rules about integrating drones into national airspace.

Schumer today urged the FAA and the Commerce Department to release rules and guidelines on small commercial drones by the end of 2014. The FAA is charged with developing general, binding rules for integrating drones into the national airspace, while the Commerce Department’s NTIA is expected to be ordered to issue guidelines and best practices for drone usage and data collection and storage. Schumer is specifically pushing for a ban on drones used by private investigator to spy on unaware parties.