How Will US State, Local Governments Control Unmanned, Manned Aircraft? FAA Unsure

By S.L. Fuller | May 4, 2017
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Ed Lee, the mayor of San Fransico, is one of the many officials of state and local governments in the U.S. who is trying to figure out how to deal with drones. When it comes to new technology, like unmanned aircraft systems, he has to think about whether it will add or eliminate jobs and how to keep his constituents happy, among other issues. Lee said he has a director who takes care of matters concerning airports, and he is used to passing aerospace-related items onto his staff. But drones are a different story. Lee is now active in the airspace conversation as a member of the FAA’s Drone Advisory Committee. And at the committee's third meeting May 3 in Herndon, Virginia, he took up that conversation with fellow committee member and Helicopter Assn. International President Matt Zuccaro.

The committee has a subcommittee, which is divided into three different task grounds. One of the focuses of Task Group 1 is the roles and responsibilities that state and local governments have in “regulating certain drone operations in low-altitude airspace as compared to the federal government’s exclusive role and responsibility for regulating all aspects of manned aircraft operations,” as the tasking statement reads. While discussing the progress of the task group during the meeting, Zuccaro wanted to know on what path the discussion is heading.


“Today it happens to be unmanned vehicles. Tomorrow it’s going to be helicopters and manned aircraft,” Zuccaro said. “Where are we really heading here?”

Would it come to a point, he asked, where pilots are going to have to have a database handy while flying across multiple municipalities and look up the different rules?

“There are hundreds that I know of — and there could be thousands I don’t — of local municipal rules, regulations, ordinances and oversight of unmanned vehicles that are popping up everyday,” he said.

Lee’s answer, one that would later be echoed by FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, is that there hasn’t been enough input given by other mayors and officials to say what the intent is. This is a topic, Lee said, that has never had to be considered before.

“I think this conversation about drones — when I talk to other mayors, a lot of stakeholders — it actually is a transformation of the entire city having to become an airport, which is very different,” Lee said. “The aircraft we’re talking about have multiple functions. They no longer just carry passengers. This is what we’re struggling with.”

The idea of a city being a large airport is a phrase that Zuccaro said he liked. That might be, though, because that’s the infrastructure in which helicopters fly.

“We have that already,” Zuccaro said. “Helicopters are in every major metropolitan city.”

Zuccaro explained that the authorities that local and state governments have over helicopters are understood and respected by the rotorcraft community. But if those municipalities are going to have expanded control over other operational aspects of drones — aspects that, for manned aircraft, are controlled by the FAA — would that head down a slippery slope? Would the FAA end up ceding more powers to the state and local governments over manned aircraft up to a certain altitude?

Huerta likened the current drone situation to that of airports. Cities can place airports wherever they want. But once established, cities agree to operate them in compliance with the FAA. The gap in knowledge, in this case, is that no one has total clarity about what authorities state and local municipalities want to have over drones.

“This is probably the most complicated policy question that we’d like to try to wrestle with early on,” Huerta said. “I have a very clear sense of what existing FAA authorities are, what our processes are, to enforce them, and what relative roles are … I don’t have a great deal of clarity, in my mind, as to what state and local government entities would desire to be able to regulate.”

The topic of state and local governments continued to spur conversations. David Greene from the Wisconsin Dept. of Transportation Bureau of Aeronautics said he doubted every local municipality were interested in their own drone regulations. A much more uniform approach is where he thinks the path leads. Amazon Prime Air’s Gur Kimchi suggested that Task Group 1’s official list of priorities be revisited, as it seemed out of place for “enforcement” to take the No. 1 slot, while “state and local interest in response to UAS” was at No. 4. As for an answer to Zuccaro’s question, he did not get one.

“it is a possibility, in the future, that state and local municipalities will also have an entry into regulation and oversight of aviation activities … of manned aircraft up to a certain altitude. That is a possibility in your mind?” he asked.

“I don’t know if it is or isn’t,” Huerta said. He acknowledged the importance of the question, but also that it was not the question at hand. “I think what we’re trying to understand right now is what are the specific needs and interests that states and local governments have in respect to unmanned [aircraft].”

As a result of the conversation, RTCA left the meeting with an action item to identify members of the committee who might meet with state and local government officials at events, like the June meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Huerta and Lee recently addressed the Conference of Mayors, and Lee noted a great amount of interest from the mayors around this subject. He said there is interest in altitude, zoning, privacy, responsibilities and information.

“I come asking, really, for more input from my colleagues across the country,” Lee told the committee. “I would propose even more intense dialogue around this issue, because it is a big transformation.”

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