Massachusetts Drone Regulations Still Up In The Air

NEWTON, MA (WHDH) - Drones have taken off in Massachusetts, with nearly 10,000 registered with the Federal Aviation Administration in our state last year.

But a battle is brewing between drone pilots and the cities and towns they’re gliding over, and 7NEWS discovered one city’s new rules may fly in the face of the federal government.

A literal buzz surrounds them: Drones with mounted cameras, drifting, darting, and diving, making our photographer on the ground look a bit limited.

“It’s just perfect for getting that kind of view,” said Chris Love, who was at the controls of a drone he showed off to 7NEWS.

Love runs a Chris Love Productions, capturing breath-taking bird’s eye views for a living.

“Adding aerial shots to just about anything will make it better,” Love said.

But he can no longer hone his craft outside his home office in Newton. That’s because, in December, the city became one of the first in Massachusetts to rein in the roving recorders.

Newton now requires all drone pilots to register with the city, bans flying over private property without permission, and bans flying over public property, too, unless the city gives permission.

A federal lawsuit, filed in January by Michael Singer, another local drone operator, claims those rules are illegal.

“The city ordinance just goes way too far,” Love said. “It kind of seems to me like it says you can’t fly on private property and you can’t fly in public. So it basically prohibits any drone flight in the city of Newton without jumping through hoops.”

Singer’s lawsuit claims Newton’s ordinance “denies (drone) operators access to the very airspace the FAA allocated for them,” and bans flying “over most of the land area of Newton.”

“This drone ordinance is a solution in search of a problem,” said Jake Auchincloss, a Newton city councilor who fought his fellow city councilors – and lost. “I strenuously opposed it. I tried to delay it. I tried to amend it. And I believe that this ordinance should be repealed,” Auchincloss said.

The FAA rolled out national drone regulations last year, and says “substantial air safety issues” are raised when cities try to do the same. A fact sheet released by the FAA in December 2015 states “no state or local government may impose an additional registration requirement… without first obtaining FAA approval.” The agency also recommends that cities consult it before passing drone laws.

The agency wouldn’t comment on whether Newton did either.

“The city may be forced to rescind this ordinance, and have cost itself money in the process,” Auchincloss said.

The City of Newton declined to answer questions because of the ongoing lawsuit. But in court filings, the city denies that the ordinance violates any laws. Its stated purpose is to protect the public, banning things like snooping or snapping someone’s picture from the sky.

“Drones present a unique threat to privacy,” said Caitriona Fitzgerald, policy director and chief technology officer for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “They’re basically designed to conduct persistent surveillance in a matter that’s almost undetectable.”

Fitzgerald is a privacy advocate, and said cities should protect residents the way Newton has.

“I think they’re reasonable safeguards,” Fitzgerald said. “These drones have a very technologically advanced ability to stream video. So that’s something you don’t want over your house.”

Still, Auchincloss is not persuaded.

“The issues that it was intended to solve – trespass, noise pollution, voyeurism, invasion of privacy – are already all illegal under Newton law,” Auchincloss said.

And drone pilots fear that if other cities follow Newton’s lead, it could ground them for good.

“It would make it impossible to do business across state lines, across city lines,” Love said. “I think we just need to be responsible to make sure that we strike a balance between helping drone operators and keeping everyone else safe.”

Holyoke passed a similar ordinance last fall, and Barnstable has banned drones from flying over its beaches.

Meanwhile, 33 states have passed drone laws, but Massachusetts has not.

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