Connecticut lawmakers consider limits on drone use [Plainville Citizen]

January 12, 2015

By Eric Vo Special to The Citizen

Connecticut lawmakers will discuss limits on drone use during the legislative session that began this week.

In December, the Program Review and Investigations Committee recommended limiting drone use for law enforcement in the absence of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or a search warrant. The panel also recommended prohibiting remote operation of weapons including government and non-government drones and that all state and local government drones be registered with the Office of Policy and Management.

The next step is reviewing existing laws to see if amendments are needed as drones become more widely available to average people.

“The reason for all of this is because they’re becoming very cheap and anyone can buy them now,” said state Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford. “… Theoretically you can attach things to them, so we’ll also tweak some of the other state statutes.”

Mushinsky co-chairs the committee with state Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield. The committee will introduce legislation to alter the state’s existing laws on voyeurism and stalking, for example, Mushinsky said.

“We are specifying what cannot be done by a citizen,” she said. “A citizen would not be able to spy on their ex-husband or carry a weapon or deliver a drug deal with a drone. A lot of these offenses are in statute now, but we just have to make tweaks to include the use of drones to do the forbidden thing.”

The committee did not vote on any recommendations related to commercial use of drones. The state cannot regulate commercial aircraft or drones, according to Peter Sachs, an attorney living in Branford. Sachs is also a licensed commercial helicopter pilot and operates his own drone.

State Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano said he believes drone regulation “absolutely” has to be looked at.

“I think the reason why we have the Program Review and Investigations Committee looking at it is because they tend to be a bipartisan committee with a tremendous amount of resources,” said Fasano, R-North Haven. “They can determine what the federal limitations are and what we can and can’t regulate. It gives us a good parameter of where we should be.” Fasano’s district includes Wallingford.

The Federal Aviation Administration was expected to release proposed rules and regulations for drones in 2014. Even when the proposed regulations are released, it will take two years before they’re adopted, according to Bob Gonsalves, founder of the U.S. Association of Unmanned Aerial Videographers. The organization is based in Georgia and has more than 1,500 members.

Gonsalves said the FAA will welcome public input during the two-year time span, which could possibly change the initial regulations.

“We expect the proposed rules of the initial draft to have a fairly high bar for commercial (unmanned aerial vehicles),” Gonsalves said. “… However, we’re going into this two-year period and I believe that there would be a more common sense final ruling.”

Gonsalves explained that he and his organization hope the FAA will develop rules based on “risk management or risk assessment.”

“The risk to public safety flying a 3.5- to 4-pound UAV with a Go-Pro is less than someone flying a 55-pound or larger UAV that might be used for movie making,” he said.

Federal regula­tions should be safety-oriented, Sachs said.

“Unmanned aircraft (regulations) should be regular safety regulations,” he said. “We’re all anxiously awaiting for the FAA to do just that.”

Joe Acosta, a Wallingford resident and owner of Build Right/Fly Right Hobbies, said drones have become more popular, but he added that isn’t always a good thing.

“The access to these things and the availability to lower and lower cost items through the Internet without regulations has made it virtually a field day to own a drone,” he said. “Today, an individual can buy a device that he literally doesn’t know how to fly.”

In addition to the safety concerns, some people, such as Wallingford Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr., believe drone usage can be an invasion of privacy.

“If they fly beyond the capability of the controller, what happens? Do they keep going or do they fall from the sky?” Dickinson said. “I have some major questions, not the least is an invasion of privacy with the capability of having cameras on them.”

Sachs, however, said those concerns are unwarranted because if a person is in a public place “there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Gonsalves added that the technology built into drones will cause them to return to the point of lift-off if the signal between the aircraft and operator breaks. A drone will drop out of the sky only if the batteries die, Gonsalves said. “Our members don’t run the batteries down.”

While the FAA was expected to release the proposed rules and regulations in 2014, Gonsalves said he understands the delay.

“The same basic law and requirements to fly a commercial plane now falls under if you’re going to use a UAV commercially,” he said. “(The FAA) has to figure that out because I don’t think anybody believes a Phantom 2 (drone) should be under the same regulations as a 747.”

The DJI Phantom 2 is a popular drone that can carry a camera. Prices range from $900 to $2,900.

Although there are no formal regulations yet, the FAA published a federal register notice in 2007 that clarified the agency’s policy on commercial drones. Even if a person is flying a drone below 400 feet, the FAA requires a certified aircraft, a licensed pilot and operating approval, according to the agency’s website. “Commercial (unmanned aircraft systems) operations are limited and require the operator to have certified aircraft and pilots, as well as operating approval,” the site states.

Gonsalves said businesses can apply for a “Section 333” exemption, but he noted that the FAA has only granted a small number of exemptions. Section 333, also known as the “Special Rules for Certain Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” according to the FAA website, “provides flexibility for authorizing safe civil operations in the (National Airspace System) by granting the Secretary of Transportation the authority to determine whether airworthiness certification is required” for a drone to operate in the National Airspace System. On Tuesday, the FAA granted two exemptions to a company in Tucson, Ariz. for real estate photography and to a Spokane, Washington company for agricultural scouting. Before that it had granted 12 exemptions to 11 companies, according to the FAA website.

But Sachs said “there’s nothing illegal” about flying drones commercially. In fact, Sachs said, people are using drones commercially throughout the country.

“They’re merely going and flying up and making money,” he said. “They won’t go after anyone.”

While the state cannot regulate drone usage for commercial purposes, Fasano emphasized it’s important for legislators to investigate the topic.

“We need to look at this and find out about this new world we’re looking at with drones,” he said. “Some regulations are probably required.”