Gov. Jerry Brown went out of his way to sink prior legislation that would have applied a layer of state law to California drone operators. “But not every governmental authority feels that it has enough power to deal with drones,” as the San Francisco Chronicle noted. “An increasing number of California cities, worried about the safety and privacy of their citizens, have passed laws restricting drone use. The result is a patchwork, and one that might be thoroughly cleared up with state legislation. But this year, it seems highly unlikely that legislation will even make it to the governor’s desk.”
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Supporters of the rules Brown vetoed had hoped to find a way forward. But this year, “the pushback to new rules is coming not from the governor but through the lobbying efforts of a budding industry that hopes to influence policy at the state Capitol and nationwide,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
“As drones multiply in number and category, cities and states want to set boundaries. But drone manufacturers and associations this legislative session boosted their politicking, successfully beating back several bills they said would create a patchwork of laws that vary by state and hinder innovation.”
Although each bill initially passed, both were killed off in committee. “Senate Bill 868 failed on a vote in the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee, while Assembly Bill 1820 was voted down by the Senate Judiciary Committee,” as the Electronic Freedom Foundation, which opposed the legislation, enthused. With consumer interest in drones growing and going mainstream — the gadgets can now readily be acquired online or in big box stores like Target or Best Buy — lobbyists would appear to have public opinion on their side, at least until the volume of drones in the skies reaches a considerably greater size.
The impact of drone law on the Golden State has come under greater scrutiny this summer as a grueling fire season has dangerously attracted amateur operators. As CNBC recently reported, “Firefighters battling the Sand Fire in Southern California had to shut down aerial firefighting operations for about 30 minutes after an unauthorized drone entered airspace that the FAA put under temporary restriction due to the active wildfire.” To the frustration of firefighters nationwide, wildfire intrusion incidents involving drones have “more than doubled from 2014 to 2015,” the network noted, citing the U.S. Department of the Interior.
To address the problem, the federal government has taken the first step toward a comprehensive new approach. The Interior Department recently rolled out a “national system intended to prevent hobby drones from interfering with planes and helicopters fighting wildfires,” the Associated Press noted, with a pilot project offering a “smartphone app and real-time wildfire information to create virtual boundaries, or geofences, that drones can’t cross.”
The Interior Department partnered on the project with drone navigation data companies AirMap and Skyward and the leading manufacturer of civilian drones, DJI, opening up its Integrated Reporting Wildland-Fire Information database. Through the new program, “information contained in the database is immediately pushed to drone pilots through apps on their smartphones, with the smartphones themselves typically used to navigate in combination with the drone’s GPS,” according to the AP.
A California edge
In fact, the onset of new federal regulations around drone usage has helped strengthen California’s lead in drone technology and performance. As the California Council on Science and Technology recently observed, “The new rules on commercial drone usage allow farmers to use drones to help more precisely monitor water usage, allowing more efficient use of water.” In the interest of pushing similar functions ahead, the Tesla Foundation has partnered with the San Bernardino International Airport to launch a national center for commercial drone research, the National Commercial Drone Research Center, the CCST reported.