Law Enforcement and Legislators Struggle to Keep Up with Regulating Drones

September 14, 2016 by Johnathan Powell

As drone technology races ahead and becomes increasingly accessible, legislators and law enforcement are scrambling to keep up.

As drone technology races ahead and becomes increasingly accessible, legislators and law enforcement are scrambling to keep up.

As technology advances, the limits of what an individual person can do expand, often in unexpected ways. Lawmakers attempt to pass regulations that will keep us safe, but often technology is changing too quickly or is poorly understood—and laws end up either behind the times or ill-suited to the situation. Often, the rapid progression of technology makes it hard for lawmakers to keep up.

Take, for example, the Locomotive Acts—a series of laws passed in the UK starting in the 1860s. These laws attempted to address dangers associated with early automobiles and required that motorized vehicles on public roads traveled no faster than 4 miles per hour (6.4 km/h). These acts were also called Red Flag Acts because, in some situations, they required that automobiles be preceded by a person on foot, carrying a red flag. 


Image courtesy of The Oddment Emporium.


The intent was to alert horse and foot traffic to approaching vehicles in order to help prevent accidents. Advances in automotive technology quickly made these regulations not only impractical but unneeded. They were continually revised and re-written for the rest of the 19th century and were gradually replaced in the years after that.

We now find ourselves in a similar situation. A new technology is blooming and advancing at a rapid pace and lawmakers are fighting to keep up. Welcome to the world of regulating drones.

Drone Troubles

Drones, also known as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV) are much, much more accessible and capable than they were even just a few years ago. Anyone can get a drone that will fly high, fast, and with a payload for very little money. Buying one is as easy as driving to the nearest mall or going online.

In the US alone, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that there will be 1.9 million consumer drones in use by the end of 2016, growing to 4.1 million by the end of 2020. It comes as no surprise, then, that drones are beginning to get into trouble.

In June of 2016, firefighters were delayed in their efforts to control a large wildfire in southern Utah because there were so many drones flying in the area trying to get pictures of the blaze that helicopters and planes fighting the fire were grounded. These aircraft fly much lower than normal while fighting fire and therefore tend to operate in the same airspace as drones. Governor Gary Herbert stated that due to these delays, over 100 homes were evacuated.

In January of 2015, a drone crashed on the White House lawn in Washington, DC. Initially, it was suspected that the drone had been sent there with malicious intent. However, the operator stepped forward claiming that he had simply lost control of the drone when it went out of range and officials did not press charges.

While these incidents were likely accidents, possibly caused simply by someone being less responsible than they should have been, this is not always the case. Shortly after the incident at the White House, officials in Tijuana, Mexico discovered a drone that had crashed while attempting to carry drugs over the US border.


Drug-carrying drone crashed in Tijuana. Image courtesy of the LATimes.


It is clear that as drones become more accessible, we may need better training and awareness for drone users who do not have negative intentions—and safeguards against those who do.

Laws, Rules, and Regulations

But regulating drones is easier said than done. Unlike cars, drones are not limited to normal streets and roads, so you can't just pull someone over and check their license.


The Lynxmotion Crazy2Fly Kit. Image courtesy of Roboshop.


Drones are sold in stores and online as completed crafts, as kits with instructions, and as individual parts. Many people build drones by following plans available online or designing their own. This makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to regulate the sale of drones. 

Many people use drones for purposes, both professional and personal, which need to be regulated differently. In some cases, it isn't clear who should be responsible for this regulation.

For example, in the United States, many have called for the FAA to do something about the situation. However, in 2012 Congress included in their FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 a statement which some interpreted to mean that the FAA could not  regulate model aircraft. There has been some debate about the matter between two differing sides: those who are afraid that the skies will soon be filled with dangerous drones, ready to spy on you or crash into your house at any moment, and those who are responsible recreational users afraid that their hobby will soon be regulated out of existence.


Demonstration of proper UAS registration. Image courtesy of RCDecals.


Finally, in 2016, the FAA put into effect several rules to regulate the use of UAS. Starting early in February, all drones over 0.55 lbs (about 250 grams, or just more than a cup of water) must be registered before flight. The process is fairly straightforward: you pay a fee, get a licence number, and put that number on all your drones. In the event of an accident, that number can be used to trace the drone back to you. 

Commercial use is a bit more complex. To fly a drone commercially, you must be over 16 years of age, pass an FAA test to get a license, and be vetted by the TSA. More information about private and commercial use can be found at the FAA website. The FAA has also instated rules to dictate how high and fast a drone can fly, restrict flight at certain times of day and in specific areas, and require users to maintain line-of-sight to their drone.

Other regulations may apply depending on which state you're flying in. For example, in Delaware, it is illegal to fly a UAS above an event with more than 1500 attendees or above a scene where first responders are actively engaged. 

In response to the wildfire incident mentioned above, Utah lawmakers have recently ruled that authorities may damage or destroy drones that fly too close to a wildfire and possibly hinder firefighting efforts, and you may even get jail time if your drone interferes.


Utah Governor Herbert's July 13th tweet regarding the vote on House Bill 3003.

Anti-Drone Measures

The simple fact is that if someone really wants a drone, no amount of laws or regulations will stop them. Some commercially available drones now come with built-in no-fly zones using GPS guidance to warn drone pilots of no-fly zones and automatically ground drones before reaching them. But there is no such control for DIY systems. 

If a person wants to use their drone for illegal or malicious purposes, it would be beneficial for law enforcement to be able to stop it before it becomes a danger. In addition, non-destructive countermeasures are important, as they allow law enforcement to use the drone as evidence in a legal case, investigate it to find out where and who it came from, or even return it to the user in the event of an innocent misunderstanding or accident. 

Besides the obvious (but dangerous and expensive) idea of just shooting a drone down, there are several groups developing ways to bring drones to ground. Non-profit research organization Battelle is developing their Drone Defender, essentially a large directional antenna which transmits a powerful signal to disrupt or block control and GPS signals to and from a drone. This would bring the craft down without the use of any physical intervention.

At the moment, due to FCC regulations, the device cannot be used in the US by anyone except the federal government, including Battelle themselves. They claim, however, that federal tests have been successful. 


The Battelle DroneDefender. Image courtesy of Battelle.


OpenWorks Engineering is developing the SkyWall, a rocket launcher-like device that shoots a net at a drone using a scope with special predictive tracking to help a user hit a moving drone. The net then deploys a parachute to return the drone to the ground. Several varieties of projectile are available to allow users to adapt to different situations and the scope allows users with little to no training to hit a target.

Perhaps most unique, Dutch police are working to train a group of eagles to snatch drones from the sky if they stray where they should not be. The natural speed and power of the eagles allow them to easily take down a target, and tough feet and talons enable them to safely handle most small consumer drones.

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Other governments around the world are also rolling out their own regulations. But as with the Locomotive Acts, don't be surprised if these laws change continually. They have to if they aim to keep up with the ever-evolving drone industry.

One thing is clear: Steps have been taken, but additional law enforcement and legislative innovation will be needed as drone technology continues to improve.

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    ICCircuitman September 30, 2016

    In a ideal world new products that fly along with their specifications should be sent to FAA review before going to market.  It makes sense because it is another set of eyes that can look at the product at determine possible safety and design problems. If this had been done this way then there wouldn’t be the need to regulate or dine the product requirements later

    Like. Reply
    • Johnathan Powell September 30, 2016
      The problem still remains that many UAS's are either designed and built by the pilots themselves, or built from plans that are openly available online. Such designs are difficult, if not impossible to regulate and review.
      Like. Reply
    • Johnathan Powell September 30, 2016
      The problem still remains that many UAS's are either designed and built by the pilots themselves, or built from plans that are openly available online. Such designs are difficult, if not impossible to regulate and review.
      Like. Reply