By Kathleen Foody Associated Press
ATLANTA — Drone enthusiasts are calling a ban on the unmanned vehicles within five miles of Georgia’s Capitol an overreach of authority by state officials, while agency officials argue the change is necessary and follows federal guidelines.
It’s the latest clash between supporters of the technology and government officials balancing their desire to encourage high-tech research and development with security concerns, as federal aviation officials slowly continue developing their policies.
The Georgia Building Authority’s new resolution bans “unmanned aircraft systems” within five miles of a heliport located atop a parking garage near the state Capitol building in downtown Atlanta. The resolution also prevents flights around the governor’s mansion north of downtown. The sweeping radius covers parts of two state university campuses, including Georgia Tech’s Research Institute where unmanned systems research is a central focus.
Paul Melvin, spokesman for the authority, said director Steven Stancil was not available for an interview this past week.
“The Georgia Building Authority’s concern had to do with the safety and security of Capitol Hill,” Melvin said in a statement. “There is an active heliport on Capitol Hill and GBA looked to guidelines of the (Federal Aviation Administration) for additional guidance.”
The agency isn’t the first regulator to create drone limits, said Greg McNeal, a law professor at Pepperdine University. McNeal is also the co-founder of AirMap, a digital map that helps drone operators figure out where they can fly, using a database of more than 3,000 rules and ordinances around the U.S.
McNeal said the restrictions include distance limitations near marine wildlife, a ban in national parks and in city parks and beaches in Santa Monica, Calif. The Georgia ban is “a stretch” but just the latest example, he said.
“Why create a regulation so broad that most people will be ignoring it?” McNeal said. “I don’t think that breeds respect for the law; I think it just breeds contempt.”
The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed strict restrictions for commercial drones but still allowed pathways to limited use for companies along with universities, law enforcement and government agencies. Meanwhile, more than 150 bills were introduced this year in 45 states regulating everything from the type of photos permitted to prohibiting the vehicles’ use in hunting or fishing, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Officials in at least one other state are considering restrictions on drones near their state Capitol. John Truscott, vice-chair of the appointed commission overseeing Michigan’s Capitol, said members plan to decide this summer whether to ban unauthorized drones. That policy may allow pre-approved exceptions, such as event photos or building restoration, he said.
“Having unskilled pilots flying drones overhead is probably a public safety issue and we have a historic building,” he said. “Anyone who flies into it could do damage.”
Proposed FAA rules allow hobby drone operators to notify airports if they will be flying within a five-mile radius. The Georgia building authority’s resolution contains no exemptions.
At least three bills related to drone use stalled during this year’s session in Georgia. House members did approve a five-member study committee to make recommendations on drones by December.
Committee chair Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, said he had issues like where drones should be allowed to fly in mind when he proposed the study.
“I understand we need to protect our Capitol,” Tanner said. “There are so many nuances relating to drones and emerging technology that we need to take a real comprehensive look at what regulations and law changes need to be made to govern those.”
It’s not clear how the GBA would enforce the restrictions. Supporters of drone technology also questioned whether the agency even has the authority to create such a broad restriction and cautioned state lawmakers against passing laws that conflict with federal rules.
“The FAA has ownership over the airspace, not the states,” said Mario Mairena, senior government relations manager at the trade group Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.