Halima Kazem in San Jose
California lawmakers have sided with privacy advocates to pass a bill that bans drones from flying lower than 350ft (106m) over private property.
If the bill is signed by Governor Jerry Brown it will create a no-fly zone and make it a trespass violation for someone to fly an unmanned aircraft or drone over private property below 350ft without the consent of the owner or tenant.
SB 142 passed a third reading on Monday in the California State Assembly despite pressure from drone users and manufactures who say the new law will stifle innovation in the growing industry.
“People should be able to sit in their backyards and be in their homes without worrying about drones flying right above them or peering in their windows,” said state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who authored the bill. “We need to balance innovation with personal and societal expectations.”
According to the National Conference on State Legislatures (NCSL), in 2015, 45 states considered 156 bills related to drones, and 18 states have passed legislation.
In May, Florida passed SB 766, prohibiting a person, state agency or political subdivision from using a drone to photograph people on their private property without their consent.
Jackson was inspired to propose the bill when she was vacationing in Hawaii in December and sitting on a friend’s private balcony.
“A neighbor’s drone flew right onto the balcony and was recording our conversation. It was very unsettling and so I started researching this issue,” said Jackson, a former prosecutor and the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The bill doesn’t affect the “lawful activities of law enforcement personnel, employees of governmental agencies, or other public or private entities that may have the right to enter land by operating” a drone within someone’s private property.
But drone industry advocates say the bill is too broad and lumps together hobbyists and commercial drone users.
“There is a growing commercial drone industry and companies are developing legitimate uses for drones. This law leaves very little room for a commercial drone corridor in the sky,” said Mario Mairena, senior government relations manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a drone and robotics advocacy organization based in Washington DC.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 requires the governmental agency to establish a regulatory framework for safely integrating drones into the national airspace by 30 September, 2015.
Currently the FAA allows small aircraft, weighing less than 55lb, to be flown for recreational purposes without a permit, below 400ft and at least five miles from an airport.
The federal law doesn’t differentiate between flying over private and public property. This means that under SB 142 hobbyists in California would only have 50ft – from 350ft to 400ft – to fly their drones.
In February, the FAA proposed a new framework of regulations to allow the use of drones at up to 500ft for non-recreational use. The flights have to be during daylight and require the UAS pilot to maintain a visual line of site with the drone at all times.
This framework affects Amazon and Google, whose officials have announced that they are in the process of developing drone delivery systems. Under the new law small commercial drones that don’t need permits will be able fly between 350 and 500ft in California.
While the FAA continues to work on the Small UAS policy, according to its website, it has granted 1,277 certificates authorizing certain drones to perform commercial operations like aerial photography or agricultural crop surveying.
“States should not be regulating airspace. That is the FAA’s job,” said Mairena.
But a slew of drone-related state bills have come up this year, including SB 168 by California senator Ted Gaines, which proposes to give immunity to firefighters and other emergency responders who take down or damage a drone that is intruding into areas where there is a fire or other type of emergency. The legislation came after drones interfered with firefighting activities in various parts of California this summer.
On Friday, the FAA released a new list of pilot, air traffic and citizen reports of possible encounters with drones. According to the data there were 765 possible encounters between 13 November, 2014 and 20 August, 2015. 171 of those occurred in California. Additionally, more than 275 pilots reported seeing drones at altitudes of up to 10,000ft.
“Because pilot reports of unmanned aircraft have increased dramatically over the past year, the FAA wants to send a clear message that operating drones around airplanes and helicopters is dangerous and illegal,” said the FAA report.
SB 142 would allow drone users to fly in public spaces like parks and roads below 350ft.
“Companies can still deliver packages to someone’s front door using a drone as long as they are allowed by the FAA and fly along public roads. They must enter your property the way a delivery person would,” said Jackson.
According to a May 2015 report by CB Insights, a New York city-based research firm that tracks venture capital and start-ups, six of the top 10 drone manufacturers that have raised the most venture capital funding are based in California.
CB Insights reports that Berkeley-based drone manufacturer 3D Robotics leads the top 10 and has raised $99 m in disclosed venture funding.
San Francisco-based drone software maker Airware has raised more than $40 m and Skycatch $21 m.
“We should be looking at if a drone flies over someone’s private property, is it actually invading someone’s privacy by looking into their backyard, taking pictures or recording video. This shouldn’t be just about flying over private property,” said Nancy Egan, 3D Robotics general counsel.
3D Robotics recently came out with the Solo, a sleek black drone built to hold a GoPro camera and features a wireless high-definition video feed.
Egan says the Solo, which costs about $1,900 for the drone, controller, gimbal, and camera, is largely used by hobbyist drone users who take photos of extreme sports or landscapes like mountains or beaches.
“With drone and camera technologies rapidly advancing, safeguarding the right to privacy is more critical than ever,” Jackson said.