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You Could Get Legal Right To Say 'Don't Fly That Drone Over My House!'

Andri Koolme
Flickr -
Legislation in Washington state could set privacy rules for hobbyists flying drones such as this DJI Phantom drone over private property.

The Consumer Technology Association estimates about 1.2 million drones were sold during the just-completed holiday shopping season. Now one state lawmaker from western Washington wants to give you the legal right to tell a drone operator to buzz off.

The idea is to allow Washingtonians to call the police or sue the drone operator for trespassing if that person persists in flying over private property and photographing after being asked not to.

"What this bill really addresses is all the weird stuff that we're trying to not have happen with this great technology: stalking, voyeurism, harassment,” said the bill's sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Jeff Morris.

The proposed state legislation also requires recreational drones to be clearly labeled with the name and phone number of the craft's owner and operator. The Federal Aviation Administration separately requires drone owners to register small unmanned aircraft systems (under 55 pounds), but that federal database is not publicly accessible.

Morris chairs the state House Technology and Economic Development Committee, which held an initial public hearing on his proposed legislation Tuesday. Morris unsuccessfully tried to establish state rules for recreational use of drones during the 2014, 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions.

Some of the earlier attempts passed the state House with bipartisan support, but invariably died in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

One drone enthusiast drove to Olympia Tuesday to say while the intent is laudable, it would be unfair to restrict aerial photography with unmanned aircraft when it is OK for a person to fly over and film private property in a small plane.

"In an admirable attempt to protect privacy rights, this bill effectively prohibits the recreational use of unmanned aircraft in the airspace above private property," Mark Slayton of Bremerton testified. "Unfortunately, this bill seeks to protect privacy where privacy is explicitly not guaranteed. I could rent a Cessna and take a picture above any private property without permission currently legally."

"The airspace above a private property is part of the national airspace which is part of the public domain," Slayton went on to say. He suggested lawmakers were applying a "cudgel" to a problem that requires a scalpel.

Morris later commented that his proposal is a work in progress.

A fact sheet published a year ago by the FAA's Office of the Chief Counsel took a dim view of state or local government regulation of unmanned aircraft flight operations. The memo warned that if significant numbers of municipalities passed their own ordinances, "fractionalized control of the navigable airspace could result," undermining the FAA's ability to ensure "safety and an efficient air traffic flow."

However, the agency acknowledged that local governments have legitimate police powers related to zoning, privacy and trespass, which are not preempted by federal regulation. The Office of Chief Counsel offered as an example of acceptable state lawmaking a rule specifying that drones may not be used for voyeurism.

"The approach that is in the bill that was introduced is one that was developed by the Brookings Institution that really extends a property right element, which is more within the state jurisdiction, as opposed to the state promulgating aeronautical rules, which is more in the federal jurisdiction," Morris said.

Idaho legislators passed a law in 2013 saying no person may fly a drone to photograph or record another person without their consent.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.