Sweeping California Drone Law Has Hawaii Roots
If California enacts one of the nation’s strictest regulations on drones, you can thank a quadcopter pilot in Hawaii.
Both advocates and critics of drones across the country are watching a bill now sitting on the desk of California Gov. Jerry Brown, which would create a “no-fly zone” over private property. The sweeping legislation requires unmanned aerial vehicles to stay above 350 feet unless they have permission of the owners of the property they fly over.
The bill is seen as a major threat to a nascent technology space that many predict could drive significant economic growth. And a lot of that research and development was expected to take place in California, with the Consumer Electronics Association estimating that the Golden State could see $14 billion in economic impact from drones in the next decade.
Where did the bill, SB142, come from? California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson. With the bill passing the state senate 21-10 on Friday, following a 56-13 vote in the state Assembly, she wrote: “Drones are a new and exciting technology with many potentially beneficial uses. But they should not be able to invade the privacy of our backyards and our private property without our permission.”
But what caught my eye was where Sen. Jackson got her inspiration for the bill. She told The Guardian that her epiphany came while on vacation in Hawaii in December, while 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,” she said. “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.”
Slightly different details come from the Santa Maria Sun, which reported that she was with her husband, retired Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge George Eskin, in the backyard of their vacation home when a drone came over the property and hovered “eyeball to eyeball” with Eskin before flying away. Sen. Jackson said that they followed the drone to a nearby neighbor, “who turned out to be friendly.”
Still, it was enough to spark her to draft the bill, in the name of privacy. It’s certainly a common scenario cited by privacy advocates, and not a hypothetical one: earlier this month, a Hawaii Kai woman told Hawaii News Now that she awoke to find a drone hovering outside her bedroom window. (Interestingly, The Garden Island newspaper had a report in December, the same month Sen. Jackson had her close encounter, saying that Kauai police were receiving more drone-related complaints as well.)
Coupled with national headlines about drone pilots interfering with fire and rescue operations, or flying too close to airports in Denver and Newark (and that’s just this month), it’s getting harder for advocates of the technology to promote the many positive uses of UAVs. And with the FAA’s regulatory framework still coming together, states are starting to fill in the gap.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 45 states have already considered 153 bills related to drones, and 17 states have already passed legislation.
The California bill is being opposed by industry trade groups, a pair of them issuing a joint statement last week:
“California SB 142 is an unnecessary, innovation-stifling and job-killing proposal. As consumers and businesses alike continue to adopt drones for personal and professional use, we agree issues of privacy should be addressed. This legislation, however, is the wrong approach… SB 142 may look like a privacy bill, but it would open the door to a new class of frivolous lawsuits in California and create inconsistencies with federal law.”
For now, drone watchers are waiting to see what Gov. Jerry Brown does with the bill. Last year, he vetoed a bill that would have required police to get a warrant before deploying drones. The move was seen as anti-privacy.