Though the federal government has long asserted its authority when it comes to regulating drones, states have enacted dozens of laws governing the technology over the last three years, according to a new report.
The National Conference of State Legislatures surveyed the legislative landscape surrounding unmanned aerial vehicles in a study released late last month, and found that 17 states enacted 23 bills and passed four resolutions involving drones in 2015 alone. In all, 45 legislatures debated 153 bills and resolutions last year.
Those numbers represent a gradual increase in legislative activity around the technology, according to the group’s researchers. In 2013, 43 states considered drone legislation of some kind, while 13 states enacted 16 bills. By 2014, 35 states debated UAV-related bills, with 10 enacting 11 bills.
For context, the analysts note that legislatures have moved forward with these bills despite repeated rumblings that federal regulators and Congress may choose to step in and pre-empt state authority when it comes to drones. The Federal Aviation Authority issued a warning to states and localities last December, outlining specific areas where lawmakers could set drone policy and many to avoid, while the House of Representatives is still debating an FAA funding bill that contains a provision codifying that pre-emption into law.
“Many organizations within the UAS industry are concerned about the emergence of a regulatory patchwork with a variety of state and local laws, making it difficult for the industry to continue to develop,” the analysts wrote. “For this reason, many industry stakeholders support pre-emption.”
Accordingly, the researchers found that many state lawmakers have chosen to focus their attention on areas unlikely to fall within the FAA’s purview, like privacy considerations. The group found that 22 states have passed privacy-focused bills since 2013, including 18 states that have passed bills requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain warrants to use drones for certain kinds of surveillance and 12 that have put in place laws to restrict people from using UAVs for voyeuristic purposes or otherwise violating private spaces.
Lawmakers have also focused on setting limits around how government workers can use drones, according to the study. Law enforcement agencies have been of particular focus for legislators — in addition to warrant requirements, the analysts found that three states enacted laws prohibiting police from using drones with weapons attached.
Other states are considerably more restrictive. Illinois passed a law barring any law enforcement agency from using the technology, except in certain emergency situations, while states like Indiana, Nevada, North Dakota and Oregon have passed laws laying out certain scenarios where law enforcement can use the drones.
When it comes to regulating other government agencies, states have been less active, but a few have still addressed the issue. The researchers found that Nevada and Oregon enacted laws to require agencies to notify regulators about their plans to use drones, while several others have laws in place to force agencies to post the information online or share it with legislators.
Additionally, several other states — including Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Texas and Virginia — have adopted laws compelling agencies to develop defined policies governing UAVs, the analysts wrote.
Lawmakers also frequently acted to set limits on anyone using drones near government facilities. The researchers found at least seven states with laws to limit UAV use near pieces of “critical infrastructure,” like power plants and water treatment facilities, and five other states enacted legislation barring people from flying drones near prisons and jails.
The analysts also noted that 14 states have convened study groups or task forces to examine drones in greater detail, making it likely there will only be more laws passed surrounding the issue in the future.
“Unmanned aircraft systems have an incredible variety of potential beneficial uses, but many aspects of the technology also can present risks,” the researchers wrote. “State legislatures are balancing the need to regulate the risks associated with this new technology while also allowing the continued development of the industry.”