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Local Drone Law Preempted

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by Patrick J. Paul

On September 21, 2017, in what is believed to be the first federal court ruling on the issue of local drone regulation, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts in Singer v. City of Newton, overturned a 2016 ordinance passed by the Newton, MA, City Council regulating pilotless aircraft within Newton city limits.

Newton’s ordinance provided in part, that:

The use of pilotless aircraft is an increasingly popular pastime as well as learning tool.  It is important to allow beneficial uses of these devices while also protecting the privacy of residents throughout the City.  In order to prevent nuisances and other disturbances of the enjoyment of both public and private space, regulation of pilotless aircraft is required. The following section is intended to promote the public safety and welfare of the City and its residents.  In furtherance of its stated purpose, this section is intended to be read and interpreted in harmony with all relevant rules and regulations of the Federal Aviation Administration, and any other federal, state and local laws and regulations.

Singer, a Newton resident and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-certified small unmanned aircraft pilot who owned and operated multiple drones but did not operate or register them as a hobbyist, challenged four subsections of Newton’s prohibition on the use of drones:

  1. Below an altitude of 400 feet over any private property without the express permission of the property owner
  2. Over City of Newton property without prior permission
  3. Beyond the drone operator’s visual line of sight, and
  4. Without first registering the drone.

The federal court agreed with Singer finding the registration requirements of Newton’s ordinance infringed upon the FAA’s exclusive registration requirements.  The court observed that federal registration is the exclusive means for registering unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for purposes of operating aircraft in navigable airspace and as such, that no state or local government may impose an additional registration requirement without first obtaining FAA approval.  As to the other limitations, the court noted that because they sought to restrict the methods of piloting a drone beyond that which the FAA already designated, those sections also were preempted.

With substantial growth anticipated in the use and attempted regulation of drones, state and local governments should be alert to the Singer decision as they might seek to develop their own requirements.