Federal Judge Rules on State and Local Government Right to Regulate Drones

The decision is the first of its kind for unmanned aircraft in the U.S.

A federal judge ruled that a Massachusetts city was wrong in establishing its own drone regulations and restrictions.Pixabay

A federal judge in Massachusetts issued the first ruling in the U.S. addressing the right of states and municipalities to regulate drone use. The landmark decision ruled that the city of Newton, MA, did not have the authority to impose a ban on unmanned aircraft flights below 400 feet, prohibit flights over private and public property without the landowner’s permission, or require local registration of drones.

Officials from Newton passed the law last December by a vote of 16-6 for the sake of "protecting the privacy interests of Newton's residents." Among other things, it required drone users to pay a $10 registration fee through the city clerk, and pilots would be slapped with $50 fines for violating the ordinance, only after an initial warning. The regulation passed despite opposition from both of Newton's mayoral candidates, as well as citizens who argued that any restrictions would be blocked by the FAA's own regulations.

Newton resident Michael Singer shared that concern, and thus he filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boston with the hopes of shooting down the city councilors’ decision. A physician who is also an FAA certified part 107 drone pilot, Singer represented himself in the case with support from Jeff Ellis, a New York-based Aviation Partner at Clyde & Co.

“It’s a critical ruling for the development on the drone industry,” said Ellis. “Drones have the potential to revolutionize a vast array of sectors and industries.”

Ellis and his team drafted and filed the amicus brief in support of Singer.

“With the technology having just emerged into the mainstream it’s vital that the federal government be allowed to create a uniform regulatory framework, which all drone operators can follow,” Ellis explained. “That approach promotes both safety and efficiency and doesn’t preclude local authorities from enforcing local laws prohibiting violations of privacy or criminal misuse”

According to Clyde & Co., the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) expects total drone sales in the U.S. to reach new heights in 2017, topping 3.4 million units (a 40 percent year-over-year increase) and $1 billion in revenue for the first time (a 46 percent increase). Drones below 250 grams are expected to sell two million units, and drones above 250 grams will sell 1.3 million units.