“Safe Skies for Unmanned Aircraft Act of 2015” | Who Owns Air?

Senator Lisa Murkowski and Congressman Don Young, both representing Alaska, have introduced the “Safe Skies for Unmanned Aircraft Act of 2015”  This is bipartisan legislation designed to push the FAA toward passing regulations for the use of UAS and to encourage R&D in the field.  In Alaska, UAS are a seen as a great opportunity – it was a big topic at the recent Arctic Encounter Symposium.  If you’ve been fortunate enough to visit Alaska (I haven’t been but would love to) or watched Ice Road Truckers, you know that Alaska is big and there are settlements separated from larger municipalities by vast stretches of treacherous terrain.

Alaska sees great opportunity for unmanned vehicles to help bridge those distances –  deliveries, law enforcement, and fire management to name a few.  Furthermore, the Coast Guard is testing UAS for various Arctic-related purposes such as monitoring oil spills (it is an AeroVironment Puma).

The bill is also aimed at addressing (1) the lack of funding for the test sites, something that has been discussed elsewhere and (2) the Wild West nature of hobby and small commercial UAS use caused by the FAA’s lack of guidance.

The bill’s sponsors used the Superbowl as an example, where a “No Drone Zone” was created that was significantly larger than that is place for normal professional sporting events and, at 2800 square miles (30 mile radius), larger than the state of Delaware.  The FAA released a short PSA, shown above.

No Drone Zone
Superbowl “No Drone Zone”

It is undoubtedly creating confusion.  There is a new website that is allowing people to sign up their property as a “No Fly Zone.”  I understand this to be a development of a few drone manufacturers, and they will use it to preprogram their UAS not to fly over those properties.  However, I do not endorse it and think it will only add to the confusion.  I fear people will think this has some legal effect, but it has none.  It also does just justify taking action against a drone – something that can subject the person to severe criminal penalties.

I am working on an article for another publication that is going to address the case law regarding ownership of airspace.  An episode of Planet Money came to my attention and it is partly right, but partly wrong too.  They state that the Supreme Court in United States v. Causby determined that one owns the air above his house up to 83 feet and that the FAA regulates airspace over 500 feet – creating a “no man’s zone” from 83-500 feet.  This is an overly simplistic analysis that took decades to clear up and pages for me to explain.  In the end, it isn’t that simple.  A UAS might be trespassing over a property – but the altitude at which a landowner has a claim is an open question that courts will have to decide.  Furthermore, the altitudes at which the FAA can regulate airspace is not that simplistic either.

The bill is not posted on Congress’ website yet, but I hope to get my hands on a copy of it soon.  I’ll review it and let you know my thoughts.