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Virginia Lawmakers Tackle Drone Regulation at the Expense of Localities


The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill that will prohibit towns and cities from deciding how drones will be used in their communities. The bill, which has yet to be signed by the governor, is stirring up concern in Roanoke and the New River Valley where local legislators are opposed to the bill, saying it “undermines the public’s safety and privacy.”

The current debate reflects an old issue. Who has the right to determine local laws—local officials or state legislators? The Dillion Rule applies in the case: state law takes precedence over local law. And in the case of drone regulation the new legislation is acknowledging the FAA’s authority in regulating airspace.

The growing use of drones, both in business and for recreational use, has forced the FAA to play catch-up in setting regulations. In the absence of federal guidelines, states and localities created a patchwork of regulations—often in reaction to specific incidents. The establishment of uniform laws will allow owners, both hobbyists and commercial users, to know what they are dealing with and how to plan accordingly.

Michael Sievers, a lawyer with clients in the drone industry, believes the best way to attract drone businesses is by establishing uniform laws.  “I do think it’s good for the state of Virginia and localities as far as being conducive environments for businesses looking either to provide drone services or make use of those services,” said Sievers, who’s with Richmond-based legal firm Hunton & Williams LLP.”   (www.Roanoke.com, 3/20/16)

Jayson Firebaugh, who operates a drone business in Virginia, sees the new bill as a positive step.  He believes enforcement might be easier because authorities and hobbyists will not have to worry about different laws at each level of government. Firebaugh acknowledges not having seen the Virginia bill, “But it seems to me that they’re leaving all drone regulation at the federal level,” he said. “The federal government’s having a hard time regulating it as it is. Sending regulations down to the state level would make things much worse. The chance for conflicting information becomes a lot greater.” (www.Roanoke.com, 3/20/16)

The best way to ensure safety, and compliance, is to have as much uniformity in the laws and regulations as possible.  Virginia’s legislation is a reasonable first step.  Localities that seek to implement their own rules will only muddy the waters, and perhaps lead to more accidents and violations.

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  1. Jack Kennedy says:
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    Horse feathers! Virginia is entitled to have a uniform rule on unmanned systems, not hundreds of differing county, city and municipal ordinances. Federal primacy is expected soon; the Virginia law, signed by Governor McAuliffe, after a lopsided vote in favor by the Virginia General Assembly, expires on 1 July 2019 enabling the FAA to take a national view, honoring the interstate commerce clause too, my legal brother.

    The Central Appalachian Mountain folk seem to be getting it better than Charlottesville city municipals. Let’s Fly Wisely and do the research and development properly. Then we can bring a new era into transportation and cargo delivery.

    This is a similar time like the Internet of early 1990’s; so don’t fall for the Luddie Home Rule stuff as it is simple legal error of mind.

    • Greg Webb says:
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      Mr. Kennedy,

      I agree with you. Federal law will control here. To the extent State law does not infringe on that, it will control.

      Thank you for commenting.