BY MICHAEL RICONDA
NEW CITY – A proposed law which would have limited the use of aerial drones met with criticism in the County Legislature, with enthusiastic remote control hobbyists expressing concerns over potential over-reach and over-regulation of harmless recreational and business activities.
The law, which was proposed by Legislator Jay Hood, would have restricted drone use in certain areas for safety and privacy reasons. It was initially designed to prohibit the flying of unmanned aerial craft (UACs) over private property without the owner’s consent or near critical infrastructure such as government offices, prisons or police stations. Sheriff Louis Falco had previously expressed support for the legislation, due in part to incidents where drones were used to smuggle contraband into prisons or the use of mounted cameras for illicit surveillance and privacy violations.
However, a groundswell of concern among local remote control aircraft fliers during a public hearing on Tuesday convinced Hood to push the bill back into committee for alterations so it would not needlessly restrict non-criminal pilots.
Bruce Leach, the president of the Hudson Valley Radio Control Club, agreed with the intent of the law, but argued his organization already employs safety restrictions such as the use of designated airfields, flight line spotters and field boundaries. Though Leach agreed the increasingly cheap value of drones would likely lead to some misuse by uninformed fliers or illicit use by criminals, he stressed that he stood for safety awareness and open information as a first resort.
“There’s a lot of things being done with these things that we don’t condone, but we stand for education a little more than regulation,” Leach said. “We don’t wanna make it unlawful for someone to do something in their own yard. As long as it’s something that’s not malicious, we don’t wanna see any law come down on anybody who’s not involved in malicious behavior.”
Leach also echoed a common position among speakers that high-profile accidents and criminal activities have given drones a bad rap in the media. RC plane and multirotor aircraft hobbyist John Fernandez also had “serious apprehension” with the law on that point.
Arguing the proposal seemed to be reflective of recent news hype, he argued widespread illicit use has not been a problem in the county. Citing the popularity of non-drone model airplanes often piloted by children and adolescents near schools, he argued that most flights, even near critical infrastructure, was relatively benign.
“I cannot cite a single incident in Rockland county or, for that matter, New York City, where contraband was smuggled by a drone,” Fernandez said.
Vinny Garrison, a Nanuet resident who operates a local aerial photography business, similarly warned that though restrictions were not a bad idea, the relatively loud commercial drones were largely infeasible for spying purposes.
Garrison also argued regulations could not merely blanket all users equally and had to be constructed with the needs of both first-responders and businesspeople-both of whom could benefit from drone use-in mind.
A different critical perspective came from Daniel Berger with the New York Civil Liberties Union. Berger argued the proposal would make sense if provisions which allowed for law enforcement’s use of drones contained more stringent safeguards such as stricter definitions of when and where drones could be used by police, regulation and prohibitions against indefinite retention of image captures and administrative penalties for law enforcement drone use outside of statutory limits.
Hood seemed open to the critiques and stated the law would go back to committee, where it would likely see some modification before it returns to the Legislature. At the same time, Hood expressed hope that a better, re-worked law would eventually see passage.
“I think we have some issues that we’re going to address,” Hood said. “I think we’re going to get a good, solid law that will take into consideration what was said tonight.”
Though this is the first county law addressing drone use, UAV regulations already exist on a federal level. The Federal Aviation Administration endorsed congress-approved guidelines for drone use in 2012 which included limits on altitude, sight line requirements, use near public and high-traffic areas and the prohibition of certain commercial uses such as package deliveries.
New FAA regulations were also proposed in February which outline licensing and registration standards specific to UAVs and clarify speed limits and flight over populated areas.