Federal Judge Overturns City Drone Ordinance In First Ruling Of Its Kind
The City of Newton, MA, like many state and local governments, thought it could regulate drone flights in the airspace over its city limits. It passed a law this past December that sought to ban unmanned aircraft flights below 400 feet, flights over private and public property without the landowner’s permission and to require local registration of drones. A federal judge in Massachusetts ruled today that the City of Newton was wrong : it does not have that authority because it is preempted by the federal government.
The case was brought by Michael Singer, a physician and inventor who lives in Newton and is an FAA certified drone pilot. He owns and operates a number of small drones. Dr. Singer challenged four sections of the City’s ordinance, one that required local registration of unmanned aircraft and three sections that affected flight operations, including the altitude and distance they could fly. He asserted in the lawsuit, in which he represented himself, that the City’s ordinance was preempted by federal law “because it attempts to regulate an almost exclusively federal area of law.” The federal district judge reviewing the case, William G. Young, agreed. In his decision, Judge Young states “Congress has given the FAA the responsibility of regulating the use of airspace for aircraft navigation and to protect individuals and property on the ground and has specifically directed the FAA to integrate drones into the national airspace.” [Full disclosure: I served as an expert for Dr. Singer in this case.]
This decision is being cheered across social media by drone operators throughout the country who have been hampered in their operations by a patchwork of differing laws in cities and states across the country. While the decision does not have a direct impact on any ordinance other than the City of Newton, I am aware of several cities that have been awaiting this decision before going forward with their own local laws. I am hopeful that this decision will serve to give these cities pause in their promulgation of drone ordinances. The drone industry cannot reach its full potential if operators are forced to comply with differing requirements from town to town and state to state.