Virginia lawmakers weigh new laws limiting drone flights

A drone spotted flying 50 feet above the downtown helipad that VCU Medical Center uses to transport critically injured patients is figuring front and center in a state lawmaker’s push for new regulations governing unmanned flights in Virginia.

Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, pointed to the incident as he made the case for a law aimed at eventually granting the state’s aviation board authority over drones, which are currently only regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Federal rules do not necessarily prohibit flights over helipads.

“Pilots can’t risk either taking off or landing and having one of their air scoops suck up a drone,” Cosgrove said. “You’d have a real problem.”

It’s one of two pieces of legislation aimed at curbing what lawmakers view as dangerous or harassing drone flights as the technology becomes cheaper and more prevalent.

On Friday, a House of Delegates subcommittee advanced legislation that would give people the right to stop drone flights within 50 feet of their homes. The legislation also would make it illegal for sex offenders to use drones to take pictures of people.

Its patron, Del. Chris Collins, R-Frederick, jokingly introduced it as “the anti-Skynet bill,” making an oblique reference to the “Terminator” movies.

Lawmakers from both parties voiced support, as did industry groups, including a lobbyist representing DJI, a Chinese company that is easily the largest manufacturer of consumer drones.

“The classic example is that I’m in the backyard by the pool with my shirt off, I don’t want people taking pictures of me,” said Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle. One of his colleagues quickly agreed that he did not want to see photos of Bell with his shirt off by a pool.

The law would be triggered in two scenarios: If the drone operator carried out the flight with the intent to harass someone, it would automatically count as “electronic trespass.” If the flight near a home was “innocent” but deemed bothersome, the occupant could ask the drone operator to stop and any future flights would trigger the statute.

Violations would be punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor, which can result in up to a year in jail and fines of up to $2,500.

Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax, voted against the measure, though she said her only issue was a line dictating that no “political subdivisions” be allowed to implement local drone ordinances. Watts argued cities and towns should be able to dictate, for example, where in a public park drones are allowed to take off and land.

The legislation will now go before the full House Courts of Justice Committee, and, if it survives, make its way to the House floor for a full vote and then to the Senate.

The Senate already unanimously passed Cosgrove’s legislation aimed at allowing the Virginia Aviation Board to regulate unmanned flight. Revisions through the committee hearing process mean it will have no immediate impact and will simply bring together a group of industry and government representatives to further study the issue.

“We want to make sure the airspace is safe,” he said.

After the Jan. 22 incident above VCU Medical Center’s helipad, the hospital system joined Cosgrove and others in advocating for further regulation.

VCU Police said they responded to a report of a drone 50 feet above the helipad, which is among the most active in the region, though a spokeswoman, Leha Byrd, declined to say how many flights a day it handles, calling the information “sensitive.”

VCU said the drone was gone when officers arrived and that there was no ongoing investigation and that no incoming or outgoing flights were disrupted.

“While the incident on Jan. 22, which was the first of its kind reported at VCU Medical Center, did not disrupt patient safety, encounters between drones and medical helicopters that operate at low altitudes are becoming more common across the country and could present an obstacle to efficient patient care in the future,” the hospital said in a statement.

Karah Gunther, VCU Health’s director of government relations and health policy, said hospital personnel have heard of similar issues at hospital systems around the country.

“The FAA regulations are a little loose and there is a perception that more is needed at the state level to regulate drones,” she said.

Asked about the legality of the flight, an FAA spokeswoman pointed to regulations on the agency’s website that say flights around helipads and small airports are not banned, but recreational drone operators are required to give notice before any flights within 5 miles.

Commercial operators, who are licensed by the FAA and required to pass a knowledge test every two years, aren’t required to provide notice before flights, but in all cases, unmanned aircraft are required to yield to manned flights. (Flights around larger airports, such as Richmond International Airport, are governed by existing airspace rules, which, in the case of RIC, make any flight within 5 miles illegal without special authorization.)

Safety violations are punishable by fines and criminal penalties that can include jail time.

But Cosgrove said he doesn’t believe the FAA rules go far enough.

“The problem is, if a drone is hovering there, the drone operator doesn’t know when a helicopter is coming in,” Cosgrove said.