Does curbing drones stifle innovation?

California is home to some of the greatest innovators in the world. They make our commutes more efficient, expedite the delivery of goods, and grant near instantaneous access to information. But one of the next great areas of innovation is at risk because of SB 142 (Jackson), which would make it an offense to fly a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over private property at an altitude of 350 feet or below – regardless of the reason – without the permission of each private property owner in the flight path. This bill is on Governor Brown’s desk and he should veto it.

SB 142 would limit the ability of commercial and private small UAVs to traverse the airways, preventing services that have the potential to dramatically improve our lives. Under the guise of privacy, this bill would hamper small UAVs even if they don’t have cameras or other tools to gather data from the homes over which they fly.

Have you ever needed medication but dread the thought of going out to get it because of rush hour traffic? The fight to get to the drug store and back when you are feeling terrible feels like an eternity. If you are ill enough, driving may even endanger yourself and others, or be physically impossible. Technology companies are working on tools that would deliver medications, some of which can be lifesaving, via UAV to your doorstep in a matter of minutes. But under SB 142, that service will never be available to California consumers because it would be almost impossible to secure the permission of every private property owner along the route.

Innovators developing these technologies are concerned that SB 142 will inhibit their future potential to meet essential customer needs, as well as dramatically obstruct their growth and put thousands of high paying jobs at risk. In fact, five of the top ten most well-financed UAV companies are based here in California. With SB 142 in place, they will not be able to continue to create more high-paying quality jobs.

Moreover, SB 142’s arbitrary altitude restrictions for operations of small UAVs conflicts with Federal Aviation Administration limits, resulting in an unworkable and impractical fifty-foot corridor for these activities that is not only unrealistic, but a de facto shutdown of the commercial benefits with no corresponding targeted privacy protections.

Rather than targeting privacy breaches, SB 142 is silent on spying and surveillance activities not directly above your property. The bill also does not narrow its scope to privacy breaches. Instead, it broadly targets a highly innovative and promising industry that has a home in California, and runs the risk of sending these jobs and benefits out of California – the mecca of innovation.

Privacy issues related to UAVs aren’t being ignored by the federal government. In fact, the federal government is scheduled to issue a rule on commercial use of drones this month. The US Department of Commerce is also developing best practices related to UAV privacy.

Privacy protection is a noble goal, but SB 142 goes too far, damaging a promising local industry. This bill deserves a strong veto.

Ed’s Note: Michael Drobac is the executive director of the Small UAV Coalition.

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