Newton drones can fly low, federal judge says
In his hit single “Treetop Flyer” released in 1991, rocker Stephen Stills sang of piloting an aircraft “fifteen feet over the Rio Grande./I’ll blow the mesquite right up off the sand.”
Stills’s ballad may have come to mind last week for legal observers who spotted a ruling in favor of Dr. Michael S. Singer, a Newton resident who sued the city in January in federal court in Boston.
Singer, 44, a physician and entrepreneur, had challenged Newton’s ordinance banning flight of unmanned aircraft, widely known as drones, at an altitude of less than 400 feet over private property without the property owner’s approval.
He said the provision amounted to a de facto ban on flying drones in the city’s airspace, since the FAA prohibits unmanned aircraft from flying higher than 400 feet above ground.
In a ruling dated Sept. 21, US District Court Judge William G. Young sided with Singer. Young struck down Newton’s altitude restriction, as well as a ban on drone flight over schools and other city property without permission.
Young also struck down a provision banning drone flight beyond the visual sight line of the operator.
“I’m very pleased,” Singer said Monday by phone. “I initiated this lawsuit because I firmly believe that unmanned aircraft will provide enormous benefits” to society.
He said that while city officials have legitimate concerns about the technology, “banning it is not the answer.”
The city said in a brief statement that officials are reviewing the ruling and deciding on their next steps.
Advocates for unmanned aircraft operators hailed the decision.
“The Court’s ruling affirms the role of the federal government in overseeing our nation’s airspace,” said Rich Hanson, president of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, in a statement. “We congratulate Dr. Singer on his victory.”
Hanson said local regulations of unmanned aircraft should be delayed “until the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Drone Advisory Committee (DAC) has reached consensus recommendations on the proper role of state and local governments in these types of issues.”
His remarks were echoed by Brian Wynne, president and chief executive officer of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
“We are pleased the court reaffirmed the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulatory authority over the national airspace,” Wynne said in a statement. “Proposals that seek to regulate the use of unmanned aircraft systems at a local or state level have the potential to create a complicated patchwork of laws that may erode, rather than enhance, safety.”
Singer noted that he did not challenge other provisions of the Newton ordinance he felt were reasonable and that Young left intact. Those include a ban on flying drones recklessly; using them to photograph people in areas where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy; and flying unmanned aircraft with the intent to “harass, annoy, or assault a person.”
In his civil complaint, Singer referenced public benefits of drone technology.
As one example, he wrote that he was evaluating the use of unmanned aircraft for delivering medical services. He also noted that in recent years, “Newton Conservators has petitioned Newton to cease and desist from dumping snow and refuse on its park lands, e.g. Nahanton Park. Plaintiff considers Newton’s acts of dumping to be controversial and unlawful. Plaintiff regularly visits Nahanton Park to monitor for evidence of further dumping by the City. Plaintiff uses [unmanned aircraft] to view the park for such evidence.”
He said he is a certified small unmanned aircraft pilot who operates a Dl Quadcopter, which he said measures “1.7 x 1.7 inches, similar to an OREO® cookie,” as well as a Guillow’s Strato Streak plane powered by the “spring force of a twisted rubber band.”
City officials have the option to appeal Young’s ruling, but it was not clear on Monday if they intend to do so.