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Drones in the Air and on the Ground; DC Faces Unique FAA Impediments

Accompanying images can be viewed starting on page 1 of the February 2019 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

The dizzying drone craze is changing all parts of society –- law enforcement and emergency services, real estate marketing, the roofing business, package delivery services, traffic planning and monitoring, green space management, among much more.

According to a January 22, 2016 news release from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), “Nearly 300,000 owners have registered their small unmanned aircraft in the first 30 days after the . . . online registration system went live.” Adding to that surge and continuing was the FAA’s rule change to no longer a drone operator to have a pilot’s license.

Policing and Public Safety

Drones are helping police find and apprehend robbery suspects, break up gangs stealing vehicles, patrol beaches for sharks, scan neighborhoods for storm survivors, track missing persons, to name but a few benefits. As reported a little over a year ago in The Columbus Post, nearly 350 departments were using drones –- double the numbers from 2014. Yet, while drones are becoming often effective crime fighting tools, perfection remains elusive.

Real Estate Marketing

The Florida Association of Realtors, on its website’s TechHelpline page, states that “real estate has become the number one industry in North America that uses drones for marketing purposes.” Also noted are findings reported by the National Association of Realtors that 44% of its members use drones for marketing and that incorporating aerial photography into advertising is commonplace.

The Roofing Business

The roofing business can barely operate without the use of drones. The newest ones are equipped with 4K cameras for maximum clarity and allowing for images recorded to be processed through machine learning software to detect anomalies highlighting the presence of damage. Drone usage, combined with machine learning, can drastically reduce the time it takes to determine what repairs or replacements will be needed. Speed is critical in the roofing industry, especially during storm season.

The Delivery Revolution

Drones are revolutionizing not only the e-commerce delivery business but also local merchants. Drone deliveries from fast food to Amazon and Target, to countless others has boomed from $40 million in 2012 to a one-billion dollar business in 2017, according to a report last spring in Forbes.

What do These Examples Reveal?

To be a world class city, drones must be accommodated and regulated. Drone progress is so fast that regulations need to be updated frequently, probably annually. So, what about the District of Columbia. Are they banned? Is DC a drone free city? How does that match with being a world class city?

DC No Drone Zone

The National Capital Region is governed by a Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) within a 30-mile radius of Reagan Washington National Airport, by which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restricts all flights in the greater DC area.

Flying an unmanned aircraft within the 15-mile radius inner ring is prohibited without specific FAA authorization.

Flying a drone for recreational or non-recreational use between 15 and 30 miles from the District itself is allowed, but only under the following operating conditions:

Aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, including any attachments such as cameras; be registered and marked if it is not operated exclusively under the Special Rule for Model Aircraft; fly below 400 feet, within visual line-of-sight, in clear weather conditions, and not near other aircraft.

The airspace around Washington is more restricted than in any other part of the country. The National Defense Airspace Rules that were enacted following 9/11 attacks set operational limits; failure to comply can result in substantial fines and criminal penalties.

How does one legally fly an Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS)<> –- i.e. drone — for work or business purposes? In 2016 the FAA issued guidelines for drone use for work and business somewhat clarifying the legal landscape. These rules relax some restrictions governing the line-of-sight and night time operation rules.

The only DC agency that seems to be paying attention to drones is the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment. However, the site does not direct users to anything other than referring to the FAA website’s drones page by informing that it “regularly monitors the activities of the FAA regarding Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or ‘Drones’. For the latest information regarding UAS, please visit the FAA’s UAS Integration Office (AFS-80) which is the Agency’s single point of contact for everything UAS. The UAS Integration Office collaboratively develops operating concepts, policies, requirements, criteria, and procedures for new system evaluations, integration, and implementation of emerging UAS technologies, and coordinates all UAS operational authorizations, including Certificate of Waiver or Authorizations (COAs) and Section 333 exemptions.”


Notwithstanding impediments facing businesses with legitimate need for using drones, real estate brokers seem to be in the forefront. As Martin Toews of the Martin & Jeff Group responded to our query as follows:

“Jeff [Brier] and I have never used drones in our business.

“If Drones were allowed you would see more agents offering aerial photos as part of their marketing package as they do in other cities. Miami Beach, for example, uses Drones [for] the higher bracket condos and home markets over $2 million.

“Drones give an entirely new prospective and overview of the property which is great when you’re shopping for a new home.”

And, Steve of Maggio Roofing in response to a customer request wondering why his company does not use drones, responded, “Drones are not allowed in DC.”

Fortunately, in 2018 the FAA proposed new rules for drones of less than 55 pounds in an effort to boost the growing drone industry. Those proposed rules may allow drones to fly over crowds and at night. They also call for enhanced operator training. The FAA also wants manufacturers to guarantee that marketing and instructional materials they use promote safety.

So, it is clear that in DC there is the impression that drones are completely banned. First, there needs to be clarification on this issue, and second, DC government as well as the FAA need to realize that the drone business is dramatically changing and the rules need to be dynamic. Policy makers need to ensure that different drone systems can co-exist and that there be tracking systems as there are vehicular traffic. If DC government (with cooperation by the FAA) cannot accommodate drones, will they be able to accommodate driverless vehicles?

*Larry Ray is Senior Adjunct Faculty at The George Washington University School of Law. He served as ANC Commissioner in both Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights.

Copyright © 2019 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.

Reader Comment

My personal interest in drones thus far has been focused on their use in military warfare and other military-related applications. I shall readily admit that I have serious reservations about their escalating use that seemed to be an increasingly integral part of warfare that started with the Obama Administration. Boots on the ground of foreign soil can create public political outcry that may be absent in stealth military engagements.
Your article suggests that civilian applications of drone usage are here to stay. Perhaps you are right. However, my big fear — by no means as a citizen with any expertise in drone usage — is that genie can never be put back into the bottle, if down the road governmental regulators come to realize that they have created a “monster,” as it were. What then?
When Galileo invented the telescope, many feared his new device would be used to spy on God’s heavens, and that would be inherently wrong. Am I as much off base as the critics of his day?
The essence of my fear in the military environment is that when warfare can be conducted by perpetrators far removed from any experience of the horrific blood and gore of the daily battlefield except by vicarious, remote cameras, a certain degree of the horrors of war is not appreciated.
If a soldier can go to work each day in a highly classified location inside the continental US with a mission to annihilate lives in being in the Middle East or some other hot spot location in the world, and then after work he/she can remember to stop at a convenience store on the way home to pick up a quart of milk and orange juice before later kicking back in an easy chair with a beer before dinner, I fear that an overall sense of reality of war by that soldier’s daily lifestyle can insulate him/her from the realities of one’s day job.
Have you reflected on drone use by the Department of Defense?
Winston M. Haythe
Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired)
Dupont Circle