In New Jersey, new rules on flying drones

Photographer Tom Briglia practices his drone flight over a solar farm in Atlantic County on Friday, Jan. 19.

No drinking and droning. No flying drones in the way of police or firefighters. No using drones for help in hunting animals.

These are among the limitations on drone use in New Jersey that will take effect later this year. With this step, New Jersey joins 40 other states that have imposed rules or  restrictions on the radio-controlled aircraft in the last five years, in this case by criminalizing certain uses. Pennsylvania has no such laws on the books.

Advocates see the New Jersey law’s provisions as common sense, addressing some of the public-safety concerns that come about from having a flying object with sharp blades hovering and swooping around in the air. It’s a proactive measure, one lawmaker said, meant to help address rising drone use before problems arise.

But the new law, and others like it, has also been criticized as overstepping, and opponents say it goes too far in criminalizing benign use.

It’s a debate that often arises with new technologies: How should they be regulated? Should the law focus on specific technologies or the behavior of the users?

“This is always a question: Is this like what we’ve seen before, just more of it, in more hands, more capable? Is it on a continuum? Or does the very fact that it’s in everybody’s hands and it’s cheap and it’s ubiquitous make it something different?” asked Ellen P. Goodman, a law professor at Rutgers-Camden.

New Jersey Is the 41st State to Enact Drone Law

Since 2013, many states have regulated drone usage, seeing federal guidelines as insufficient. New Jersey became the 41st state to enact drone legislation when former Gov. Chris Christie signed regulations into law last week.

Staff Graphic

“The technology is increasing with these drones, and we’re just trying to make proactive choices here,” said Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo (D., Atlantic), one of the law’s sponsors. Mazzeo cited situations such as drones interfering with planes, smuggling drugs, or harassing neighbors. “Putting some type of guidelines or regulations with drones, maybe it’ll make people think twice before trying something.”

Consumer drones have exploded in popularity in recent years. Small drones with high-definition cameras have become available for just a few hundred dollars, making the unmanned aircraft systems widely available. The Drone User Group Network started in August 2012 and now has more than 20,000 members.

Drones have been used for news reporting, real estate assessment, monitoring construction sites, examining the structural integrity of bridges, and more.

“The ability to do things with the drone compared to having used an airplane or a helicopter is 10 times better,” said Tom Briglia, a Shore-based photographer who freelances for news organizations including the Inquirer and Daily News. “It’s safer, it’s cheaper.”

Camera icon Tom Briglia/PhotoGraphics
Drones allow photographers to take aerial shots at events without the expense of renting a small plane or helicopter. Here, a drone photo shows the 72nd annual Margate Memorials Lifeguard Races on the beach in Margate City in August 2017.

But drones aren’t risk-free, and incidents of drone flying gone wrong capture news headlines and public attention. In November 2016, Philadelphia police arrested a Drexel student who flew a drone during a protest, coming close to colliding with a police helicopter.

“These are dangerous devices. If not respected, they’re like a flying blender,” said Steven Cohen, a North Jersey drone user who heads the national Drone User Group Network. “You really do have to show some respect for the technologies and the inherent risks that are involved.”

That doesn’t mean Cohen agrees with New Jersey’s new laws. While he understands the need to protect the safety of people and property, Cohen said, existing laws are in many cases already adaptable to drone use.

How technology-specific laws should be is a matter of debate. To Cohen and others, laws should generally regulate the behavior of people and be agnostic to technology. Peeping Tom laws, for example, should make certain kinds of spying and photography illegal — regardless of whether the camera is on a phone, a tripod, ladder, drone, or airplane.

“There are all kinds of things that people do that common sense would tell you not to, that common decency would tell you not to,” Cohen said. “But it’s not the device that makes these things illegal, it’s the actor.”

Others aren’t so sure. Asked why the law should single out drones, Mazzeo, the bill’s sponsor, said he “wanted to be more specific” than existing laws.

“It gives it maybe a little bit more teeth,” he said. “When you do something harmful with a drone now, there are consequences.”

Camera icon Tom Briglia/PhotoGraphics
A DJI Inspira 2 drone in flight over a solar farm in Atlantic County.

Goodman said she sees both sides but generally agrees that laws should be technology-neutral until existing law is shown to be insufficient, rather than to codify specific ideas that may end up overstepping or, in some cases, not keeping up with the fast-changing times.

Jeremy Gillula, a senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that champions digital freedom, agreed with Goodman.

On the one hand, he said, drones may well be considered different enough from existing technologies that laws may need to be rethought.

“But we’re hesitant, at least with the public’s use of drones, to say that we definitely need drone-specific laws,” he said. “Because who knows when the next technology’s going to come around and it won’t be drones, it’ll be something else, and all of a sudden the drone laws we wrote don’t apply.”

Gillula also criticized the new law’s provision that drones can’t be used “to conduct surveillance of, or gather information about, a correctional facility without license or privilege to do so.”

Would that mean a news organization couldn’t film a prison as B-roll footage for a story on prison reform? he asked. Why can you do the same thing from a manned plane or helicopter but not a drone?

“It’s almost like saying only the powerful companies get to collect the information and the average person doesn’t get to collect the information,” Gillula said.

Asked about that criticism, Mazzeo noted that the measure is New Jersey’s first law regulating drone use. More changes may come, he said.

“It’s probably a good bill that was signed into law,” he said. “Will we have to change it down the road? Perhaps. But I think it’s the right start right now.”