Monday, January 18, 2016

Flawed From the Start & Missing the Mark: Georgia's Proposed Anti-Drone Legislation

Bad state laws can have the same chilling effect on technology as bad federal laws.  In this guest post, friend of Errata Elizabeth Wharton (@lawyerliz) discusses the latest anti-drone law introduced here in the Georgia legislature and how one bill manages to kill innovation across several key Georgia industries. 

By Elizabeth Wharton 
Georgia’s newly proposed anti-drone legislation is an economic and research buzz kill.  The bill, HB 779, through poorly crafted provisions places unnecessary red tape for use of drones by the film industry and by cellular, telephone, and cable utility companies.  It also completely shuts down Georgia's aerospace defense industry research (and related funding) conducted by universities including Georgia Tech and all related manufacturing by companies such as Lockheed Martin.  Biting the industry hands that bring billions of dollars into Georgia’s economy seems a bold move for state legislators, particularly during an election year.    

Gaps between technology policy and technology practice at the federal level such as the Commerce Department’s proposed Wassenaar Arrangement rules, extend to the states as well.  With over 168 drone-related bills considered by 45 states in 2015 according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 2016 is already off to a quick start.  California lawmakers want to require "tiny" drone license plates and for operators to leave their contact information behind after an "accident." In the latest policy disconnect, the devil went down to Georgia but had to leave his Star Wars X-Wing Fighter drone at home (it included a replica of a weapon), he faced jail time for his school-sponsored drone research project, and couldn't fly his other drones for fear of inadvertently capturing RF signals from a neighbor’s iPad.  When your legislative goal is to encourage economic development in the aerospace and technology industries and the end result has the exact opposite effect, this is a failure.

After spending four months of meetings and hearings on the "Use of Drones" in Georgia, members of a Georgia House Study Committee introduced House Bill 779.  The Committee's Final Report (copy available here) recommend that commercial uses of drones should not be "over regulated at the state level" and the state should "avoid passing legislation which might ….. cause the process to be more onerous and thus drive business to other states." Further, "Georgia's goal is to remain competitive and to allow for expansion of this industry…" 

Georgia's film industry generated a $6 billion impact on Georgia's economy in 2015, the aerospace industry had a total economic impact of $50.8 billion in 2013 accounting for 5.3% of the state's GDP.  Transportation logistics also plays a key part in Georgia's economy, Atlanta is home to the busiest passenger airport in the world and Savannah boasts the 4th largest and fastest growing container port in the U.S.  Georgia has heavily recruited telephone and cable service providers to roll out new products such as Google Fiber and Comcast's Ultra-Fast Internet within Georgia before doing so in other states. Several of the key service providers and experts in each of these industries testified or otherwise met with the members of the Study Committee that crafted HB 779, explaining their existing uses and the potential beneficial applications of unmanned aircraft systems. 

HB 779 provides that it will regulate the use of unmanned aircraft systems and the resulting captured images, prohibit operations in connection with hunting and fishing, and to prohibit the possession of, operation of, manufacturing of, and transportation of unmanned aircraft systems with a weapon attached.  

In its current form, HB 779 will halt or chill use of drones for film projects and safety inspections, shut down ongoing university research projects, and drive out manufacturing and shipping of aerospace drone equipment. 

Using words without understanding their application within the technology spells trouble.    

At the heart of the main provisions in HB 779 is its definition of "image." "Image" is broadly defined to include electromagnetic waves and "other conditions existing on or about real property in this state or an individual located on such property."  HB 779 would prohibit using an unmanned aircraft system "to capture an image of a private place or an individual in a private place," knowingly using an image in a manner prohibited by the statute, possessing an image known to have been captured in violation of the statute, and disclosing, distributing, or otherwise using an image known to have been captured in violation of the statute. 

This definition of "image" and resulting application within the statute becomes problematic in part within the context of how unmanned aircraft systems, cell phones, and all other "connected devices" function.  In each instance, the devices use some form of electromagnetic wave to communicate and connect.  These radio frequency (RF) signals are constantly being sent and received.  The resulting communication data is automatically transmitted and saved by the devices.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deems the RF signals from the fitness tracker around my wrist or the signals sent from an individual’s pacemaker, for example, to be one and the same as the individual.  Here, the RF signal from my fitness tracker captured by an unmanned aircraft system flying overhead could expose the drone's operator to civil penalties when they sync and send the flight data.  Each captured signal (image) equates to a separate offense under the language of HB 779.

Georgia isn't the only state to trip over this concept, legislation passed in Florida, Texas, and other states also use a similar definition of "image." Cutting and pasting from other state’s legislation does not always equal good policy, here it perpetuates the use of inaccurate technology terminology. 

Adding Hurdles & Increasing Costs on Georgia's Film Industry and Technology-Related Utility Companies

In addition to missing the basic underlying technology mark, HB 779's definition of "image" and "private place" creates costly hurdles for film, cable utility companies, and telephone communication utility companies. HB 779 carves out liability protections for images captured in connection with specific projects but as with legislation passed in other states, exception lists always overlook a few.  The list of exemptions here includes law enforcement, electric or natural gas utility providers, fire-fighting operations, real estate sales and financing, and rescue operations. Noticeably absent, television or film production uses and inspection and maintenance operations by telephone, cable, or cell phone tower companies (all key industries in Georgia).

Use of unmanned aircraft systems outside of the exemption list requires the extra time and expense of tracking down every person and property owner whose image has been captured during the flight.  Without such consent, the image must be immediately deleted or face civil penalties.  The penalties accumulate per for each image, quickly adding up.  For example, a television crew or film company captures footage of a condominium high-rise. Each condo unit within the building is a separate parcel of real property.  Under HB 779, the company would have to contact every single condominium owner whose property could be clearly seen in film footage or risk civil penalties from the homeowners if they do not start all over and reshoot the footage without a clear picture of the building.  Cell phone tower operators and cable line operators would have to obtain permission from every property owner and person along their infrastructure lines or the areas surrounding their towers at that particular flight time prior to using for inspections and repairs. 

A weapon ban heard around the state, halting all research, manufacturing, and shipping throughout Georgia's aerospace defense industry.

Singlehandedly shutting down an entire (and growing) sector of the aerospace defense industry within the state should raise a few eyebrows, particularly for legislators who represent districts that count the research institutions, aviation manufacturers, or logistics hubs among their constituents or supporters.  Under HB 779, any sale, transportation, manufacturing, possession, or operation of unmanned aircraft systems that have been equipped with a "weapon" would constitute a felony, punishable by up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.  "Weapon" is defined to include a device or object that could cause or looks like it could cause or that is a replica of something that could cause serious bodily injury against a person.  Shipping a drone with a replica of a weapon (think the Star Wars themed X-Wing Fighter toy drones) or the perception that it could be a weapon on the drone is enough to trigger jail under HB 779.  The proposed ban contains zero exceptions and zero exemptions.  

Eight of the top 10 defense contractors in the country have operations within Georgia according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development.  Georgia universities and colleges including Georgia Institute of Technology and Middle Georgia State University receive research funding grants for the development and testing of defense-related projects.  The Port of Savannah is shipping hub, equipment arriving into the port is then transported through Georgia on its way to the final destination (civil or military).  Georgia Tech students use Fort Benning facilities for their drone research.   Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, GA is home to several cutting-edge unmanned aircraft technology projects.  Contractors, students, and other civilian suppliers transporting unmanned aircraft systems to and from the military installations using Georgia roads, rail, or airways would be jailed and fined. Lockheed Martin would be grounded from manufacturing or shipping most of its unmanned aircraft systems in and through Georgia.  Not exactly the welcome mat that the Georgia Center of Innovation in Aerospace has been marketing.

Go back to the drawing board, Georgia (and quit copying from other state's bad legislation).

When legislation harms your state’s economic drivers and grounds Star Wars toys, then aerospace manufacturers, research institutions, electric and communications providers, transportation logistics companies, and Georgia voters take notice.  HB 779 cuts off the hand that provides 5.3% of Georgia’s GDP and slices the fingers from the other hand that represent the state’s main economic development priorities all in one fell swoop.  Go back to the drawing board Georgia, and this time don't copy off the flawed legislative papers from surrounding states.

Elizabeth is a business and policy attorney specializing in information security and unmanned systems.  While Elizabeth is an attorney, nothing in this post is intended as legal advice.  If you need legal advice, get your own lawyer.


  1. "Prohibit use of drones for hunting and fishing or to use a drone to interfere with someone else that
    is hunting, fishing, or trapping."
    So detecting poachers with the use of drones is out of the question? Even if it happens accidentally while observing animal migration?

  2. I have searched many sites but was not able to get information same as your site.

  3. While I agree that GA's new law is deeply flawed, reactionary, and poorly crafted, the protection of personal privacy, and an individual's assumption of privacy while on their own property is very important to me.

    I'd rather send a chill through the unmanned aircraft research world, and create built-in mechanisms for law revision, than open the door to all use and see large corporations embrace the technologies without a strong framework for privacy protection. If we don't, we'll be reading blogs on ES in two years about how we are forced into a position of fighting for better privacy protections against deeply entrenched and funded corporate interests.

  4. Another market segment omitted from the exemption list is the AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) industry. Aerial footage of a construction site for the purposes of planning, documentation and marketing is an important aspect overlooked by this current draft of HB779.


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