Last week, a federal judge in Massachusetts ruled that the City of Newton’s drone ordinance, which attempted to regulate drone flights in the airspace over Newton, Massachusetts could not be enforced by the municipality because it is pre-empted by federal law. In December of 2016, the city passed an ordinance that required drone operators to register their drones, banned unmanned drone flights under 400 feet, and banned flights over private and public property without permission from the landowner.
A local resident and FAA-certified drone operator filed the lawsuit, challenging the section of the law that requires local registration of drones, and the three sections that regulate drone operations by altitude and distance. Appearing in the lawsuit pro se, the drone operator argued that the law was pre-empted by federal law “because it attempts to regulate an almost exclusively federal area of law.” The Judge agreed, saying “[C]ongress has given the FAA the responsibility of regulating the use of airspace for aircraft navigation and to protect individuals and property on the ground and has specially directed the FAA to integrate drones into the national airspace.”
Though the decision in this lawsuit will not directly impact other ordinances across the country, drone operators and companies using drones for operations appear happy with the result since the patchwork of local laws and ordinances have been difficult to keep up with and monitor for compliance with the myriad of drone laws that are cropping up in municipalities, cities, towns and states. Some municipalities have delayed the enactment of their own drone laws to see what happened in this case. It is an important precedent in a rapidly changing area of law.