Babylon Village trustees may curtail the use of drones, the remote-controlled, sometimes camera-equipped flying devices, even as the federal government has warned such municipal regulation could threaten overall air safety.
Mayor Ralph Scordino said two residents have approached him in recent months with privacy concerns after spotting drones overhead. The village has “grave” safety and liability concerns as well, he said.
Officials at a village board work session earlier this month discussed the possibility that drone technology could be used by terrorists, to spy on people at the Village Pool or to case village buildings. Not all concerns are hypothetical: A drone caught fire and crashed on Sag Harbor’s Main Street last year, and a pilot approaching Republic Airport in nearby East Farmingdale in May saw a drone cross just 300 feet below his plane.
“Our society is changing so fast,” Scordino said. “I just want to be proactive. I don’t want anybody getting hurt.”
Current rules require registration for small unmanned aircraft. Federal safety guidelines for recreational users include flying below 400 feet, keeping the aircraft within sight and contacting airports within five miles before flying.
Some local and state laws across the nation and on Long Island appear to go further. Suffolk County requires permits for drone flight in county parks. In Nassau County, Laurel Hollow has made it illegal to use a drone to photograph people without consent for the purpose of publishing, and illegal to fly a drone within village or private property without consent.
Huntington Town, which based its law on Laurel Hollow’s, has prohibited the use of “imaging technology” for aerial drone surveillance and flight over heavily traveled roads.
But a December fact sheet released by the FAA warned of “substantial air safety issues” when state or local governments attempt to regulate aircraft operation, resulting in a patchwork of conflicting rules.
Sag Harbor dropped plans for local regulation because of concerns of overlap with Federal Aviation Administration rules in December, the Sag Harbor Express reported.
The FAA recommends in the fact sheet that state and local governments consult with it before passing any laws that regulate drone operations or equipment and training for operators. Those governments do have limited authority to forbid some drone uses, such as voyeurism, according to the fact sheet.
Local laws could face court challenge, said New York State Assemb. Tom McKevitt (R-East Meadow), a lawyer and municipal law expert.
“They’ve got a huge problem,” he said. “Congress has delegated to the FAA jurisdiction of airspace in this country, and the FAA is asserting that jurisdiction.”
He described the tension between federal and local officials as a “classic turf war,” but one in which the federal officials appear to have a strong legal advantage.
“If you’re going to allow a municipality to regulate a drone, what prevents them from regulating a 747?” McKevitt asked. “The FAA is saying that if we start with drones, where’s it going to end?”
An FAA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.