Drones and Schools: The Debate on Airspace and Privacy

Estimated read time 4 min read

New Drone Legislation Sparks Debate

The majestic sight of drones, equipped with state-of-the-art cameras, flying at varying altitudes has become increasingly common. Yet, the recent event in Albany County, NY, has triggered a debate on the potential privacy implications. A newly proposed state bill seeks to prohibit drones from flying above schools to safeguard the privacy of students and staff.

Senator Neil Breslin sponsors the bill, with support anticipated from Assemblywoman Pat Fahy. The impetus behind this legislative move was a drone incident on October 12. A drone, linked to a local real estate firm, soared over several schools in the Bethlehem district, which includes a high school and two elementary schools.

“At the same time, we are responsible for protecting student privacy. The use of drones and aerial photography without authorization is an invasion of that privacy,” said Bethlehem Superintendent Jody Monroe. “Keep in mind that this incident took place while students and staff were in the building and outside at recess, while a drone hovered above them.”

FAA Weighs In On Drone Regulations

However, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) feels the law might overreach into their domain.

In a statement provided to The Altamont Enterprise Regional, the FAA firmly asserted, “The FAA is responsible for the safety of our National Airspace System. This includes all airspace from the ground up,” the statement read (emphasis theirs). “While local laws or ordinances may restrict where drones can take off or land, they cannot restrict a drone from flying in airspace permitted by the FAA. We prohibit drones from flying over designated national security sensitive facilities like military bases, national landmarks and certain critical infrastructure such as nuclear power plants.”

The FAA’s primary responsibility remains the safety of the National Airspace System.

Inconsistencies & Amendments: The Path Forward

Maureen Centino, Breslin’s chief of staff, indicated potential amendments to the bill after revealing some “inconsistencies” were unearthed. Alexander Flood, Fahy’s spokesman, however, defended the bill, citing an FAA document suggesting exceptions might be granted for “privacy-related” restrictions over sensitive areas such as schools.

Yet, the FAA’s stance emphasizes lesser impact and potential conflicts with a wider ban. As their document explains, a ban on drones “over an entire city would very likely be preempted” due to the vast implications for national airspace management.

The Real Threat: Privacy or Surveillance?

Bethlehem Superintendent Jody Monroe believes in the necessity of this bill, mainly because the capabilities of drones remain somewhat mysterious.

She emphasized the invasion of student privacy when drones operate without permission, especially during vulnerable moments like recess.

One clear issue is the live feed capability of drones, making them potent surveillance tools, as highlighted by Bethlehem Deputy Police Chief James Rexford.

While tools like Google Earth offer static imagery, drones provide real-time visuals, which could be a potential risk.

Enforcement & Tracking of Drones

As the debate continues, a question arises: How will the law be enforced? Rexford posits that modern drones come equipped with tracking devices (Remote ID), making it easier to identify both the drone and its operator.

The proposed drone bill in the state of New York underscores the balance between technological advancements and privacy concerns, especially in sensitive zones like schools. As drones become a more integral part of our lives, the dialogue around their regulation becomes crucial.

It remains to be seen how this bill will evolve and address the myriad of concerns it raises, but its initiation has undeniably started an essential conversation about the place of drones in our modern world.

Let us know what you think about the story in the comments below. As always, we are curious to hear your thoughts.

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