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California Gov. Vetoes Nation's Most Restrictive Drone Bill

The bill would have made it illegal to fly over any private property without permission.

California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a potentially unconstitutional bill that would have made it illegal to fly a drone at low altitudes above private property without permission from the landowner.

Violators of bill SB 142 could be sued for "wrongful occupation of real property" for flying below 350 feet above private houses and businesses, which would have easily been the nation's most restrictive drone law.

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After it was passed by both chambers of California's legislature, drone pilots, drone manufacturer DJI (which makes the Phantom, the most popular consumer drone), the National Press Photographers Association, drone hobby group the Academy of Model Aeronautics, and AUVSI (the country's largest drone industry group) started a fierce veto campaign.

Those groups suggested that the bill would be too hard to enforce. It's often impossible for a pilot to know whether he or she is flying above private property, or he or she may be forced to fly over private property to avoid an obstacle or to return to safety in the case of inclement weather. Groups like AUVSI and DJI said that the bill would have a chilling effect on drone innovation and would stifle the potential economic growth drone businesses could bring to the state, with many would-be pilots opting simply to stay grounded instead of trying to fly within the confines of the law.

The campaign worked: Brown announced Wednesday that the bill "could expose the occasional hobbyist and the FAA-approved commercial user alike to burdensome litigation and new causes of action."

Drone privacy certainly is a concern, and many states and privacy groups are working on how to best manage the technology. The California law, however, almost certainly would have been unconstitutional, as the Supreme Court has ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration alone has the right to regulate airspace.

That's important, because California isn't alone in attempting to regulate drones more strictly than the federal government does. Since 2013, 45 states have considered at least 156 bills related to drones, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Laws in Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Tennessee, and West Virginia all restrict the use of drones in certain circumstances.

"There are federal preemption issues when it comes to states looking to regulate based on privacy concerns," said Lisa Ellman, a drone policy lawyer at the firm Hogan Lovells who used to work on drone issues in the Obama administration. "Those interfere with the FAA's right to regulate the national airspace. I think we'll probably see some of these state laws being considered eventually get struck down."

Correction: Violators of SB 142 could have been sued for "wrongful occupation of real property," not charged with criminal trespass as was originally stated.