Idaho laws are grounding drone business, owners report

Sharon Fisher//June 12, 2019

Idaho laws are grounding drone business, owners report

Sharon Fisher//June 12, 2019

photo of drone delivery
It’s not an Amazon shipment yet, but drones can be used to carry items, as in this demonstration. Photo courtesy of Gloria Totoricagüena.

Idaho could be a market leader in drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), but state and local laws get in the way.

That was one conclusion of the Idaho Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Situational Awareness Workshop, sponsored by the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region (PNWER) Center for Regional Disaster Resilience, held at the Riverside Hotel.

PNWER has held a series of such workshops around the Pacific Northwest recently to prepare for ways UAVs could be used after a regional disaster, such as a major earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone, which runs down the west coast of Washington.

Idaho and Ada County have laws in force that limit UAVs from certain actions that are legal in other contexts, such as taking pictures. A person can stand on a neighboring building and take a picture, but isn’t allowed to do so from a UAV without potentially requiring permission from every building owner in the picture, as well as all the individual people in sight.

“Most of [state code] 21-213 is actually unconstitutional, but nobody’s challenged it yet,” said Bryan Norton, an attorney with the city of Boise. So is Ada County’s drone ordinance, which among other things requires that a drone operator have the advanced “section 107” license, he said.

Attendees reported losing business because of such laws. Matt Roderick, owner of Rapid Aerial, a Boise-based drone photography company, said that a major production company wanted to hire him for drone photography near Challis, but pulled out when it learned the state’s laws.

In response, attendees said they were considering forming some sort of group to promote the UAV industry and address such issues with a single voice.

The PNWER group wasn’t the only one to make such a suggestion. Idaho is one of the few states in the region without a chapter of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, noted presenter Tom Hagen, president of the Cascade chapter, at the recent I-90 Aerospace Corridor Conference and Expo in Coeur d’Alene. He offered to help the industry start one.

photo of robert blair
Robert Blair

Similarly, other laws prevent UAVs from being used in agriculture the way they are in other countries, said Robert Blair, a Kendrick farmer who has been experimenting with UAVs in agriculture since 2006.

“They sprayed 100,000 acres in China with spray drones last year,” Blair said. “I have to file an exemption to use a spray drone.”

photo of Gloria Totoricagüena
Gloria Totoricagüena

Spray drones could go across a field, check on each individual plant, and spray only the ones that need it, reducing overall pesticide use, said Gloria Totoricagüena, president of Idaho Policy and Consulting, which helped organize the conference.

Another issue is the lack of broadband internet access in rural Idaho, Blair noted. A single drone can generate up to 50 to 60 gigabytes of data. When he wants to submit that data for analysis, he’s limited to a 0.5 megabit per second upload speed.

“’Can I mail in the chip?’ ‘No, it’s got to be through our portal,’” he said he’s been told.

Blair suggested that Idaho should petition the Federal Aviation Administration to control UAVs in its own airspace for uses such as fire suppression and agriculture.

Other companies that reported using UAVs for business included Idaho Power, which uses them for line inspection, wildlife research and disaster response, said Matthew Harris, IT business system development leader.

Drones and UAVs are used for jobs that are “dull, dirty or dangerous,” said David Barker of the Idaho Falls Police Department and the Idaho Public Safety UAS Council. Those tasks include searching for missing people in wilderness areas and investigating potential hazardous material incidents.