Northampton City Council resolution targets drones, airspace

Last modified: Tuesday, July 09, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — In what supporters believe is the first of its kind in the country, the city of Northampton is calling on the federal government to stop using unmanned drone aircraft to carry out “extrajudicial killing” and to reject proposed regulations that seek to turn private backyards into public airspaces for drones.

In unanimously approving a drone aircraft resolution last week, the City Council became the second municipality in the country — and first in New England — to take an official position in relation to drone use.

“This actually gives me chills,” City Council President William H. Dwight said. “This concerns me a great deal.”

Unlike a resolution approved by the city of Charlotte, N.C., Northampton’s resolution is the first to address the issue by highlighting the Federal Aviation Administration’s desire to change long-standing rules governing “navigable airspace” to accommodate drone flights closer to the ground. If approved, the new rules would seriously infringe on private property rights and make it easier for the government to use drones for surveillance, resolution supporters said.

Others condemn the government’s use of the military drones to carry out targeted attacks overseas that have killed innocent people and turned public opinion against the U.S. government in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.

“Whether we like it or not, literally, the air around us is being changed to accommodate the type of drones that conduct surveillance and, yes, the ones that are armed,” said Jeff Napolitano, program coordinator for the western Massachusetts chapter of the American Friends Service Committee.

‘Navigable airspace’

Resolution backers are alarmed that Congress and the FAA are considering an expansion of the so-called navigable airspace — the public space higher than 500 feet off the ground that gives aircraft, including drones, the “right of transit.”

The proposal would extend that airspace from its current level down to just above the ground. This change, under consideration in order to accommodate low-flying drones, threatens long-standing property rights, expectations of privacy and state and local sovereignty, the resolution states.

Such an expansion of navigable airspaces would give the FAA authority to restrict any landowner activity that could potentially interfere with low-flying drone aircraft, according to the resolution.

“The FAA is now telling us what we can and can’t do in our own backyards one inch above the grass,” said Paul Voss, a Smith College engineering professor who uses unmanned aircraft for research. “The drone industry is salivating over all our backyards.”

Unlike military drones, Voss and other scientists in academia and at private businesses often use unmanned aircraft in their research. He said the federal government has instituted so many airspace restrictions on these aircraft, which in some cases can be as small as a balloon, that research is being severely hampered.

Aaron Cantrell, a recent Hampshire College graduate who has launched a small product and mechanical design company, said the certification process is prohibitive for small institutions and businesses who are trying to develop technologies for positive uses in a variety of fields.

“The regulations as outlined push out smaller players in the field,” Cantrell said.

The resolution, approved unanimously last week by the council on its first required vote, demands that the navigable airspace for drone aircraft within Northampton’s city limits shall not be expanded below the long-established airspace for manned aircraft. The council is scheduled to take its second required vote on the measure July 11.

The resolution also states that landowners in the city have exclusive control of the “immediate reaches of the airspace and that no drone aircraft shall have the ‘public right of transit’ through this private property.” Once the navigable airspace become public, local jurisdictions do not have authority to regulate its use.

“There are a lot of very serious restrictions that come with the pubic airspace,” Voss said. “Our backyards are being defined away from us.”

In its resolution, the council calls on Congress, the FAA, and state legislators on Beacon Hill to respect legal precedent and constitutional guarantees of privacy, property rights and local sovereignty in all matters pertaining to drone aircraft and navigable space.

A long history

Hundreds of years ago, common law stated that property owners owned the air space directly above their property to the heavens, said Voss, who has studied the history of airspace.

That changed in 1926, when then-president and Northampton’s former mayor, Calvin Coolidge, signed into law the Air Commerce Act that established the national airspace system. That act declared that airspace above the minimum safe altitudes for flight, generally understood as about 500 feet, was navigable airspace for public use.

The lower airspace remained a bone of contention until 1946, when the Supreme Court ruled that a landowner has exclusive control over the “immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere.”

The FAA’s plan to reverse that ruling is contrary to hundreds of years of precedent, Voss said.

“Now, FAA regulations are working as if landowners own nothing,” Voss said. “It’s obscured by highfalutin terms like ‘minimum safe altitudes’ and ‘navigable airspace,’ but it would change our personal property rights in a very scary way.”

Areas of concern

The resolution also takes the government to task for the “extrajudicial” use of weaponized drones overseas that have killed many innocent people.

“If our federal government won’t stop using them, at least we, at a grassroots level, have an obligation to decry their use,” Napolitano said.

He said the use of drones is not reserved for far-off places, but instead is increasing in popularity among law enforcement agencies within the United States. That fact came to light late last month when FBI Director Robert Mueller admitted during a hearing before Congress that the government is using drones in this country on a limited basis.

“The FBI has and continues to use drones for surveillance, without actually having guidelines to protect our civil liberties or safety,” Napolitano said. “And I hope that alarms and concerns you as much as it did members of Congress.”

Should Congress change the rules for navigable space, the resolution states that drone aircraft are “poised to gain unprecedented access to private property at any altitude and for any purpose.” Some examples include advertising, news reporting, environmental monitoring and private investigations.

Napolitano said defense contractors have already produced more drones than the military needs, and the excess supply is being marketed at local police departments, which are beginning to use them without clear guidance from lawmakers. Some of these drones are designed to carry weapons including tear gas, firearms and rubber buckshot, the resolution states.

The council expressed universal concern about the changes under consideration.

“I’m really troubled by the policy moves of the FAA,” said Maureen T. Carney, who represents Ward 1. “I’m also troubled by drones to not only spy on Americans, but to kill women and children all over the world.”

In addition to privacy concerns, Ward 7’s Eugene A. Tacy said the potential changes will be detrimental to the economy because of the way they would limit the use of unmanned aircraft for technology and research purposes.

“I think it’s really overreaching,” Tacy said.

Dwight is hopeful Northampton’s action will be repeated elsewhere.

“It’s unprecedented,” Dwight said. “There is no other resolution pending in the state. We are asking the government to give this a lot more scrutiny than it seems to have been given. We hope the resolution catches on.”

Napolitano said his organization has reached out to Amherst and Holyoke, with the latter community currently discussing an ordinance that would forbid its police department from buying and using drones.


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