RICHMOND — The Batchelor family was unloading the minivan outside their Fairfax County split-level when they heard a strange buzzing sound.
“All of the sudden — Bam! — there was a huge impact on the front of our house,” Tracy Batchelor said, recalling the suburban scene.
They locked eyes with neighbors doing yardwork. What the heck was that? Did a weed-whacker blade break loose and spin out of control?
In fact, a camera-equipped drone had slammed into their home, leaving them confused, violated and relieved that it had missed the small children playing down the street.
The May 2014 episode evolved into a heated spat with a neighbor bent on retrieving his device. Police were called. But no charges could be filed because Virginia does not regulate the use of private drones. Not yet, anyway.
That may change under a legal opinion issued Wednesday by Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) clarifying Virginia’s authority to pass laws protecting residents’ property and privacy against drones.
Given the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles by scientists, business, the military and hobbyists, some lawmakers are likely to jump at the chance. But hemming in drones could be a sticky business in a state that wants to protect residents’ civil liberties but also capitalize on economic development opportunities.
The administration of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is well aware of the competing interests and has two groups looking at the technology: one charged with studying government intrusion, the other exploring new applications for drones.
This year, McAuliffe ended a two-year moratorium on law enforcement use of drones by signing a law that would require agencies to obtain a warrant first.
Yet some lawmakers dismissed a bill offered by Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) after he heard about the Batchelors’ experience in his district. His bill would have given counties and cities the right to regulate drones within their borders.
“As a property owner, I should have the right to control the airspace in my yard under my trees,” Surovell said. He requested the opinion to clarify the law and encourage his colleagues to discuss a legal framework for regulating drones.
Any law would be scrutinized by the influential Northern Virginia Technology Council, a regional trade group that has fought attempts to limit drone use, including Surovell’s bill.
Council lobbyist Josh Levi said letting every jurisdiction pass its own rules on when, where and how drones could be flown would “very quickly stifle the growth and utilization of unmanned aerial vehicles in Virginia.”
To avoid what Levi called the troubling prospect of a “patchwork of municipal no-fly zones,” he said the council favors Maryland’s approach. That state recently enacted a policy prohibiting local laws on the use of drones, giving the state and federal government exclusive jurisdiction to regulate the devices.
In Virginia, Herring’s opinion said state or local laws would have to be narrowly crafted so as not to flout the extensive existing federal rules having to do with drones.
For example, states can’t regulate routes, prices or services for commercial use of a drone to transport property across state lines. Courts have consistently found that aviation safety is exclusively up to the federal government, according to Herring.
“In particular, states may regulate small drones that are exempted from federal regulation . . . and they may also enact laws for drones that address issues of privacy and property and also criminal offenses, so long as the laws do not conflict with the language or purpose of any existing federal aviation law,” Herring wrote.
The opinion was released the same day drone experts gathered in southwest Virginia for a conference ahead of Wise County’s Remote Area Medical clinic. On Friday, drones will deliver medicine to the field hospital to test their effectiveness in humanitarian crises.
The research flights were conceived after the FAA awarded Virginia and five other states the authority to study how to safely fly drones in U.S. airspace. Organizers say the flights will make history as the first FAA-approved package delivery by drone.
All this attention on drones has reminded Kevin Batchelor of the parental instinct to send his then-7-year-old daughter indoors until he could get the offending drone’s blades to stop slicing through the air.
“It was kind of a little bit spooky,” said Batchelor, who works for a Defense Department contractor that supports manned aircraft.
The encounter convinced him that drones should be carefully regulated.
“I hate to take the fun out of anything,” he said, “but stupid takes the fun out of everything.”