Drones, Privacy

Farmers Flying Drones May Soon Be Given Clearance

As the sun peeks over the fields of organic grain in this grassy patch of the state, some mornings, a dark dot appears in the sky as well, and a loud buzz slices through the pastoral scene.

It is a drone, and its pilot is a farmer named Jean Hediger, one of a growing number of American agrarians who have taken to using unmanned aircraft — better known for their use in war-torn lands far from the wheat fields of eastern Colorado — to gather information about the health of their crops.

In doing so, these farmers are breaking the law. It is illegal to fly drones for commercial purposes without permission from federal authorities, and those who do so risk penalties in the thousands of dollars. But the technology holds such promise that many farmers are using it anyway, dotting the country’s rural skies with whirring devices saddled with tiny video cameras.

“This has really become a big deal in ag,” said Ms. Hediger, who is in her early 60s. “Our intent is pure,” she added. “Without being able to fly drones over our fields, they are asking us to remain in the dark ages.” Soon, however, farmers may be able to fly their drones openly.

In February, the Federal Aviation Administration proposed new rules that would allow people to fly small unmanned aircraft for commercial reasons. Drone operators would have to be certified and to keep their devices in sight at all times during flight. If the regulations are approved, after what could be a lengthy period of public comment and evaluation, there will be implications across the country: Drones could be used by construction workers, firefighters, filmmakers and others.

But few are as excited about this technology as farmers. The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, an industry group, said that it expected agriculture to make up 80 percent of the market for unmanned aircraft after commercial flight is allowed.

“It’s invaluable,” said Corey Jacobs, a corn farmer who lives in rural Indiana. Mr. Jacobs, 28, used to spot weeds or weather damage by walking miles through his cornstalks in 100-degree heat. Now, he simply launches a drone.

He built his first unmanned aircraft in 2013 and quickly saw a business opportunity. Today, he is the founder and sole employee of Extreme UAS, which sells drones to fellow farmers. When he is not on a tractor, he is on Twitter, scouting for new clients.

Ms. Hediger, in Colorado, is one of his customers. She runs a 3,400-acre farm with her husband and her son, Bryce, 26. On a recent spring day, she stood in a wheat field as Bryce sent their newly bought quadcopter hurtling toward the horizon, a camera swinging from its belly.

He gripped a white control panel as he peered at a monitor that showed him a bird’s-eye view of the land. He scoured the monitor for weeds, which in past years have devastated their crop, forcing them to halt cultivation on more than half of their land.

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Drones, Law and Public Policy

Law Professor & Pilot Create A Free Webapp To Help Drone Operators Comply With Laws

Launching today, AirMap is a free, comprehensive digital map that allows unmanned aircraft system (UAS or drone) operators to visualize the airspace around them, including areas where they may not be permitted to fly.  “Airspace rules are very complex, AirMap removes barriers to compliance by providing the low altitude airspace information that unmanned aircraft operators need.” Said Dr. Gregory McNeal, Associate Professor of Law and Public Policy at Pepperdine University.

Drone airspace rules“For years I’ve been researching, writing about, and speaking about drones and I’ve always found it difficult to explain the nuances of airspace regulations to non-pilots.” said McNeal, “In fact, in my Administrative Law course we have examined FAA regulations and found numerous ambiguities.  As the drone industry began to take-off, I thought to myself that there had to be a better way to teach people about these complex airspace rules.”

Dr. McNeal is currently writing a book about the emergent civilian drone market.  Some of his recent or forthcoming publications related to civilian drones include Drones and the Future of Aerial Surveillance in the George Washington Law Review, the co-authored Legislating for Drones: A Guide and Model Ordinances(with Troy Rule) and the Brookings Institution White Paper, Drones and Aerial Surveillance: Considerations for Legislators.

McNeal partnered with aviation expert and flight instructor Ben Marcus to create a free webapp called AirMap.  The idea was that a webapp could turn FAA regulations into visual information that could educate drone operators.  “As professors we are public intellectuals who have an obligation to educate not only our students but also the public.  I’ve written about drones in law review articles, white papers, and blog posts — a webapp seemed like a natural extension of that research.”

AirMap integrates multiple sources of reliable data and gives drone operators an easy to use, yet detailed solution providing a single view of the restricted areas around an area of operations. The beta-version of the site is now live, enabling drone operators to immediately start benefiting from simplified operations.  AirMap also features a feedback function that will allow beta testers to request additional features.

Sorting key legal issues from a sea of potential issues is a skill that law students learn, but it’s not one that the average drone operator has mastered.  The genius of AirMap is that it is akin to a free legal services app.  Using geolocation, it automates most of the sorting of regulations and legal issues so the drone operator can focus on how to request permissions and fly safely.  The webapp strips away the clutter of higher altitude airspace labels found on standard aeronautical charts that were created for manned aviation.

 When using AirMap, an operator can customize their display based on the type of operation they are involved in.  Operators can select layers depicting 1) recreational use, which will display the airspace areas around airports which are limited by community-based guidelines, 2) “blanket COA” rules applicable to holders of FAA Section 333 exemptions for commercial UAS operations., and 3) controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, and E) at 500 feet and below, allowing UAS operators to voluntarily comply with the airspace rules proposed in the FAA’s recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

 “As UAS use continues to expand, the airspace in which operators are flying is also growing more complex. With this in mind, we’ve launched AirMap, which will serve as a resource for drone operators to immediately fly safely and in compliance with legal requirements. We want to make safe flying easy,” said Marcus, McNeal’s collaborator and partner on the AirMap project.

 Professor McNeal hopes that his expertise in law and public policy and his research about regulations and technology will help him ensure the app can be used to educate users throughout the country.  Dr. McNeal is a widely recognized expert on unmanned aircraft.  He has testified before Congress and state legislatures about the legal and policy issues associated with drones and has aided state legislators, cities, municipalities, and executive branch officials in drafting legislation and ordinances related to drones.  He is one of a handful of people outside of government (and the only professor) to have met with and provided advice to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget about the FAA’s pending drone regulations.

He serves as a voting member of the ASTM technical committee creating scientific standards to govern unmanned aircraft and their operation and is a member of the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International technical advisory and advocacy committees.

“I’m a drone operator, a lawyer, and a careful observer of the laws and regulations governing drones and I found it hard to know what the airspace rules were in the places where I wanted to fly.  There were no accurate visuals or reliable electronic tools that could tell me and other operators where we can and cannot fly.  I hope that AirMap solves this problem and helps to educate operators about the complex regulatory environment associated with aviation.” said McNeal.

To test and comment on AirMap please visit: http://www.airmap.io/.

Drones, Law and Public Policy, Presentations, Speeches & Expert Appearances,

Drones And Agriculture: Presentation At The Integrated Pest Management Symposium

GregMcNealDronesInAgricultureOn March 24, 2015 I will be presenting “Drones And Agriculture: The Legal Framework.”  The presentation will be part of the 8th Annual Integrated Pest Management Symposium in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The specific panel is part of a four part series that day, entitled “Advanced Technology for Precision IPM: Latest Developments with Examples from the Field and Legal Considerations.”

Drones, Law and Public Policy, National Security, Presentations, Speeches & Expert Appearances,

McNeal to Testify before Congress on Domestic Drone Security Implications

GregMcNealDronesHomelandSecurityTestimonyOn March 18, Pepperdine School of Law professor Gregory S. McNeal will testify before the Committee on Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency. The hearing is entitled “Unmanned Aerial System Threats: Exploring Security Implications and Mitigation Technologies.”

McNeal, recently named in a list of “Seven of the Most Influential Players in the Drone Industry” by Dronelife, will be speaking from his research and writing regarding the domestic use of non-military drones. He will acknowledge that while the emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles “raises understandable concerns that may require employment of mitigation technologies,” Congress should be cognizant of four issues before taking tangible steps:

  1. Congress should ensure that agencies are distinguishing between possible threats and probable threats; Congress should also ensure that agencies are avoiding fear-based appeals focused on worst-case scenarios.
  2. Congress should ensure that agencies are assessing risk by calculating both the probability of a successful attack and the magnitude of losses that might be sustained in a successful attack.
  3. Congress should ensure that before any funds are spent on security measures, agencies engage in risk assessment and a formal cost-benefit analysis using best practices.
  4. Congress should ensure that specific individuals at the department of homeland security are responsible for conducting these analyses and reporting their methodology.  Congress may also want to provide funds to the centers of excellence for an independent evaluation of threats.

The March 2015 hearing will be McNeal’s third time testifying before Congress. He notes that each time has been tied to research that he published while a faculty member at Pepperdine.

GregMcNealHomelandSecurity“Testifying before Congress is a great way to influence law and public policy. While many law professors focus on influencing courts, much of my work has been focused on influencing laws before they are written — that’s probably because I teach courses like Criminal Law and Legislation which are directly related to statutes. Being involved with the development of the law allows me to stay focused on emerging issues and I’ve found makes for a more enriching experience in the classroom.”

McNeal has aided state legislators in drafting legislation related to unmanned aircraft and advised executive branch agencies at the state and federal level on matters related to drones. He has testified before the House Judiciary Committee about drones and privacy and has testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee about counterterrorism. He serves as a voting member of the ASTM technical committee creating scientific standards to govern drones and their operation. He is currently an academic member of the Secret Service Electronic Crimes Task Force.

He has authored over a dozen law review articles, and is a co-author of the casebook Anti-Terrorism and Criminal Enforcement and co-editor of the book Saddam On Trial: Understanding and Debating the Iraqi High Tribunal. He is the editor of a forthcoming book Cybersecurity and Privacy, author of the forthcoming book Prosecuting Terrorism (under contract with Oxford University Press), and is conducting research for books about civilian and military uses of drones.

Drones, Law and Public Policy, Presentations, Speeches & Expert Appearances,

7 Of The Most Influential Players In The Drone Industry

Drone Life magazine has named me one of the “7 Most Influential Players In The Drone Industry”  This is a fun honor, especially given the great names on the list.  There are many others who could just as easily have been on this list, but I nevertheless appreciate being named.

Here is an excerpt from the piece:

The Drone Revolution is upon us. Every day there is a new headline. Every day someone starts a new company. People are flocking to this industry and it is creating a snowball effect of popularity and investments. But as with any rise in technology, there are certain ‘powers that be’ making the whole thing happen. Dronelife spoke to these players to help you put faces to names and get their take on the rise of the drone:

Greg McNeal is an associate professor of law at Pepperdine University and a contributor to Forbes who writes about the ever-evolving status of drone laws and regulations. Most recently, McNeal was the first to discover the inadvertently published FAA documents analyzing the economic impacts of the administration’s proposed drone regulations. This discovery and subsequent media frenzy forced the FAA to officially publish the long awaited Notice for Proposed Rulemaking.

What excites you most about the future of the drone industry?

“The rapid pace of innovation means that we will certainly be surprised by the amazing things that people will do with unmanned aircraft in the future. While the things people are doing now are impressive, in less than 10 years smart autonomy will be common technology . Drones will be true flying robots (rather than remotely piloted aircraft), and so many of the other seemingly impressive things we are doing now will be mundane, and perhaps quaint vestiges of the past.”

What is one piece of advice you would give to first time pilots?

“If you think the thing you’re about to do is impressive because it might be illegal, it’s not impressive.”


Law and Public Policy, Presentations, Speeches & Expert Appearances,, Privacy, Publications, Articles, White Papers, Surveillance

Surveillance And the City To Be Presented At University of Denver Sturm College Of Law

CitySurveillanceMcNealI will be presenting my paper “Surveillance and the City” at the 3rd Annual Local Government Law Works-In-Progress Workshop at the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law.

Here is the paper abstract:

Sophisticated surveillance equipment is finding its way to local police departments. From drones, to automated license plate readers, to surplus military equipment, police departments have been acquiring powerful technology, oftentimes without the direct oversight of the elected representatives who are supposed to oversee them. Perhaps more problematic, that equipment is collecting massive amounts of data, and it is unclear whether state and local governments have the capacity or desire to manage vast stores of information in a way that both protects privacy and is publicly accountable.What should cities do? I will argue that hoping for reform through a court centric, warrant based approach is unworkable and counterproductive. Instead, governments should adopt a variety of transparency, accountability, and oversight centered methods of reform. Specifically, they should create duration based limits on persistent surveillance, enhanced data retention procedures, and implement new transparency and accountability measures. Cities should also recognize that while technology may create privacy harms, if regulated properly, it may be more protective of privacy than non-technologically enhanced surveillance methods. The article also recognizes that despite the potential benefits of new technology, the actual impact of new surveillance technologies may be one that disproportionately burdens minority communities.

The article explores six main questions. Will duration-based surveillance legislation that limits the aggregate amount of time the government may surveil a specific individual be more protective of rights than warrant based surveillance rules? How might data retention procedures (that require heightened levels of suspicion and increased procedural protections for accessing stored data) serve to protect privacy? What transparency and accountability measures will best ensure that government agencies are accountable? Will new technology, such as auto-redaction and accountability logs, make automated surveillance more protective of privacy than human surveillance? How can we ensure that new surveillance technologies do not disproportionately target certain communities? Do surveillance technologies require new forms of oversight?



Drones, Law and Public Policy, Presentations, Speeches & Expert Appearances,

Drones and the Future: Innovation, Regulation and Privacy at The University of Michigan

GregMcNealDronesPrivacyMichiganLawThis Thursday I will be speaking at the University of Michigan Law School, the talk is titled “Drones and the Future: Innovation, Regulation and Policy.”  The abstract and flier appear below.



Drones. They are filling the skies and may be delivering your next package.  But what role do privacy and regulation play in the new brave new world?   

Professor Greg McNeal is one of the leading experts on the use, regulation, and policy questions regarding drones in the public and private sectors.  Come hear him speak on the topic. 

Drones and the Future: Innovation, Regulation, and Privacy