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Drone wings clipped as unmanned fliers clash with regulation

Drone enthusiasts and government regulators continue to alternately clash and find solutions on balancing use of drone technology with other priorities such as safety and privacy. 

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    Jake Stoltz, left, and Trevor Woods remotely pilot a Draganflyer X4ES drone during a demonstration at a drone conference Grand Forks, N.D.
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The dreams of many American drone enthusiasts have been brought down to earth recently with new legislation in California and a heavy fine dealt to a photo-drone company. But advocates for unmanned sky vehicles are working with the government to find flexible solutions. 

California became less friendly to camera drones Tuesday when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law regulating aerial photography. The new law expands the state's privacy law to include flying cameras on private property. It comes a year after Miley Cyrus filmed a camera drone flying over her house, and is designed to keep paparazzi drones from taking airborne photos of stars, the BBC reported.

Californians may feel more strongly about regulating paparazzi than most states, but the state legislature had also passed a bill to stop drones from flying over wildfires. The governor sent the bill away, unsigned, saying it would have complicated the legal system by creating new crimes, according to the BBC.

California's difficult wildfire season was complicated at least four times by flocks of drones taking pictures above the flames, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

"I couldn’t believe it when I heard that aerial firefighting was brought to a grinding halt because a reckless individual decided to fly a drone over the Lake Fire,” California Rep. Paul Cook (R) wrote in a statement announcing a bill to criminalize recreational drones over wildfires. “Not only did it put the lives of aerial firefighters in jeopardy, but the loss of air support for fire crews allowed the wildfire to spread."

The governor also vetoed bills that would have penalized drones flying over schools and prisons, Tech Times reported.

Even with their flight paths over schools, prisons and wildfires unobstructed, drones had a tough weekend. A camera drone company from Chicago called SkyPan received a $2 million fine Tuesday for 65 unauthorized flights over two years, the BBC reported. The penalty came from flights in protected airspace over New York and Chicago. It is more than 100 times the size of previous punishments because SkyPan ignored warnings to stop, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

"We have the safest airspace in the world, and everyone who uses it must understand and observe our comprehensive set of rules and regulations," Michael Huerta of the FAA told the BBC. 

The record-setting penalty was dealt one day before FAA officials were due to report to Congress on the ongoing issue of drones flying too close to airplanes. Associations for drone enthusiasts urge pilots to avoid such penalties with what is called a Section 333 exemption.

"Section 333 exemptions serve as the primary method to legally commercially operate until the FAA finalizes its small UAS rules, expected to occur in about six months," according to the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International (AUVSI) website.

SkyPan received a Section 333 exemption shortly after the two-year period for which it is being fined. The drone organization pointed out that previous commercial companies that have received these types of penalties usually see the punishment decrease after settlement. 

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