Is the measurement of drones without a license? A First Amendment lawsuit in North Carolina states that surveyors can’t stop drone operators from selling photos and making maps.
Hiring a surveyor is an expensive business, but necessary if you want to set legal ownership boundaries. What if you just want to see what your property looks like, or create a visual map of your property or workplace, to make decisions about new developments or to see what type of topography you have? While in the past you may have had to hire surveyors to create a map, this information is now available through aerial photography. The commonly available commercial drone software is designed to do just that: create orthomosaic maps and 3D images.
Surveyors don’t seem to like the competition. In North Carolina, they are trying to put drone operators out of business. “… State-of-the-art drone operators find a very old industry in the way: land surveying. In North Carolina, the Board of Examiners for engineers and surveyors [the NC Board] sends warnings to drone operators that certain photos amount to a survey without a license and threaten them with possible criminal prosecution. “
If most of the commercial drone mapping – photos that include GPS information and / or measurements – mean “surveying without a license”, the NC board will have their work cut out for them. That premise would require law enforcement teams to use drone imagery to analyze accident scenes, ministries of transportation to use drone imagery for disaster relief, and countless other commercial drone customers to obtain surveying licenses – which the NC Board apparently wants.
Michael Jones is a North Carolina based photographer and videographer who expanded into drone imagery about five years ago. Jones does aerial photography for clients for a variety of purposes: real estate, property management and inspection, and marketing. On request, Jones processes aerial images to create orthomosaics – as do thousands of drone operators across the country: The drone mapping platform DroneDeploy alone has more than 5,000 customers, Pix4D, SimActive and thousands more.
It wasn’t until he received a warning letter from the board in December 2018 that Michael had an idea that what he was doing could be viewed as “measuring”. He had always made sure that his work did not set property lines and could not be used for legal purposes. However, a board investigator told him that providing images with metadata (information about GPS coordinates, altitude, or distance) or stitching images together qualifies as a survey and requires a full, government-issued license. Michael was concerned about the board’s threats of being fined or even prosecuted and he ceased much of his drone business.
“When the land surveyors wrote that I was breaking the law, I couldn’t believe it,” Jones said. “I didn’t think I was doing anything that could be considered a survey. In fact, I don’t know of any surveying company that has used drones like me. “
It may seem unfair and unreasonable, but the intimidation works: most drone entrepreneurs cannot afford to take the chance of filing a lawsuit. Now with the support of the Institute for Justice [IJ]Michael Jones fights back. “The pictures and maps that Michael created for willing customers were not used to set legal limits. They were for informational purposes only, ”said an IJ press release. “The creation and dissemination of information is protected by the initial language change. ”(Read the complaint here.)
“I really hope that a successful lawsuit can prevent drone photographers across the country from being attacked by their state land surveyors. There are a lot of people doing innovative work, but that could stall if an old industry gets in the way, ”Jones told DRONELIFE.
“Drone technology may be new, but the principles behind Michael’s case are as old as the nation itself,” said Sam Gedge, an attorney with the Institute of Justice. “Photographing and providing information to willing customers is not a ‘measurement’. It is a speech and is protected by the first amendment. “
“This is just the latest example of a licensing agency expanding its anti-competition powers,” said IJ attorney James Knight. “However, licensing bodies should not be able to use their powers only to protect companies from competition. The government should get out of the way and let innovative companies like Michael continue to serve their customers. “
In the vast majority of cases, drone mapping is not measured – but it could be. Instead of trying to take him off, surveyors should hire Michael to train them. Drones can be a fantastic tool for surveyors, saving them time, money, and physical labor. Surveyors will not be able to beat them, they should move as quickly as possible to join them.
Miriam McNabb is Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a marketplace for professional drone services, and a fascinating observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Author of over 3,000 articles focusing on the commercial drone space, Miriam is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam graduated from the University of Chicago and has over 20 years experience in high-tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For advice or writing in the drone industry, email Miriam.
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