North Carolina targets drones – however hits free speech

DRONELIFE previously reported on a lawsuit in North Carolina that challenged the notion of drone mapping being surveyed without a license. Here members of the organization representing commercial drone operator Michael Jones lay their case to protect his rights to sell aerial photographs.

The following is a guest post by Sam Gedge and Daryl James of the Department of Justice in Arlington, Virginia. DRONELIFE does not accept or pay guest posts.

Nobody tries to shut down Google when the tech giant takes aerial photos and seamlessly merges them into maps. But North Carolina regulators pounced on Goldsboro drone operator Michael Jones when he did something similar for his clients.

The North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors sent Jones a cease and desist letter in the summer of 2019 accusing him of violating state law against the unlicensed practice of land surveying. The old profession – as old as property tax – deals with measuring and recording real estate boundaries for legal purposes.

The allegations baffled Jones, who had never done anything near the survey. He just mounted cameras and other devices on drones and used the technology to capture high resolution images with information for his clients.

Sometimes he created several frames that fit together like a puzzle or a grid, but he never pretended to set legal boundaries for action. His work was purely informative. “I never submitted anything official,” says Jones.

Google offers similar services when it marks landmarks and draws lines on interactive maps. Apple, MapQuest, Bing and Garmin too. None of these activities establish or change lines of ownership for legal purposes. Otherwise, North Carolina would be busy sending nasty letters to corporate headquarters around the world.

If the state tried to silence Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, it would get a brief lesson in the first change. Gathering, formatting and sharing information is language – regardless of whether people use old typewriters or state-of-the-art quadcopters. The constitution protects the process regardless of the technology, even if someone is selling the end product for money.

The US Supreme Court recently upheld the principle. “Language is not unprotected just because it is pronounced by professionals,” and the government cannot claim that it has “full power to reduce a group’s initial adaptation rights by simply imposing a license,” the court said in 2018.

North Carolina board members missed the memo. Since 2018, they have sent around half a dozen cease and desist statements to drone operators like Jones. Surveyors in California and Oregon have made their own efforts to keep drones out of the sky.

Instead of staying on the ground, Jones teamed up with the not-for-profit Institute of Justice and sued the government. His lawsuit, filed in federal court on March 22nd, asserts his right to collect and share information – just like anyone else with a camera.

Some photographers take pictures of weddings. Others photograph nature, sports, fashion, and news. Jones shoots rooftops with a distant camera 400 feet in the air. Artistic merit does not matter. The first change guarantees the right to use words and graphics without a license.

Unfortunately, surveying bodies are sometimes more concerned with protecting industry insiders from competition than protecting civil rights. If they look up and see drones, they panic. Customers who sometimes hire surveyors to draw maps and measure distances now have alternatives that weren’t available 10 or 20 years ago.

Drones can not only complete many tasks faster than on-site teams, but also cheaper. A single photographer can scan an entire construction site so builders can monitor the progress of their work. The possibilities for other uses are endless.

Some people would call this progress. However, some licensed surveyors see this as an invasion of their lawn. In fact, a member of the North Carolina land surveying committee publicly pondered whether the agency’s recent surge in investigations was a response to new, innovative technology services.

In essence, the industry wants to criminalize rather than adapt this innovation. The Luddites tried something similar in the 19th century when they destroyed textile machines in protest against change. More recently, taxi drivers have tried to block hail services like Uber and Lyft. And real estate agents tried to close down real estate ads like Zillow.

Tensions are inevitable when new technologies collide with old ones, but the constitution remains constant. The North Carolina land surveyors should understand this. They mark boundaries for a living, but they cross a line when trying to silence the language.

Sam Gedge is an attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Arlington, Virginia Department of Justice, which is representing Michael Jones and his company in their lawsuit against the North Carolina Land Surveyors.

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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