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The proliferation of cheap civilian drones and their obvious utility for precision agriculture, motion picture and television production, aerial surveying, newsgathering, utility infrastructure inspection, and disaster relief has accelerated the FAA’s sluggish effort to develop a proposal for generally applicable rules and caused it to grant more than 600 “section 333 exemptions” permitting commercial drone flight before its rules are finalized.

Federal preemption in the field of aviation safety regulation is generally assumed, but political pressure on states and municipalities to regulate drones and the ability of this revolutionary aviation technology to open up space close to the ground for flight is just beginning to be recognized as source of new conflict over federal and state regulatory prerogatives.

A careful review of the aviation-preemption caselaw shows that there is room for state and local regulation, but that begs the questions of what should its content be, and how regulatory initiatives can avoid a patchwork of differing requirements that stymie the deployment of new kinds of aerial support that will create jobs, increase GDP, and improve international competitiveness.

A carefully crafted framework for federal/state cooperation is the answer.