New Jersey residents who fly recreational drones while drunk or high soon will run the risk of getting locked up for six months and being charged a $1,000 fine if caught by law enforcement.
Before leaving office last month, Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed into law what has become known as the "Drunk Droning Law," which unanimously passed both houses of the state legislature. The sponsor, Democratic Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, says the bill does much more than just rein in droning while drinking.
"Drones have become increasingly disruptive, causing near-misses with airplanes, interfering with firefighter operations and being used to smuggle drugs and other contraband into prisons," Quijano said in a statement when she introduced the bill in June. "This bill sets specific guidelines for how New Jersey's residents are able to utilize these devices to establish some order and help prevent these dangerous situations."
The law was enacted one month after retailers reported the biggest year of drone sales to date: $1 billion, or 3.1 million drones sold in the U.S — one for nearly every 100 people.
Starting June 1, New Jersey will recognize drunk droning with a blood alcohol level greater than .08 percent as a fourth-degree criminal office, which is the same level as shoplifting. The law will give New Jersey police the ability to arrest people on a drone-related charge rather than one involving disorderly conduct or endangering others.
"Nobody flying a blender — 'cause it's got all these spinning blades — should be drunk," said Shane Derris, Quijano's chief of staff. "But the bill is a lot more encompassing than that."
The former chairwoman of the Assembly's Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee believes the legislation was needed to prevent and punish those who attempt to fly unmanned aerial vehicles over private property, especially secure places.
No state or federal data exists on how big of an issue drunk droning is, but one high-profile case involving the White House opened a national conversation about the threat drones pose to national security.
In January 2015, a drunken government employee infamously flew a drone over the White House grounds. The incident was followed by similar ones again in May and then in October, prompting government and private-sector officials to consider the need to protect vulnerable places from the new potential medium for spying or attacks.
Brian Wynne, president and CEO of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, said his organization already advocates for sober drone-flying and co-founded a "Know Before You Fly" campaign to warn operators about flying drones while impaired.
"AUVSI is committed to the safe and responsible use of UAS and supports strict enforcement against those who endanger the safety of the airspace, including anyone operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol," Wynne said.
Property owners will be able to apply for protections of their air space starting June 1.
"It [the law] allows certain entities to apply to become like no-go zones for aerial vehicles for security reasons," Derris said. "You don't want there to be people who are flying over and getting intelligence ... You don't want someone to be able to go in and use a drone as an unmanned weapon."
The law also prohibits drone operators from dropping contraband for inmates or interfering in firefighting operations. Those convicted will face an 18-month jail sentence or $10,000 fine. In addition, drone operators who intentionally surveil a prison or other secure facility will face a third-degree criminal charge and up to five years in prison, plus a possible $15,000 fine.
One drone expert said the law is irrelevant for commercial drone operators because federal law already bans drunk droning.
"While the 'drunk droning' provision of this law appears to be well intentioned, it has no effect of non-hobbyist UAS Operations which must comply with Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR)," Scott Pitta, president and CEO of the Association of Professional Drone Pilots, said in a written statement.
"With these facts in mind, 'drunk droning' legislation already existed at the federal level long before this was signed into law by the state," Pitta added. "The problem is that most local law enforcement agencies are not trained or educated in Federal Aviation Regulations pertaining to [drones]. Even worse, some receive advice and opinions from online forums and blogs that often contain erroneous information from unverified sources."
However, the world's largest drone maker, DJI Technology Inc., told the Washington Examiner it supports the new law.
Quijano's office said it is not aware of any other states looking to copy its drunk droning policy, but 38 other states are considering other types of drone policies.