Local Policy and Planning for Drones

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MTI research surveys 450 California agencies and jurisdictions to determine implementation strategy for drone use
May 12, 2020
San José, CA

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), commonly known as drones, are becoming increasingly common around the country, from use in autonomous delivery and aerial photography to surveillance and inspection. As future urban planning and smart city design will likely rely on UAS transportation networks, how will policymakers and the public adapt to their use and regulation? In Local Government Policy and Planning for Unmanned Aerial Systems, Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) researchers examined the concerns and priorities of key stakeholders in drone policy creation and implementation in California.

Priorities and regulatory concerns of California policymakers were documented using a two-tiered analysis. Specifically, survey data was collected from 450 local California agencies and an in-person focus group of experts from a variety of backgrounds, including law enforcement, public works, aviation, and conservation, was convened. Stakeholders responded to a comprehensive list of topics, including:

  • Usage, type, and accessibility to UAS for different departments;
  • Interest in self-regulation of UAS operations;
  • Timeline for major UAS deployment and the need for regulation;
  • Privacy and environmental concerns and restrictions;
  • Need for technical expertise; and
  • Federal regulations and best regulatory paths forward.

The findings from both the survey and focus group revealed several shortcomings in the current regulatory structure. In particular, local jurisdictions complained that the enforcement of rules is limited (due to poor resources) at both federal and local levels. MTI researchers also identified a reluctance to create local policy in fear of being preempted by federal oversight and the challenges of keeping up with the fast-paced changes of federal regulations. Overall, though concerned about future integration, the majority of participants recognized the importance of UAS technology and welcomed the opportunity to create forums to learn and engage in best UAS practices.

“Drones already fly overhead delivering goods and providing new perspectives for hobbyists and law enforcement. As they become more commonplace, policy creation and implementation should be regularly examined to assess gaps in the growth of UAS systems,” stated report co-author Dr. Tyler Spence.

The research indicates the need for more specialized training related to UAS usage and increased restrictions, especially more restrictive licensing. However, participants also expressed concerns over excessive restrictions causing rogue operators and having a counterproductive effect, indicating the complexities of UAS issues.


At the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University (SJSU) our mission is to increase mobility for all by improving the safety, efficiency, accessibility, and convenience of our nation's transportation system. Through research, education, workforce development and technology transfer, we help create a connected world. MTI was founded in 1991 and is funded through the US Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, the California Department of Transportation, and public and private grants. MTI is affiliated with SJSU’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business.


Dr. Tyler Spencer and Dr. Francesca Favaro are Assistant Professors in the Department of Aviation and Technology in the College of Engineering at San Jose State University. MTI Research Assistant Kally Yeung holds a B.S. in Aviation Management and a Master’s in Urban and Regional Planning. 



Irma Garcia, MTI Communications & Workforce Development Coordinator




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