Drones and GIS: A Look at the Legal and Ethical Issues

Caitlin Dempsey


The use of drones to acquire geographic information has rapidly been adopted by the geographic information community as an essential data gathering tool. Used to acquire information cheaply from inaccessible or remote areas, drones have already been helped in assessing archeological sites and mapping threatened plant species in Michigan.  As compared with traditional methods of gathering imagery via aircraft, drones offer a cheaper and quicker method of gathering higher resolution geographic information (UAV and GIS, 2014). However, along with the benefits that drones provide in gathering information are some tricky ethical and legal issues.

The ethical and legal issues about gathering geographic data using drones can be divided into four main areas: regulations, privacy, safety, and noise.

Regulating Drones

Where and how high drones can be flown is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which restricts the use of drones within five miles of most airports, over military bases, or above 400 feet. In addition, the National Parks service enacted a ban in June of 2014 prohibiting the launching, landing, or operating of drones over national parks and waters. This adds a drone no-fly zone covering 84 million acres across the United States and includes monuments, battlefields, historic sites, seashores, rivers, as well as national parks and recreational areas (National Park Service, 2014).

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has been monitoring the legal status of drones, reported in 2014 that thirty-six states have introduced some legislation aimed towards restricting the use of drones particularly in collecting data for law enforcement and government purposes (Bohm, 2014). The ACLU also reported Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin have some drone surveillance legislation in force.

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The biggest barrier to the adoption of drones in gathering geographic information is that while hobbyists are free to fly drones, most commercial drone activities are currently illegal in the United States. According to Gakstatter (2013) many drone operators skirt this by only charging for image processing and not for the actual drone flying time (although the FAA maintains this is still illegal). Gakstatter also notes that the FAA has been ordered by Congress to come up with an integration plan for allowing commercial drone use by the end of 2015.

Benjamin Heumann, a professor with Central Michigan University uses a drone to map threatened plant species
Benjamin Heumann, a professor with Central Michigan University uses a drone to map threatened plant species. Image courtesy of Heumann.

Privacy and Drones

The biggest issue dominating ethical and legal discussions about drones is the concern about privacy. There are plenty of news articles about upset beachgoers and private property owners whose privacy has been invaded by private drone operators (Bird, 2014). A concern about invasion of privacy, in particular when it comes to private property, has long been an issue tied in gathering geographic information, whether it’s gathering imagery via satellite, airplanes, or drones (Onsrud, Johnson, and Lopez, 1994).

Safety and Drones

Since drones are flown at a low attitude, safety is also a primary concern. The FAA prohibits flying drones near populated areas or over people for safety reasons. In addition, the FAA mandates that the operator of the drone be in constant visual contact with the machine. The NPS also cited safety concerns for its visitors as part of the reason for its blanket ban on drones within its jurisdiction (National Park Service, 2014).

UAV Noise

The required low altitude flying mandated by the FAA means that drone operations can be incredibly noisy and therefore an intrusion upon wildlife and local populations. The ban enacted by the NPS was done in part due to noise concerns., with the press release citing drones disturbing Big Horn Sheep in Utah and interrupting recreational visitors at Grand Canyon National Park.

To address some of these ethical and legal concerns, some drone operators marketing their services towards geographic data collection have a responsibility and ethics statement such as this one from Skyris Imaging which pledges responsible drone operation to safeguard against violating safety and privacy issues.   As it moves towards allowing commercial drones, the FAA released a document in September of 2013 entitled, “Integration of Civil Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System (NAS) Roadmap“. Late last year, the FAA approved for first four companies to fly drones commercially in the United States (Jansen, 2014).


Bird, S. (2014, June 19). What’s that buzzing noise? Oh, it’s just a drone spying on you at the beach. Retrieved from http://www.care2.com/causes/whats-that-buzzing-noise-oh-its-just-a-drone-spying-on-you-at-the-beach.html

Bohm, A. (2014, June 30). Status of 2014 domestic drone legislation in the states. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty/status-2014-domestic-drone-legislation-states

Gakstatter, E. (2013, November 11). Is it legal to fly drones for mapping in the United States? Retrieved from http://geospatial-solutions.com/is-it-legal-to-fly-drones-in-the-united-states/

Jansen, B. (2014, December 10). The FAA lets 4 companies fly drones. Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/12/10/faa-drones-trimble-vdos-clayco-woolpert-amazon/20187761/

National Park Service (2014, June 20). Unmanned aircraft to be prohibited in America’s national parks [Press release]. Retrieved from http://home.nps.gov/news/release.htm?id=1601

Onsrud, H. J., Johnson, J. P., & Lopez, X. (1994). Protecting personal privacy in using geographic information systems. Photogrammetric Engineering and Remote Sensing, 60(9), 1083-1095. Retrieved from http://www.spatial.maine.edu/~onsrud/tempe/onsrud.html

UAV and GIS – An emerging Duo. (2014, Spring). Retrieved from http://www.esri.com/esri-news/arcuser/spring-2014/uav-and-gis-an-emerging-dynamic-duo


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.