The Dronemaster

How ‘gadget nerd’ Coyt Johnston became an expert in unmanned vehicles

Published in 2017 Texas Rising Stars Magazine

The first time Coyt Johnston piloted a drone, he was assigned to the mission by his stepmom, in preparation for his sister’s wedding on California’s Catalina Island.

His stepmother had won a drone in a raffle, and hoped Johnston could mount his GoPro camcorder on it for cool photos. He got plenty. And then he got hooked.

“It was like tapping into a perspective that’s always there, but you just don’t realize it,” says the 41-year-old professional liability attorney at Dallas’ Johnston Tobey Baruch, where his father, Randy, is managing shareholder. 

Before long, Johnston’s zeal spurred him to pursue an understanding of drone law—a field set to grow in coming years as technology advances and unmanned vehicles become more popular. Though the drone cases haven’t yet shown up in Johnston’s inbox, he has advised clients on the law pertaining to drones and is poised to take cases when the time comes. Increasingly part of everyday life, drones are used by hobbyists, law enforcement and movie producers. Farmers use them to monitor crops; emergency officials put them to work searching for missing people in floodwaters.

Companies like Amazon wish to deliver goods via drone, while Facebook has talked of a drone-based Wi-Fi network. But for now, laws in most states, including Texas, target recreational users—among them Johnston, a self-proclaimed “gadget nerd” who by his sister’s wedding day could pan over the ocean and record video of his two daughters running along the beach.

While radio-controlled airplanes have existed for years, some drones have become so advanced—GPS-enabled, able to adjust for wind gusts or misdirection—that operators no longer need major skills.

“The RC stuff has been around since I was a kid, but people who flew them were basically pilots,” Johnston says. “I don’t have skills like that. For me, it would be 30 seconds of fun and then a smoking pile on the ground.”

But Johnston quickly realized that laws governing drones were vague and inconsistent. “Here’s what I want as a hobbyist: reasonable and clear lines, so I can conduct my private activity in a way that doesn’t violate the law,” he says. “And it’s far from that.”

The problem is that the Federal Aviation Administration and local governments approach regulation differently, he says. The FAA is focused mostly on where drones can fly: For instance, without a permit, drones may not fly higher than 500 feet, within 5 miles of an airport or beyond the operator’s line of sight.

Meanwhile, states have made their own restrictions, so hobbyists face new sets of rules any time they cross a state border. The Texas Privacy Act, passed in 2013, is aimed more at what drones should or shouldn’t do, preventing users from recording images of others’ property without consent.

“Very little of their law is aimed at where you can actually physically have the drone; it’s focused much more on what’re you doing with it—what are you capturing with it,” he says.

The law was ostensibly meant to keep citizens from spying on each other, Johnston says, but it would also likely have prevented a December 2011 discovery that predated it, when a hobbyist flying a drone over Dallas’ Trinity River captured evidence that a meatpacking company was dumping pig’s blood into a tributary. The case drew felony charges against the company, ultimately dropped to a simple $100,000 misdemeanor fine because of an investigator’s error.

In addition, he says, the law is inconsistent. It prohibits capturing video footage of private property even if people in some areas—like front yards—have no legal expectation of privacy. If kids were to fly a drone too high and inadvertently record a neighbor’s yard, they’d be in violation. 

“There are legitimate concerns that we all need to address,” Johnston says, “and privacy is certainly one of them. It’s just that a super-broad law doesn’t target those problems.

“It’s true that there are people who are annoyed by kids flying drones,” he says, “but we shouldn’t be in the business of legislating against any way you annoy me, or else selfie sticks would be outlawed and Pokémon Go wouldn’t exist.”

The challenges of regulating technology are only going to intensify, Johnston says.

“That’s the world we live in,” he says. “Cybersecurity, cyberstalking—all those things are drastically changed by technology, and it’s an ongoing task to keep up. But the solution is not to throw a gigantic net over it and try to catch everything.” 

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