Do you actually need to be a state-licensed surveyor in order to use drone technology to map out private property? A collision between drone-driven entrepreneurial innovation and occupational license gatekeeping in North Carolina has led to a lawsuit.
Michael Jones launched a drone photography business in Goldsboro, North Carolina, in 2016, taking aerial photos of private property (on behalf of the property owners) and using tech tools to put the images together as maps. According to the Institute for Justice, which is representing him, Jones' business—360 Virtual Drone Services—did not represent or market itself as engaging in "land surveying." The maps he created were not designed to be used to establish legal property boundaries.
These were maps developed for property owners' and developers' purposes, like determining ways to alter the land and to evaluate the state of their property. Jones is simply using drone technology to collate images of property and present them in topographical maps and 3D visualizations.
This has run Jones afoul of North Carolina's Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors, which oversees the licensing of professionals in these fields. In 2018, the board sent Jones a letter telling him he was being investigated for possibly engaging in surveying without a license. Then, in 2019, he was sent a cease-and-desist letter telling him to stop his mapping work. If he did not, he faced the possibility of civil and even criminal charges for engaging in surveying work without a license. He could be fined up to $1,000 and get sent to jail for up to 60 days.
The board is claiming that essentially any form of map making that Jones is doing with his drone counts as "surveying," even if he's not creating them to be used for legal purposes. And so, in order to "legally" take pictures and combine them into maps with his drone, Jones needs to acquire the appropriate degrees, pass examinations, and get licensed.
Under such a threat, Jones stopped using his drone to make maps and got legal representation. On March 22, the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, arguing that the Board's licensing program violates Jones' First Amendment rights.
"The problem is when you define surveying as simply collecting and disseminating data about land, you're getting into First Amendment territory," Institute for Justice Attorney Sam Gedge tells Reason. "Basically, you don't need the government's permission to create information and sell that information to willing people. Communicating information is speech, and it's protected by the First Amendment."
At the heart of the conflict is the surveying industry disruption being caused by the development of cheaper drone technology. Gedge noted that, historically, when the owner of a large tract of property (like a mall or farm) needed visuals and maps, this required expensive technology and likely the rental of a plane for a flyover. Jones was offering a cheaper alternative, sending a drone hovering overhead, taking dozens of photos that could be automatically stitched together (without requiring years of professional training).
"Now that commercial drones are relatively affordable, you're seeing people able to offer services that were the sole preserve of licensed professionals," Gedge says. And some of those professionals aren't going to take that lying down. The Institute for Justice lawsuit notes that Jones is not the only drone operator to have received threats from the Board. At least six other drone companies have received similar cease-and-desist letters accusing them of engaging in surveying without a license.
Jones' lawsuit is asking the court to determine that these licensing demands violate the First Amendment. The suit also seeks an injunction stopping the Board from enforcing any bans on "taking aerial photographs and for collecting, processing, disseminating, and selling images of and information about land and property (including distances, coordinates, elevations, and volumes)."
The Institute for Justice also produced a useful explainer video: