Life outside of billable hours
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
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
“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
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
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
Coyt R. Johnston Jr.
How ‘gadget nerd’ Coyt Johnston became an expert in unmanned vehicles
BY MARC RAMIREZ
But Johnston quickly realized that laws govern-
ing 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
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
“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 cer-
tainly one of them. It’s just that a super-broad law
doesn’t target those problems.