St. Louis Drone Surveillance Controversy

Estimated read time 3 min read

In recent developments in St. Louis, the topic of drone surveillance has sparked considerable debate and action among city officials, private companies, and local residents. The central figure in this unfolding drama is SMS Novel Films, a private company whose plans to conduct drone surveillance in the Gravois Park neighborhood have met with significant resistance.

Initial Plans and Community Backlash

SMS Novel Films, led by CEO Jomo Johnson, initially announced intentions to deploy drones for surveillance in the Gravois Park neighborhood, citing crime as the primary concern. This announcement was met with strong opposition from the community, including a petition led by resident Jacob Lyonfields and his assertion that residents overwhelmingly reject the idea of for-profit, unaccountable drone surveillance technology in their neighborhood.

City’s Response and Legal Challenge

Cease-and-Desist Order: The city issued a cease-and-desist letter to SMS Novel Films, which was strongly contested by CEO Jomo Johnson. He threatened legal action against the city for hindering their efforts. 

Legislation in Motion: In response to the company’s defiance and public outcry, Alderperson Alisha Sonnier introduced Board Bill 199. This bill mandates drone operators in St. Louis for commercial purposes to have both a drone license and a business license.

Legal and Regulatory Framework

The conflict highlights the complex interplay between local governance and federal regulations. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) maintains control over the skies, leaving local governments with limited authority, primarily concerning the take-off and landing of drones.

Stances of Local Officials

Alderman Shane Cohn’s Opposition: Alderman Cohn expressed his disapproval, stating that the company had not engaged with the community or city officials and lacked a proper license or permit. He criticized the notion of a private entity charging for drone footage as ineffective and infringing on citizens’ liberties. Seventh Ward Alderwoman Alisha Sonnier’s 

Legislative Action: Sonnier’s proposed legislation aims to regulate private surveillance drones, reflecting the heightened concern over privacy and legality.

Company’s Reaction and Revised Plans

Despite the mounting opposition, CEO Jomo Johnson remained steadfast, suggesting legal repercussions if the city did not withdraw its cease-and-desist order. He claimed consultation with a South Florida attorney specializing in drone law, indicating a readiness to defend their actions legally.

Escalation and Eventual Withdrawal from Gravois Park

Intensified Pushback: The situation escalated when the Riverfront Times (RFT) reported that Johnson had claimed to have had drones operating in the area for two months, a statement that further alarmed residents and officials. 

Company’s Strategic Retreat: Eventually, Johnson announced the withdrawal of the drone beta test from Gravois Park. However, he stated that the on-demand drone app service would remain available citywide, suggesting a potential shift to another St. Louis neighborhood.

The Ongoing Debate and Future Implications

This case has sparked a broader debate about the use of surveillance technology by private entities and the balance between security needs and privacy rights. The St. Louis Board of Aldermen’s scheduled discussion on the bill indicates a proactive approach to regulating such technologies, with implications that could extend beyond the city’s borders.


The St. Louis drone surveillance dispute demonstrates the increasing difficulties that cities encounter when endeavoring to regulate the advancement of technology while upholding the legal rights and privacy of their inhabitants. These kinds of conversations and legislative acts will become more and more important in establishing how urban keeping track of and privacy influence one another as technologies advance.

Celina Brooks

Celina Brooks from Mussoorie is a Writer & Researcher. She earned her Engineering degree in IT from Rutgers University. She is a technology enthusiast but loves writing and talking about local news as well. She is a jolly person with 2 children.

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