Why More Drone Regulation is the Wrong Approach
Personal drones are just not the terror in the skies that we keep hearing about.
Editor’s Note: This Op-Ed is a response to the article “Here’s a Perfect Example of Why We Need More Consumer Drone Regulation.” What are your thoughts about drone regulation? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The article that provoked this response suggested that more laws were needed, and the writer cited the incident where a firefighter attempted to “shoot down” a drone that was taking video of a house fire.
John Thompson’s drone flight was at no time was hovering over a firefighter or their equipment. No firefighter was even the slightest at risk by the drone. Thompson has a First Amendment right to shoot video of a newsworthy incident, and the firefighters had absolutely no justification to try to shoot down his drone.
In fact, there was no danger to anyone until the rogue firefighter tried to knock the drone down. Had he succeeded, people on the ground would then be exposed to a falling drone and interfering with the flight would have violated 18 U.S. Code§32 - “Destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities.” If personal drones are aircraft for the purpose of enforcing FAR 91.13 “Careless and Reckless” operation of an aircraft, then they are aircraft entitled to protection from people on the ground who think it would be fun to shoot a drone down.
In California, firefighting flights were grounded because a drone was spotted. The article correctly reported that the errant drone was flying in an FAA-designated Temporary Flight Restriction area (TFR). So the drone flight was already illegal - what good would more laws and rules accomplish? Do more speed limit signs result in fewer speeders?
The solution is more education, not more laws. Hundreds of drone flights occur daily, and many are commercial operations by aerial photography firms using small drones that are apparently unaware of any rules or guidelines. Perhaps the manufacturers should be required to insert an advisory notice with each drone sold, similar to the FCC warning that you find in any transmitter that operates in the CB, Family Radio or Amateur Radio (HAM) services.
Some think licensing personal hobby drone operators is the answer—something that I would personally endorse—but that would require Congress to amend the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which prohibits any rules regarding hobby flight.
The FAA has proposed new rules for commercial drone flight. The rules, called Part 107, are expected to be finalized by the end of 2016. Until then, the rules are pretty marginal and not court-tested. (Notwithstanding Raphael Pirker, who was the target of an enforcement action from the FAA in 2014 for flying a personal drone, a three-pound Styrofoam model, for compensation, i.e. commercial flight, without an FAA-issued commercial pilot’s license. The NTSB dismissed that charge immediately as there are no rules regarding hobby aircraft.)
In that case, the NTSB did say the FAA can enforce 91.13 for “Careless and Reckless” operation of an aircraft for drone flights that do endanger people. Hobby flight is also defined in law within the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 where ATC notification of flight within five miles of an airport is required. Section 336. “Special Rule For Model Aircraft,” only says “notify,” not “permission.”
The FAA is testing a smartphone app called B4UFLY that will give you a simple go/no-go based on your location. Airmap provides similar information. Both will be overreaching and give the user “no-fly” indications when there are steps to fly legally and within the guidelines even if the tools say otherwise.
Where’s the Threat?
Personal drones are just not the terror in the skies that we keep hearing about. No proof exists otherwise.
When “experts” say drones are an emerging threat to public safety, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry or something in between.
Notwithstanding the fear-mongering “experts,” many whom have never seen, let alone flown, a personal drone, how many small drones are flying? Let’s put this instrument of terror into perspective. A DJI (Phantom) dealer estimated that there would be 150,000 of them under the trees last Christmas. According to Fortune, DJI has sold almost 700,000 Phantoms at the end of 2014. “Hong Kong–based DJI claims to own a full 50% of the recreational market, selling 30,000 or more of its now-ubiquitous Phantom quad-rotor drones every month.”