Drones can deliver packages in a matter of minutes, survey hundreds of acres of crops, or provide hours of endless entertainment. The possibilities for these unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) are endless, and this is why they have quickly gained interest among various buyers. Companies from Amazon to Verizon and Ford have all shown interest in the technology to help increase efficiency and reach customers in new ways. Even videos of a new Drone Racing League (DRL) have surfaced, showing off what is potentially the next modern professional sports league. The largest strides in drone sales though, have been made by the casual consumer, looking for something to distract themselves with on a pretty day. The number of new drones purchased last year rose to over 1.1 million, a number expected to rise in future years as products become more readily available both online and in stores at cheaper prices.
This rapid increase in availability, however, comes with several disputes over safety and privacy concerns. Collegiate parent Michael Sievers, founder of the Unmanned Systems Group at the law firm Hunton & Williams LLP, expressed some of his knowledge on a current court case in Kentucky, Boggs v. Meredith. He said this case, “relates to a gentleman in Kentucky, who now goes by the nickname ‘the Drone-Slayer,’ who shot down a drone over his backyard with his shotgun. He says he was protecting his privacy, and the drone operator claims he was within his rights to fly where he was and wasn’t taking pictures of the other guy’s back yard. This case is structured to try to get the court to determine where private property ends and where the ‘airspace’ begins.” This case, and others, have helped lead to the recent onslaught of regulations to minimize the conflicts these drones can produce.
In December of 2015, just four days before Christmas, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) required that all drones between .55 pounds and 55 pounds be registered with the agency. This entails providing a name, address, and contact information to be listed in the FAA’s national database. In addition, the owner must provide credit card information to pay a $5 fee and then place an identification number on their personal drone. There are several other rules regarding drones, most of which can be found listed here, including a maximum flying height of 400 feet and a minimum distance of 25 feet from other individuals and property.
Unsurprisingly, these rapid changes bring up the ongoing debate of regulation versus the free market. One of the aforementioned companies, Amazon, has yet to implement their Prime Air delivery system, which was revealed back in 2013, due to the restrictions and complications involving privacy. Other companies in the agriculture or utilities fields struggle to make drone use worth the investment, as they are not allowed to survey large areas of land or inspect transmission lines from a far distance. While the FAA works on finalizing the “small drone rule,” which was proposed back in early 2015, it seems American industry can expect even more requirements to come.
It is clear there must be some sort of regulation for drones, but the amount and extent remains up for deliberation. Congress and the FAA continue to receive complaints regarding their struggles to create a regulatory framework in such new and unfamiliar territory. The regulation development process is being expedited to the point where laws are generated too quickly for there to be proper of enforcement of them. Consequently, the conventional, law-abiding user gets punished with ubiquitous regulations, while criminals continue to abuse rules such as the drone registration system. If someone is brazen enough to try and smuggle drugs into a state prison, he likely won’t think twice about bypassing the identification number that is supposed to be placed on the back of his drone. The number itself, which can’t even be seen while the drone is in action, is intended to serve somewhat like a car license plate. The difference here is that reckless car drivers are constantly being monitored by surveillance cameras and police cars, and the general public, whereas today’s drones are yet to be combated by any other security measures.
Sievers also commented on this difficult situation, saying, “The FAA does not have a ton of resources to dedicate to ‘enforcement,’ and with the proliferation of drone usage, those assets will be even more strained. The sheer number of additional ‘aircraft’ makes this task that much harder.” This raises the question: Why does the FAA continue to produce laws which they don’t have the necessary resources to enforce? There are, in fact, other methods for protecting against the dangers of drones. Geofencing, for example, uses GPS tracking services to limit certain areas the drones are able to explore. Other groups are experimenting with an air traffic control system specifically focused on drones, though its completion may be a few years away. Until then, the FAA should avoid complicating matters with regulation that will likely need to be modified in the coming months anyways.
Featured image from Flickr user Don McCullough.