Let’s license drone pilots, says the man who beat the FAA

There’s no doubt that consumer drones have arrived above our cities: witness this beautiful flight through San Francisco or read about one man’s aerial view of the recent Harlem disaster. The question is what to do about them.

For now, the rules for drone regulation are totally unclear after a judge threw out a $10,000 fine that the FAA had imposed on photographer Raphael Pirker. Fortunately, Pirker himself has some helpful advice for how governments should regulate unmanned flight.

Pirker, an Austrian native who gained attention when his drone buzzed the Statue of Liberty, shared his thoughts in a Wall Street Journal profile this weekend. The entire piece is worth a read (paywall), but the gist of it is that Pirker thinks drone pilots should be certified, and that governments should impose weight and other restrictions:

“‘I’m against outright bans,’ he says, but weight restrictions and even no-go zones are different. ‘The amount of damage you can do to a person or to a property grows exponentially with weight,’ he notes, so it makes sense to distinguish between five-pound and 50-pound drones — something the FAA’s blanket ban didn’t do. … Mr. Pirker says he wouldn’t object if a drone operator had to seek permission before, say, flying through a tunnel…

‘Even some sort of certification of the pilots is what I would expect,’ he adds, ‘because most of the really dangerous situations arise from people not really knowing what they’re doing.’ He cites the man who recently launched a toy-grade radio-controlled plane from his apartment balcony near Manhattan’s Penn Station, apparently not realizing that signal interference would almost certainly make the drone crash.”

Pirker also makes clear that it would be silly to require the same set of certifications for drone and airplane pilots, and he calls out France and Australia as countries that have so far done a smart job in regulating drones.

For the U.S., Pirker’s prescriptions make sense. Until the judge shot it down, the FAA’s heavy-handed approach to commercial drones appeared to threaten the potential of a promising new technology. On the other hand, it’s fair to say some regulation is needed: ordinary city-dwellers are right to worry about unmanned planes falling from the sky and, absent any rules, it may only be a matter of time until someone shoots one down.