The FAA’s misguided approach to drones, and how to fix it

Consumer drones offer game-changing technology for a range of activities: everything from farming to photography to search-and-rescue can be done better with the help of camera-equipped, lightweight flying devices.

The U.S. government, however, is no fan of unmanned flight. In recent months, the Federal Aviation Administration has been using old regulations to crack down on a new breed of flying devices, even grounding them in situations where they could prove most useful.

This is the wrong approach. Instead of trying to impose the rules of planes and pilots onto this new world of unmanned aircraft, the government should try to strike a balance between safety and innovation. One way to do it would be to create a simple permit system like the one we use for cars.

The FAA downs the drones

To get an idea of the FAA’s current view on drones, consider the case of Texas EquuSearch, a nonprofit that runs search-and-rescue missions that have located hundreds of missing people (or, in some cases, their bodies). As part of its work, the organization uses five-pound aircraft, constructed of foam and plastic, that can survey rough terrain and replace the work of an estimated 100 volunteers.

Despite the importance of the drones to the searches, however, the FAA ordered the devices to be grounded this year. According to an emergency appeal filed by Texas EquuSearch last month, the FAA has also repeatedly “harassed and interfered” with its members “before, after and during search and rescue activities.”

Meanwhile, media outlets are also upset with the FAA for banning the use of drones for news gathering, and for shutting down drone-photography courses at journalism schools. In response, the New York Times and other organizations last month joined a court case that challenges the FAA’s authority to regulate unmanned aircraft. The media outlets claim, in part, that the ban is too broad and is a violation of the First Amendment.

So how has the FAA responded to the criticism? So far, the agency isn’t giving an inch to those who claim it is reacting too harshly to the emerging consumer drone industry.

In March, for instance, the agency published a “Busting Myths” notice on its website that defended its regulatory powers. More recently, the FAA issued a Q&A (reproduced here) explaining that, for any drone use related to “business purposes,” the flights require not only a certified aircraft but a certified pilot too.

The rules provide little wiggle room. For instance, “business purposes” appears to encompass nearly any use, including search-and-rescue and commercial photography. And so far, the FAA says it has only authorized two devices for commercial use  — and they can only be operated in the Arctic.

Meanwhile, a growing number of industries are asking to use drones. The latest are Hollywood studios, which have asked the FAA for an exemption in order to use drones for movie shots.

Photo by Funky Frog Stock/Shutterstock

Photo by Funky Frog Stock/Shutterstock

Old rules for new times

The FAA’s heavy-handed attitude on the rise of consumer drones is not surprising. The response represents the type of social clash that often arises when a regulator tries to stuff new technologies into old legal frameworks.

In the case of consumer drones, like the one my colleague Signe Brewer flew around San Francisco last year, the FAA appears to believe it faces a binary choice: treat them as toys that fall outside the scope of regulation, or else subject them to the full raft of rules that apply to traditional aircraft — including pilot licenses and certification programs.

So far, the agency has chosen the second option, which has provoked the ongoing legal backlash. The FAA’s predicament is made worse by the fact that it’s on shaky legal ground; as I’ve explained before, the low-altitude airspace (below 700 feet) where most people fly their drones airports is, aside from areas around airports, currently unregulated.

This doesn’t mean that the FAA should simply throw in the towel, especially since most people don’t want the space above our heads to turn into a free-for-all of flying cameras. But the idea of requiring photographers, rescuers or movie-makers to become certified as conventional pilots doesn’t make sense either.


A better way to oversee drones

Airware is a San Francisco start-up that makes hardware and software for hundreds of drone businesses, and is also using its technology to help with anti-poaching initiatives in Africa.

According to CEO Jonathan Downey, the best way to resolve the ongoing legal conflicts involving drones is to designate separate airspaces for manned and unmanned aircraft, including a buffer zone between them. Doing so, he said in a recent phone interview, would permit a more relaxed set of rules for drones.

Specifically, Downey suggested this might involve a permit system where drone owners could obtain a license after passing a test. This might involve a short set of rules — “something you could learn in a weekend” — covering topics like avoiding buildings and maintaining the drone properly. The permits could be awarded by authorized testing agencies similar to FAA-approved flight schools.

Would this work in practice? Brendan Schulman, a drone lawyer who is representing the search-and-rescue company in its fight with the FAA, thinks it might.

“Something that resembles a driver’s test might work. A test that shows you understand airspace, the radio control system and how to keep away from manned aircraft,” he said.

Schulman also pointed to other countries as possible regulatory models. In the U.K., for instance, people operating drones under 2 kilograms simply have to notify the aviation authority of their presence, while Australia is considering a proposal to exempt lightweight drones altogether.

In the U.S., any of these solutions, from exemptions to permits, sound better than the current morass of lawsuits and drones on the ground.