Drones. Quadcopters. Unmanned aerial vehicles. Model aircraft. That thing your niece hit you in the head with repeatedly. There are a ton of different names for it, but a technology by any other name would be just as contentious.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimated by the end of 2015 that the total amount of small UAVs sold that year would be 1.6 million. They’re expecting an additional 1.9 million small UAVs in 2016. This is all great because it means technology is becoming more accessible, but it also means there is an increase in Stupid. That’s stupid with a capital “S,” which indicates a total lack of common sense.
Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with UAVs, Stupid can often mean dangerous. This is a great technology – and if we’re being honest a really fun toy – but let’s be real: Drones are dangerous. Like any other technology, drones require a certain amount of awareness and common sense.
In 2014, there were 238 reported incidents of unsafe operation of just small UAVs. In 2015, that number hit 1,133 before the year even ended. Some of these incidents are small, but others involved UAVs being run into primary conductors on power lines, falling from the sky (and injuring an 11-month old), and even being spotted in the airspace of major international airports by pilots in real planes. They were also a nuisance to firefighters fighting wildfires in the west this summer, since each spotted UAV means all planes are grounded until the airspace has cleared. The rogue UAVs have been blamed for backsliding in firefighting progress and increased damage to homes. Unfortunately, nobody knows who the owners are.
We’re talking about over 3.5 million small UAVs entering the airspace in two years. Statistically, that means that some are being piloted by people who have no idea what they’re doing.
With all that in mind, plus the influx of “I-have-no-idea-how-to-fly-this-thing,” the FAA decided the most reasonable response was to create a registry for small UAVs. It launched in January, and everyone who has a drone between .55 and 55 pounds – with no intention of using it for commercial reasons – must register for a nominal fee.
Cue the uproar.
Although the FAA says this is an opportunity to educate pilots, critics think that it’s just another government regulation hoop to fly through with limited benefits for anyone.
Let’s be honest, there is a benefit to being able to identify who owns a drone, particularly in cases where the drone crashes or is flying somewhere it shouldn’t. It creates a small amount of accountability for pilots and could be extremely beneficial in the case of rogue UAVs. Frankly, they’re only asking for a name, address, and email. Not exactly top secret stuff.
The specific parameters for registering might be an overstep.
As far as weight goes, .55 pounds is basically two sticks of butter. It’s not a lot of weight. In fact, you could argue that it’s a completely different category than a drone that weighs as much as an English Springer Spaniel. If you throw two sticks of butter at an airplane, it might do some damage to a smaller aircraft, but if you throw an English Springer Spaniel at an airplane – Editor’s Note: Don’t do this. It’s bad. – you’re talking about a serious issue. I’m not convinced the government needs to know where every half pound drone comes from, but for the larger drones, accountability is key.
Some measures are already in place to prevent drones from going where they aren’t supposed to, including within 30 miles of the nation’s capital, five miles from airports, or in extremely populated areas. There are apps, including B4UFLY from the FAA, that let you know where and when it’s okay to fly and there are plenty of educational websites. But these require that you know they exist and that pilots are at least aware of the rules.
If you’re just going to fly around your yard, you shouldn’t be required to register that bad boy with the U.S. government (you still technically have to, though), but if you have any plans to use it anywhere else, that’s the price you pay. Drones are an entirely new technology wave for the consumer world, so it makes sense that the regulators would be stumbling behind, trying to figure out what works. If registering your UAV is what it takes to be a responsible owner, then register your UAV. Of course, if you’ve got an extra $250,000 sitting around to pay the fines, feel free to fly (literally) in the face of the U.S. government.
Yes, registering a drone is a pain for old-time hobbyists, but there is a real benefit to grabbing a hold of new pilots before they accidentally endanger themselves or someone else. Let’s hope someone is working on designing a drone Air Traffic Control system, too.
What are your thoughts on drone regulation? Email [email protected] advantagemedia.com.
This blog originally appeared in the January/February 2016 print issue of PD&D.
Filed Under: Industry regulations