How increasing regulation will unleash drone-based potential

How increasing regulation will unleash drone-based potential
© Greg Nash

Drones are changing the world as we know it. And like any great innovation, they have the capacity to do tremendous good, but also cause unmitigated harm. Whether drones ultimately become a force for good or bad will depend on how governments and organizations mobilize to address both the benefits and challenges posed by this new technology.

Surprising though it may seem, the key for increasing drone-based value can only come through increased restriction and regulation of the industry.

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Drone technology is already impacting the workforce for the better. Commercial drones, operated by certified pilots and under strict regulation, optimize time and money while saving lives. Precision agriculture, pipeline inspections and border security are several examples where unmanned systems reduce labor costs and limit risks. 

During Hurricane Harvey, commercial drones were utilized to conduct aerial surveys of disaster areas, perform infrastructure and damage assessments, and carry out search and rescue missions.

The problems arise as consumer-focused drones have become mainstream. Available for as little as $100, almost anyone can get their hands on these potentially life-impacting tools.

Challenges arise when they fall into the wrong hands. Fears were first raised in September, when a civilian drone, flying above the 400 feet recommended by the FAA, collided with a U.S. Army helicopter; and again in October, after a drone hit a passenger jet.

Serious injury or loss of life was avoided because the drones in question struck the aircrafts’ fuselage and wing respectively. However, if one had entered an engine, the result could have been disastrous. 

It is still unclear whether these incidents were intentional. It is clear, however, that these drones now pose a serious threat to national security.

International terror organizations, such as ISIS, are using them against US.. special forces in Syria. With little expertise, militants have disrupted airstrikes and created their own guided missiles by affixing explosives to drones. Security experts say it is only a matter of time until a drone-based terror attack is launched against a civilian population.

Authorities have responded. In September, the Pentagon launched a $700 million program to combat ISIS-inspired drone attacks, including the use of lasers and nets to bring down enemy drones.

Similarly, the French military and Dutch police have been experimenting, using trained eagles to intercept drones. Other nations have resorted to more draconian laws. Both Egypt and India have banned drone use without special permission from their aviation authorities. However, such purely reactionary measures only have limited success and can restrict the potential benefits of commercial drones.

To fully unleash the potential of drone-based solutions, effective regulation must take place. Despite popular belief that increased regulation inhibits innovation, when it comes to drones, the opposite is true.

Current regulations for consumer drones are nominal at best. The result is that anyone today can purchase a drone, in-store or online, and operate it without any background checks, licensing or age restrictions.

Conversely, the commercial drone market is highly regulated, significantly reducing the likelihood of these high-performance drones — with longer flight times, faster speeds and larger payloads — being put to illicit use. Operators must be over 16, possess the requisite 107 pilot certification and be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration. Crucially, the law also places the onus on manufacturers and distributors regarding who their customers can be. 

Drones are not toys, but rather sophisticated aeronautical technology for which certain requirements must be fulfilled before they can be purchased or utilized. Increased regulation will do great things for the industry. Without it, we can expect to see increasingly more hazardous acts, meaning a potential complete ban on drones.

The solution, therefore, is a mandate to develop consumer drone regulation similar to the commercial side. Like owning a car, aspiring pilots should not be able to acquire drones before completing training, procuring a license, presenting identification, and registering their vehicle. Similarly, distributors will have to verify their users’ permission to fly. Such measures would go far in preventing the wrong people being able to obtain and wreak havoc with drones.

Now is the time to begin implementing these regulations. They must draw a clear distinction between the consumer and commercial drones. This means regulating the consumer devices without inhibiting professional systems from completing important, and potentially life-saving tasks.

Only through increasing regulation on consumer drones can operations be increased in the commercial sector. Then the true potential of professional drones can be unleashed. 

Guy Cherni is a tech entrepreneur and a startup founder with experience in developing products and services that span North America, Asia and Africa. Cherni is involved in social entrepreneurship, community development and technology startups, and currently serves as the CMO of Atlas Dynamics, a leading provider of drone-based solutions for the professional user.