Drone benefits are here to stay. The FAA’s drone oversight should be too.
© Greg Nash

A drone revolution is underway in America’s skies – helping professionals in vital industries work more safely and efficiently, opening breathtaking new views to hobbyists, and even saving lives. While some Americans embrace this new technology and others remain wary, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has made safety its top priority while integrating drones into the skies.

Now, though, the FAA’s safety-first approach is under attack by proponents who want to delegate drone regulation to America’s 50 states, 3,000 counties and 36,000 municipalities and townships. Despite the FAA’s careful steps to make drones a positive addition to the skies, some argue that every state and local government should be able to set their own rules for where, when and how drones can fly. This would sow confusion in the skies, make it harder for Americans to benefit from drone technology, and put the FAA’s admirable safety record at risk.

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At issue is who decides how drone rules will be applied across our country. Some people welcome the idea of easy drone deliveries or agricultural surveys; others are wary of allowing anything to fly over their property, even hundreds of feet up. These are real concerns, and federal officials as well as the FAA have made real progress in addressing them.

The White House and the Department of Transportation have launched an innovative program for state, local and tribal governments to partner with the private sector to explore ways to unlock the value of drones while addressing public concerns. The UAS Integration Pilot Program recognizes that drones will play a significant role in the 21st century economy, and that public and private entities can collaborate to solve the challenges of integrating drones into the airspace. My company, PrecisionHawk, is pleased to participate in one of these pilot programs.

The FAA is also working to implement a remote identification requirement for drones – sometimes called an “electronic license plate” that allows local police, airports and other authorities to identify and monitor airborne drones. Remote identification lets officials take action against drone pilots who violate existing laws about privacy or disorderly conduct, without imposing confusing town-by-town restrictions that would block legitimate drone uses.

Despite the FAA’s efforts, some entrepreneurs support state and local drone regulations because they see opportunity in complexity, even though it would hurt responsible drone businesses. Their data-broker business models depend on a patchwork of local laws that would require every drone pilot, even kids flying toys in their backyards, to use an app to explain ever-changing airspace restrictions and altitude limits. And if localities gain the authority to regulate drones, it’s not hard to imagine some demanding a fee for the privilege of accessing airspace. For example, Boulder City, Nevada recently proposed a $100 per day fee for operating a drone.

Other forces trying to take safety regulation away from the FAA may not care about the practical consequences. Some property-rights advocates think simple federal rules for drones are a Big Government plot to take power from local authorities. Not true. Many local governments across the country face similar concerns about drones, and their concerns are best addressed through a uniform regulatory framework that all pilots can understand easily.

Smart, reasonable federal rules have given the U.S. the dual benefits of a robust aviation sector that helps drive the American economy as well as extraordinarily safe flight. America learned that lesson the hard way: Congress created the FAA in 1958 with unified authority over national airspace after two fatal collisions between military and civilian flights that weren’t coordinated with each other.

In the decades since its creation, the FAA has established a proven track record of maintaining the safest and most complex airspace in the world. The FAA has continued that strong safety record while opening the skies to drones, spurring new business growth, new efficiencies for industries that have adopted drones, and a new appreciation for how America looks from above. Diminishing the FAA’s authority over drones would put that entire record at risk.

Diana Marina Cooper is the Senior Vice President of Policy & Strategy at PrecisionHawk, a leading provider of advanced commercial drone solutions including hardware, software, and services. Diana is President of the Small UAV Coalition, and she serves on the Advocacy Committee of AUVSI, the Board of Drone Alliance Europe, the Advisory Board of the Energy Drone Coalition, and the UN Working Group on Legal and Policy Frameworks for Geospatial Information Management.