As a commercial and private pilot, I’m increasingly concerned about a new danger to our national airspace: reckless use of consumer drones. Though thousands of hobbyists utilize the skies responsibly everyday, the dangerous behavior of a small minority requires immediate action. While a two-pound quadcopter may only cut your hand when you’re standing nearby, the same machine sucked into the jet engine could lead to casualties on the ground and in the air.
Unfortunately, in their quest to ensure safety, lawmakers have focused on restricting drone usage across the board. Instead of legislation, states and the FAA together should penalize the bad actors and impose proven technology safeguards onboard all drones to ensure safer operations.
I’ve asked myself how this country has responded to other threats to the skies. In one example to draw from, nearly 4,000 laser illuminations of aircraft – “lasing” incidents – were reported last year, and the FBI has taken oninvestigating and prosecuting offenders. While strict law enforcement is essential, banning laser pointers hasn’t seen momentum. And for good reason: a recent study in Australia – a country that bans such technology nationwide – found the restriction was essentially toothless.
Though drones tally 65 percent fewer incidents than lasing reports this year, a mob mentality about drone technology is forming in state legislatures around the country. Well-intentioned lawmakers are looking to restrict drone use, but taking recourse against technology – as opposed to the users of that technology – is a path toward crushing economic impact, preventing job creation and bringing an entire industry to a screeching halt.
The California Senate Bill 142 was one example of such mob mentality, as it would have created inconsistencies with federal law and created no exemptions for commercial, research and educational uses. Such arbitrary laws could threaten an entire commercial drone ecosystem just realizing its potential. Governor Brown appropriately vetoed this bill saying it would expose “the FAA-approved commercial user to burdensome litigation and new causes of action.” Operators within the commercial drone space – who use drones to collect data for industries like agriculture, power and search & rescue – are well-trained and incentivized to be safe operators.
We must reject systems that punish an entire industry, especially when there are common sense solutions available. Public education efforts are helpful for the majority of responsible drone hobbyists, but more direct action is required to stop bad actors. Here are four actions regulators can quickly take to ensure drones are used safely.
Increase enforcement of existing laws for violators
The NTSB ruled the FAA has authority over civilian drones, and the FAA is working closely with states’ attorneys to enforce these federal rules -- but much more can be done. Fines and jail time have been handed down in cases of lasing, and there’s no reason the same approach shouldn’t be taken with reckless drone operators.
Require registration of consumer drones
Use of the public sky should be approached just as the use of public roads: by requiring registration to use it once you leave private property. Commercial drones are already registering with the FAA, and Dubai recently announced requirements to register both commercial and consumer drones. With the proliferation of consumer vehicles, there must be ways to hold people accountable by tying consumer systems to their owners.
Require consumer drone insurance
Leave it to the insurance companies to determine what requirements are needed for safe consumer drone operation – they are best equipped at making risk-based assessments. This is how it works for the automotive, general aviation and commercial aviation industries, and companies are already writing policies for drones. Insurance serves as a powerful self-regulator for operators, deterring risky behavior that could cause premium increases or loss of insurability.
Require consumer drone software to enforce no fly zones
The vast majority of commercial operators are already using geofencing technologies and have a knowledge of airspace, as required by the FAA exemption. Only a few lines of code would be required in consumer drone software to institute 400 ft above ground level operating limits, disable use in dense urban environments, or prohibit flight near airports. NASA and private companies are already building databases of this information, and such regulations are seeing Congressional-level support.
Drones can now be used in almost every industry to capture data that was previously slow, inaccurate, costly or dangerous to collect. Imagine if we destroyed other technologies that fought early battles against fear: cars, GPS, the sharing economy, even the Internet. I believe that safety and innovation can co-exist. Let’s work together to ensure drones are used for social good, business impact and the enjoyment of the skies. Seek out the information you need to contact your local representatives. The survival of an industry depends on it.
Downey is the founder and CEO of Airware.