Only Congress can enable drone technology to reach its full potential


What should we do about regulating drones? We had better get a common sense approach passed into law soon or the U.S. economy will be paying a bigger and bigger price in terms of lost growth. Overseas companies and governments are outpacing us both in their growing use of drones and in promulgating rules with which they treat them. They see them as opportunities rather than as things that are a nuisance or a hazard to be severely restricted.

In the U.S. today, confusions reigns. Bureaucrats too often are applying regulations designed for aircraft. The federal government has been foot dragging when it comes to a designing a sensible approach and deciding what role Washington can constructively play and what responsibilities should be left to local jurisdictions. It almost seems as if Uncle Sam hopes that by dawdling the whole challenge of dealing with drones will simply go away. It won’t.

Drones are great for delivering things. They are being used in agriculture in helping farmers become more efficient in how they manage their lands and other resources at various times during the year. They are ideal for certain kinds of inspections and for getting needed information in real time for first responders to an emergency.

{mosads}And they are just great toys for hobbyists!


A critical question is how best to divide regulatory responsibilities between Washington and state and local governments.

The all-too-natural instinct for Washington politicians and bureaucrats is that control and regulation should be done at the national level when something spanking new comes along that is utilized nationwide. This smothering, one-size-fits-all would be a real mistake, crippling the evolution and expansion of the nascent drone industry.

Everyone understands the federal government’s role in determining safety standards for equipment and operators and ensuring the safety of the national airspace for commerce.

But anything more would be an overreach.

Think of the things that happen nationwide but are controlled and regulated at the state and local levels. Automobiles are driven coast-to-coast, but few would argue that we need a Washington-based bureaucracy to dictate where every stop sign should go.

We should apply the same common sense to drones. If a drone hovers over a local football game or you have one moving about above your lawn, do we really think D.C. bureaucrats can implement useful rules about such flights? The same local officials who make rules for cars, mopeds, skateboards and bicycles should do the same about other local matters such as the low-altitude flight of drones.

Uncertainty about who will control the time, place and manner of the use of drones is impeding progress.

The good news is that there is proposed legislation, the Drone Federalism Act, that would lay out the proper roles for the federal government and states and communities. Drone flights under 200 feet would fall under the jurisdiction of state and local governments. The feds would worry about safety standards for equipment and protect the safety of the airspace for interstate commerce. This division is just as it should be.

This act has impressive bipartisan support. Leading the effort to pass it are Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). Organizations endorsing the bill include the National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislators, the National Association of State Aviation Officials, the National Association of Counties, the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors. 

Some states and communities are passing drone rules. But in most places, officials hesitate because they worry they will be preempted by Washington or worse, get sued. This gridlock and confusion has to end. 

Congress must immediately unleash the fantastic potential of drones and pass the Drone Federalism Act. For once, let’s do something right in Washington.

Steve Forbes is chairman and editor in chief of Forbes Media.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Dianne Feinstein Dianne Feinstein drones Mike Lee Mike Lee Richard Blumenthal Richard Blumenthal Steve Forbes Tom Cotton Tom Cotton
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