Monday, May 12, 2014

As a near-miss inflames debate, uncontrolled use of drones is 'a modern version of the Wild West'

The number of drones flying the friendly skies is increasing. In March, a commercial jet pilot reported that he nearly collided with a drone, inflaming arguments between the Federal Aviation Administration and drone users about the legality of drone use and what the future holds for unmanned aircrafts, Jack Nicas and Andy Pasztor report for The Wall Street Journal. To make matters worse, some drone users have shown an unwillingness to follow any rules, and the FAA has not served as an effective enforcer. (3D Robotics Inc. drone)

"Some proponents of unmanned aircraft worry that the near-collision could spark a public backlash and perhaps spur U.S. and state regulators to impose tougher restrictions than drone users claim are necessary," Nicas and Pasztor write. "The FAA plans to propose in November, several years later than initially projected, new rules on how small drones could be used legally for commercial purposes. It could take several more years for the rules to become final."

In February the FAA said commercial drone use is illegal, but it doesn't have the ability to enforce the rule. In March, a federal judge dismissed an FAA fine for drone use, and the ruling made it appear that flying commercial drones below 400 feet is legal. Drones have been used in rural journalism, by colleges and law enforcement, and by the energy industry.

Matt Waite, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who runs a drone-journalism program that got a cease-and-desist letter from the FAA last year, told the Journal that the fear is that the "longer it takes to have the rules of the road in place, the more the technology advances and the cheaper it gets, the closer we get to some knucklehead doing something dumb and hurting someone."

The FAA seems to be allowing drone use in farming because they consider farmers hobbyists, Nicas and Pasztor write. The FAA's attempts to enforce rules have been ineffective. For example, in January the FAA emailed an Orlando drone company that films concerts and television commercials to say they were violating FAA policy. The owner said he ignored the email, and the FAA has yet to follow up.

One federal official told the Journal: "Fewer and fewer people seem deterred by threats. Nobody is asking the FAA how to proceed, so it's turned into a modern version of the Wild West where some people think anything is OK."

The FAA "estimates there could be as many as 7,500 drones in U.S. skies within five years of the new rules. People in the unmanned aircraft industry say that estimate is far too low," Nicas and Pasztor write. Chris Anderson, chief executive of California drone maker 3D Robotics Inc. said "he sells about 2,000 autopilot systems a month to customers around the world who want to build their own drones." Anderson noted that one Chinese company sells at least 10 times that many. (Read more)

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