If you are only going to read the first paragraph of this post, here is the tl;dr: If everyone went out tomorrow and flew their own drones, with the exception of broken drones littering the street, the world would look the same. The FAA’s policy (not law) for privately operated drones, which is essentially the equivalent of a toddler play whack-a-mole, could not be enforced on such a large scale.
The commercial drone industry is the Hydra to the FAA’s Hercules.
They can’t even enforce it today. The general counsel for the FAA has gone on record saying you can ignore their cease and desist letters because they aren’t legally binding orders.
Trying to shut down all UAS operations as they pop up is as futile as it is short-sighted. To truly regulate the commercial drone space the FAA should stop worrying about the heads and stab the beast in the heart. (I know thats not how Hercules defeated the Hydra, its a metaphor.)
The FAA is supposed to have regulations for the commercial drone space by 2015. Anyone who is even slightly related to the drone industry can tell you that is not going to happen, but its not unrealistic; Australia is making huge strides in their effort to regulation domestic drones.
Jim Williams of the FAA said recently it may be possible to expedite regulations for the use of drones within specific industries (ie agriculture or film). An expedited Notice for Proposed Rule Making, even if it were to apply to a fraction of the current domestic drone community, would be a step in the right direction and serve to de-villify the FAA in the eyes of Americans itching to fly. But, there is no real indication anything concrete is actually being done to that end.
Here is what is being done.
The FAA tried to fine a man for the commercial use of a drone, a judge told them they had no jurisdiction, so the FAA is appealing. A New York hobbyist was arrested after his drone hit a skyscraper and crashed. The FAA has slapped him with a fine but the truth is, he didn’t break any laws. His actions can only be considered a crime if they can be proved to be “willful and wanton.” Everything in the case indicates he was just inexperienced and clueless and, unfortunately for the FAA, being dumb is not a crime.
But wait there’s more! The Archdiocese of Washington D.C, (a city with understandably strict rules about flying UAS) recently used a drone in the city’s most restricted airspace to capture footage for a promotional video. The FAA has called this an “unusual situation” and stuck its head back in the sand without another word.
So what can be done? Just fly. Seriously.
Companies like Drone Dudes, Hover Effect and plenty of others who capture video footage for commercial purposes are running what are essentially and illegal business. But the service is valuable so there is a vary “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship between these types of companies and their customers.
Texas EquuSearch was told to stop using drones in their searches for missing persons. Founder Tim Miller’s response was, we will stop, but we will do what we have to and we will see you in court.
For all its faults, the culture of “you sue me, I’ll sue you” we have in this country, enables drones pilots to have a much better case than the organization that would fine/arrest them.
As Matthew Waite, director of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln observed in a recent interview with New Scientist, “I’m afraid the situation we’re in right now, the longer [the FAA] takes, the more people are just going to flout the rules.”
This is exactly what is going to happen. And here is the icing on the cake, the FAA has basically admitted that their cease and desists aren’t, strictly speaking, orders and therefore can’t really be enforced. Between establishing themselves as all-bark-no-bite and the fact that some pilots are already flouting the ‘rule,’ the more the FAA is being made to look more like a lame duck every day.
Get out There and Fly
That being said, it is important to know your state’s laws for UAS operation when you fly. Each state has or is developing their own legal precedents so make sure you are aware of and abide by them.
Beyond that, there is only one other rule: Don’t be an idiot. This is the unspoken rule that the New Yorker broke when he launched his drone from a building on 38th Street and crashed it near Grand Central. This is the kind of thing that should stop people like the guy in Virginia who was using his drone to creep on women at the beach. Were these guys breaking a law? No. Is there a reasonable expectation that there will be consequences for these kinds of actions? Absolutely.
You may not go to jail, but hell hath no fury like woman embarrassed on camera (See any reality TV show ever).
The bottom line is this: Responsible drone use is not and will never be a crime. So fly responsibly, encourage the curious, educate the skeptical, develop awesome UAS applications, and let the lawyers do their thing. Because until there is a ruling, the FAA can’t keep everyone down.
Alan is serial entrepreneur, active angel investor, and a drone enthusiast. He co-founded DRONELIFE.com to address the emerging commercial market for drones and drone technology. Prior to DRONELIFE.com, Alan co-founded Where.com, ThinkingScreen Media, and Nurse.com. Recently, Alan has co-founded Crowditz.com, a leader in Equity Crowdfunding Data, Analytics, and Insights. Alan can be reached at alan(at)dronelife.com