The FAA is investigating New York City realtors who are using drones to document properties. They’ve also issued guidelines saying the use of model aircraft (drones) by farmers is unlawful. The guidance is the next absurd step in the never ending saga of government agencies that can’t figure out how to regulate new technology.
The FAA’s position is as simple as it is inane. If a realtor films buildings for fun using a remote controlled quadcopter that’s legal. But if she takes that same quadcopter and films buildings as part of her job, that is illegal. If a farmer flies a model aircraft over his cornfield doing barrel rolls and loops, that’s legal. But if he uses the same model airplane to determine how to conserve water or use less fertilizer that’s illegal. This is government regulation at its worst.
The FAA claims their decision is all about safety, FAA administrator Michael Huerta stated last week “We have a mandate to protect the American people in the air and on the ground, and the public expects us to carry out that mission.” But regulating based on commercial versus non-commercial use has nothing to do with safety, in fact it may be the worst way to draw the line on safe versus unsafe operations.
Consider the fact that when a realtor or farmer uses a piece of equipment for commercial purposes their livelihood and business are on the line. That creates clear incentives for safe operation (not to mention big insurance policies). They aren’t going to fly irresponsibly and push the limits of their equipment because they are working with a clear business purpose in mind. The last thing they want is a PR nightmare tied to their company or their real estate license. Realtors, farmers and others using drones for business will think carefully about what exposes them to unnecessary business risks or lawsuits. In short, commercial users will be at least as careful as a hobbyist, but the FAA is keeping them grounded. This isn’t about safety, it’s about bureaucrats flexing their muscles as they struggle to deal with new technologies.
The agency’s guidelines for model aircraft operations have drawn the ire of the Academy of Model Aeronautics, a group with 165,000 members who stated that the FAA’s regulations “threaten to destroy a wholesome and enriching activity enjoyed by a vast cross-section of our society.” Note the use of model aircraft for hobbyist purposes pre-dates the existence of the FAA, and Congress specifically wrote language into the FAA Modernization and Reform Act that was designed to protect the use of model aircraft, not empower the FAA to regulate its use. That’s why the FAA’s new guidelines are so controversial.
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