With drone registration merely the latest battleground, the war between state and local drone regulations and the FAA’s national regulations – such as they are- rages, leaving a messy and confusing environment for drone operators throughout the country. It’s clear to most stakeholders that over-regulation could potentially kill the new – and economically important – drone industry; leaving the US behind in the race for innovation, and driving major employers out of the country. But if industry and stakeholders move intelligently, the regulation free-for-all could actually help the drone industry.
While the FAA missed their deadlines to create national regulations, state and local legislators found a hot topic to gain headlines, and proposed hundreds of new laws in cities and states. Any city councilor or state rep worth his salt raced to the floor with a new proposal, and in some strange medieval-type of competition to be the most draconian, the proposals got stricter and stricter, stranger and stranger. In California, you are merely restricted from flying over celebrity lawns; in Chicago, you can’t fly a drone anywhere near anyone and only on a sunny day. You can’t fly a drone within 30 miles of DC, and you can never fly a drone within 5 miles of an airport. Albany argues about allowing drones anywhere in the city limits. The FAA says that at least 45 states have enacted some form of drone regulation in addition to the Federal rules, and has asked them to cease and desist while they get some sort of national framework in place.
Many of these restrictions are damaging to local economies. It isn’t only hobbyists or voyeurs who fly drones; and it isn’t only drone companies who suffer when drones are prohibited. Drones provide significant economies and efficiencies to a variety of industries including agriculture, construction, real estate, and media. If Chicago bans drones completely, Hollywood will probably film it’s next blockbuster somewhere with a little less red tape; the next bridge built will put the budget that much more into the red because it cost more to build and maintain; the next high rise may be built in a neighboring state where its construction is cheaper and developers are allowed to use all of the tools at their disposal without going through some long exemption process.
Harsh regulations nationally hurt all of us, too: while major US companies like Amazon have to develop drone technologies overseas, other companies that provide drone components – like Intel – have threatened to move operations elsewhere if restrictions make it too difficult to develop drone technologies. Intel told regulators that other countries were courting their business aggressively, and the US is in serious danger of losing yet more ground in the worldwide race for technology innovation.
But there may be light at the end of the tunnel. The current chaotic regulatory environment leaves a gap that is being exploited – and should be rushed to- by drone technology companies around the world.
There is no argument that some safety concerns around the use of drones do exist, although their inherent danger may be greatly exaggerated. Still, drones allowed around airports, government buildings, energy sites, and crowds do pose problems for law enforcement; and it is these problems that are often cited as reasons for more regulation. But regulation cannot really provide safety, it can only provide a means to retaliate after the damage is done. An operator with malicious intent will not be deterred by a rule; they can only be prosecuted if caught later.
Without a straightforward law to rely upon, law enforcement and agencies ultimately responsible for the safety of their communities are forced to use what should have been explored first – the existing technology that allows drones to be excluded from specific zones with scalpel-like precision and reliability. Drone manufacturer DJI introduced geo-fencing technology for their drones earlier this year. Instead of requiring hundreds of thousands of drone operators to register, pay a $5 fee, and print out a card for the express purpose of telling them to stay away from airports, why not simply require the technology and have the airports fence them out? That takes care of the obvious flaw with drone registration and education – it relies upon the good sense of the operator, who may not always show good sense.
Anti-drone technologies abound – from Batelle’s heavy duty shoulder mounted “rifle” to a myriad of other consumer and business solutions. Anti-drone technology has been used by the BPD at the Boston Marathon, by Scotland Yard in the UK at the Remembrance Sunday parade, and by other law enforcement agencies truly intent on maintaining public safety in the most effective manner. As these technologies are tested in the field, they may come to be relied upon as the first line of defense – with regulation that depends upon the good will of the operator a far distant second.
It behooves the drone industry to rush to fill the regulatory safety gap with their own solutions, obviating the need for greater regulations and reassuring a nervous public that drones do not pose a threat to their safety. If the industry can get their solutions on the street before the glacially slow government bodies can overcompensate with sweeping regulations, the regulatory gap may work in their favor.
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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