Even a child can fly a camera drone for fun, with only the $5 registration to make it official. Use that exact same drone – or an even smaller one – to take a picture for your real estate firm, however, and you’d better have a pilot’s license.
That’s a real pilot’s license – the same license (airman certificate) required to fly an airplane. “A farmer can’t fly a 2.8 pound DJI Phantom to check his crops in the middle of nowhere without a manned pilot license,” says leading drone attorney Jeffrey Antonelli, “but any hobbyist can fly a 40 pound rc aircraft without an hour of ground school.”
The license requirement is a huge barrier to small commercial operators, adding exponentially to startup costs. While the FAA has indicated that it may institute a separate licensing program for drone operators in the future, commercial operators still waiting for clear integration guidelines have little hope that a usable system will be implemented soon, creating a situation that Antonelli describes as “just like prohibition.”
In a letter asking Illinois Senator Mark Kirk to change the requirement immediately as part of the 2016 FAA Reauthorization, Antonelli points out the absurdity of the situation:
Hobbyists currently flying traditional Radio Control aircraft and small drones, including myself, are already allowed to fly without any pilot’s license whatsoever. By forcing an expensive regulator burden… the FAA is 1) preventing hundreds of thousands of commercial operators from being able to comply and create good flight operations and technology jobs, and 2) creates a very strong incentive for operators to fly without an education and no FAA approval at all… It is just like Prohibition: outlawing all alcohol created an underground industry in response which in turn created bathtub gin which contained poison, killing and blinding people, because they did not know what they were doing.
Antonelli is hoping that other stakeholders will follow his example and write letters to their Senators. As the FAA faces criticism from all sides over recent OIG reports of rampant spending and mismanagement, the drone industry is hoping not to be forgotten in the midst of arguments over privatization and restructuring. As most legislators seem overly concerned with privacy issues and less with supporting an industry with the potential for significant economic impact, the drone industry must be proactive in educating lawmakers about the real issues that must be addressed.
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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