If you’ve got a drone under the tree this year, you may want to know the rules. And more importantly, who gets to make them.
Right now, Washington is taking a very “hands-off” approach to recreational drone use, but the drone manufacturers are pushing for more federal control. That’s bad for liberty, and ultimately bad for the drone industry as a whole.
Since last June, the FAA has published a list of federal rules for operation of what it calls Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS’s) and, in August, set up a licensing procedure for commercial “drone pilots.” When you get that big box containing your drone, make sure you go here to register it with the FAA. This is actually important, because UAS’s are aircraft, and as the website reads:
You will be subject to civil and criminal penalties if you meet the criteria to register an unmanned aircraft and do not register.
Basically, if your UAS weight slightly more than half a pound, and up to 55 pounds, you need to register it with the FAA. And yes, it does cost $5. If you’re flying for fun, you can just go fly if you are 13 years old or older, and follow the UAS safety guidelines.
If you intend to fly your drone for “work” (or make money flying it by selling movie shots, etc.), then you need to become a licensed UAS pilot. (Don’t worry, there are a whole bunch of companies out there to help you with the process–just Google “Part 107”). But that’s a whole different pot of water with its own issues that are just beginning to boil.
Who makes the rules?
I want to focus on the recreational “fly for fun” drone pilots here, because that’s where the drone manufacturers want America to be more like Europe. You see, the FAA actually exempts fly-for-fun drone pilots from Part 107 rules–they become “safety guidelines.”
- Fly at or below 400 feet
- Keep your UAS within sight
- Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports
- Never fly over groups of people
- Never fly over stadiums or sports events
- Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires
- Never fly under the influence
- Be aware of airspace requirements
The only “rules” for flying drones are the local ones. For example, in New York City, the parks department has designated five parks where recreational drone pilots can fly their aircraft, along with other radio-controlled airplane and helicopter hobbyists.
The issue at the moment is that neither the New York State Legislature nor the New York City Council have passed drone laws. Thus New York City drone hobbyists are left without a clear set of rules about where they can fly.
This is where the conflict has started to arise. The FAA made a set of rules, then exempted hobbyists from them–but by requiring registration of the UAS’s themselves, they’ve opened the door to more federal regulation down the road.
Drone makers want one-size-fits-all
When drones first came on the market, all the manufacturers and commercial users got together and formed the Small UAV Coalition as an industry advocacy group. The group included Google, Amazon, Intel, Verizon, along with manufacturers DJI (who make the popular Phantom drones), 3D Robotics, Parrot, and GoPro. Then last April, the four manufacturers pulled out to form the Drone Manufacturers Alliance.
Back in January, when Congress was considering the FAA reauthorization bill, drone manufacturers lobbied hard against creating onerous rules for hobbyists, so they could sell more drones. The companies considering using drones for package delivery, like Amazon, were pushing for local rules giving them more flexibility to try new services.
Since the break in April, Chinese drone manufacturers have been pushing for the federal government to standardize recreational drone rules, preempting state and local regulations, in a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Of course, that would make it easier to sell more drones, but it doesn’t make it a good idea.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Senate considered an FAA reauthorization bill that would have barred states and localities from “enact[ing] or enforc[ing] any law, regulation, or other provision… relating to the …operation…of an unmanned aircraft system.” Had that provision been enacted, federal preemption in the drone space would have been effectively universal.
Utah demonstrates why such drastic expansion of federal authority is neither warranted nor desirable. Not only are states able to deal with any truly novel dangers posed by drones, they can do so far more quickly — and in a manner more reflective of their particular local concerns and interests — than Congress or federal regulatory agencies.
Manufacturer DJI Technology has spent $290,000 so far in 2016 in lobbying efforts to block local authority to regulate drones. At least 38 states considered UAS regulations in 2016. Rhode Island HB 7511/SB 3099 gives exclusive regulatory authority on drones to the state, stripping local authorities from the ability to make their own rules. Virginia HB 412 does the same.
Loss of Local Control Is Bad For General Aviation
The FAA regulates airspace, and the standards for operating airports, but local authorities actually make the rules for airports. You can’t just take off in a private plane from your (large) back yard without first reading up on the local ordinances and laws. This is for safety, and for the peaceful enjoyment of your neighbors. Imagine if the FAA got to decide, from Washington, D.C., where every airport or landing strip could be placed?
The big problem with general aviation (and I’m a private pilot) is inconveniencing the non-flying public. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen and read about a local, private grass strip, or even a paved runway surrounded by uninhabited areas have that buffer zone sold off to developers. Then homes are built and people live there in the traffic pattern.
Then those homeowners complain about noise from the airport they knew was there when they bought their home. So they lobby the local politicians to impose strict noise abatement procedures. No problem: local pilots comply. Then some idiot from out of town breaks the rules, or buzzes someone’s house. Or some teen with a student certificate does something stupid and crashes in a neighbor’s yard.
Before you know it, the residents are up in arms to close the airport. And frequently, it gets closed. This is bad for general aviation, which needs airports (kind of a given) to thrive. But it’s still a local problem. An airport closing in Alma, Georgia won’t affect people in Tehama County, California.
Let’s say that drone manufacturers get their way and the FAA takes over all UAS regulation, stripping state and local control. That means when your neighbor goes to the FAA safety hotline to report a your drone flying over their back yard, it will be added to the list of those complaints and potentially a new rule will issue forth from 800 Independence Avenue.
Right now, the FAA will take drone complaints, but nothing is done because it’s a local issue (like all noise issues, for instance, which are passed on to local authorities). If the drone manufacturers get their way, the FAA would make all the rules, so if New York City got a lot of complaints, you might have a harder time flying your drone in Montgomery, Alabama.
That kind of centralized control is bad for general aviation–America offers the most liberty for general aviation in the world. If you question that, see how hard it is to become a general aviation pilot in Europe, or other places in the world–if they allow it at all. Local control of airports is the cornerstone of that liberty, and the pilot community vigorously protects it and self-polices.
What are drone-makers scared of?
They’re scared some large city, or an entire state, will flat-out ban recreational drones. And that will be bad for business.
It could very well happen, because it’s not without precedent. In 1977, California banned motorized skateboards. It took a huge lobbying effort and a groundswell of public support to get the ban lifted in 2015, so that the latest “hoverboards” and electric skateboards could be legal–they were under a lot of trees in 2014 and 2015.
The drone-flying community is still small. Those who want to fly a DJI Phantom 4 equipped with an HD camera as part of a filmmaking business have a vested interest in keeping the drone industry healthy so they’ll make better drones cheaper. Companies like Amazon who are looking at drone technology for package delivery have a vested interest in keeping public opinion positive. The best way to do that is to allow it to happen naturally through local government control.
The general aviation industry stalled in the early 1970’s and never really recovered. With the exception of glass cockpits and small improvements, the technology of a 1972 Cessna 172 is about the same as one you can order today. Except in 1972 a new 172 cost $14,995. Today, the same plane costs more than $200,000. Adjusted for inflation, that plane should cost no more than $87,000.
What happened? Stagnation due to litigation prevented innovation, and drove the cost up. With less airplanes, there were less new pilots because the cost to fly became too high for anyone other than commercial or military training. The FAA sets the standards for pilots (and rightly, they should) and for manufacturer safety standards. But it was the industry and pilot community that forced the FAA to introduce the Recreational Pilot Certificate. That took years.
The drone manufacturers are scared this stagnation will also happen with drones. They fundamentally misunderstand the liberty and freedom offered in America, and their strategy to pursue this one-size-fits-all lobbying effort will eventually doom the industry.
Because since when has Washington, D.C. made better decisions than your local city council? Keeping local control might be–in the short-run profit of offshore companies–bad for business, but it is very good for liberty.