Why the FAA's drone rules should never get off the ground

The Federal Aviation Administration's expected drone rules will hold back innovation in the U.S.

It's hard to believe, but it's illegal to fly a drone in the U.S. for commercial purposes.

The reason is that national authorities have been dragging their feet for years to establish rules for flying machines that are essentially expensive remote-control toy quadracopters.

It looks like at long last the feds will act. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to begin a one- or two-year process that will culminate in actual rules.

Two years is like 14 years in both dog and Silicon Valley years -- an eternity. Worse, it looks like those rules may stifle drone innovation in the U.S. indefinitely.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the FAA is considering the following drone rules:

  • Commercial drone operators must have a pilot's license
  • Daylight flying only
  • No flying above 400 feet
  • No flying within three miles of stadiums
  • Drones must remain within sight of the operator

Also, the FAA's proposal would lump all drones that are less than 55 pounds under the same set of rules. That means a tiny, light and perfectly harmless toy will be over-regulated.

Why these rules are unacceptable

First, two years is way too long to wait for rules on operating drones.

Beyond that, these rules are a wild overreach that will harm U.S. competitiveness in the drone industry.

Let's be clear: A drone is a computer. It's a robot. It's wirelessly networked technology. More importantly, it's a fledgling technology that will go in directions that cannot be predicted.

Wherever commercial drones are allowed to fly freely, there will be innovation, jobs and investment.

The FAA's backward attitude on drones is already driving innovation abroad.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously unveiled his company's intention to explore the use of drones for delivering packages. Now we've learned that the research and development of these drones has been moved abroad to a testing facility in Cambridge, UK. The company is now publishing job ads in the UK for engineers, software developers and scientists to work on the technology and innovation.

While Amazon announced its drone delivery research program about a year ago, Google set up its research and development for its Project Wing drone program in Australia about two years ago.

Drone innovation has been moved abroad because the FAA issued a blanket ban in place of stepping up and establishing fair rules. Now innovators face up to two more years of no rules (With the default being: No commercial flying), followed by what could be a list of rules that will slow progress and discourage drone innovation.

The possible rule against flying near stadiums is a good one -- or even over crowds of people everywhere. Drones should be banned near airports or anywhere else where they could threaten the safety of bystanders. But the rest? Not so much.

First, the rule against allowing people who aren't licensed pilots to fly drones is outrageous. The extensive training for pilots is geared toward cross-country flight with passengers onboard, navigating airport airspace, mastering weather charts and more. A radically simplified course for drone pilots might be reasonable, but requiring a pilot's license is an absurdly limiting barrier.

While the training behind a private pilot's license is far too extensive, it's also not extensive enough. Learning to fly a Cessna will teach you close to nothing about how to remote-control a drone.

Blanket bans on flying at night or above 400 feet or even staying within sight of the operator are unnecessary. This flying could take place in the middle of the desert or from a boat or any number of locations where there's no risk to anyone.

The fact is that strangling American drone innovation in its cradle is another example of a government agency making a host of assumptions then taking radical action that supports its own mandate at the expense of others.

It reminds me of the National Security Agency's decision to exploit U.S. technology companies to engage in mass surveillance operations. Yes, their mandate is to prevents acts of terrorism. But their extreme action is now causing material harm to the entire U.S. technology sector as international customers scramble for non-American alternatives.

Likewise, the FAA's overly cautious approach to drones is designed to maximize air safety in the short term, but who knows what its effect will be in the long term. For example, drone algorithm engineers might develop extremely safe methods for flying above 400 feet or at night if they were allowed to fail under those circumstances. A few night-time drone crashes would probably usher in methods to prevent them from ever happening. That's how technology innovation works.

Yes, of course drones could cause injuries or worse. But they'll be far safer than a thousand things that are perfectly legal. Cars, for example. Or doughnuts.

In that sense, it's another example where anything related to technology is automatically fair game for being singled out for bans, restrictions and overreaction. It's kind of like texting while driving. Focusing on a phone while behind the wheel is dangerous because it's a distraction. But it's not more distracting than any number of in-car activities that remain legal because they're not new or technology oriented.

The right way to proceed is to hold everyone liable for injuring others, regardless of whether they did it with a drone or not -- and regardless of whether they did or didn't follow whatever rules the FAA comes up with.

Those rules should be as enabling and as few as possible. Let's wait and see what the problems with drones are before we start solving them.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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